In the second of three articles on Leadership, Duncan Foord looks at how teachers can develop their communication skills by transferring the approach they use in the classroom to those important conversations they need to have in the big bad world outside it.
What are communication skills?
Ever had a conversation with a parent of one of your students, your boss, a fellow teacher, member of the admin team, or a problem student which you felt didn’t go well? You felt frustrated or angry? Didn’t work out as you planned? Communication is an essential skill in teaching and we get plenty of opportunity to practice in the classroom, so why is it that when it comes to communication outside the classroom things don’t always work as well as they could?
Google “communication skills” and you will find some useful lists and explanations. For example, Jane Taylor lists of 9 features of effective communication: emotional intelligence, cohesion and clarity, friendliness, confidence, empathy, respect, listening, open mindedness and tone of voice
I would add two or three more: body language and a consideration of where and when the conversation takes place. All these eleven elements will be important to a different extent, depending on the conversation, but my personal top three would be listening, listening and, well, listening. If you get the listening right, in other words you are able to listen actively, or even better empathically, then you are probably 70% on the way to a successful conversation. Elements such as open mindedness, empathy, respect and confidence will fall more easily into place if we get the listening right. For more on effective listening, check this link:
Communication skills in action
Here is an example of a conversation between a teacher and a student. How do you think it scores on Jane Taylor’s nine criteria above?
Teacher: What did you think of the film?
Student: It was a bit boredto me?
Teacher: You mean boring?
Student: Yes, I don’t like romantic films too much.
Teacher: Was it a typical romantic film?
Student: Well, yes… you know they don’t like the other one at the start, but in end, of course, they are fall in love.
For me, this example seems to tick pretty much all of Jane Taylor’s 9 features, though we would have to hear it to check out tone of voice of course. The teacher responds to both language and content, so she is clearly listening carefully. Empathy and respect are transmitted in the interest she shows in the student’s opinion. She seeks to develop his thoughts rather than contradict or present her own ideas (though this could be a natural extension to the conversation at some point). The balance of attendance to form and content might suggest emotional intelligence in the sense that she understands when and when not to draw attention to form and correct her student.
Great news for teachers. If you have conversations like this you are a skilled communicator, a key component of being an effective leader. However, what happens when we put the same teacher in a different conversation? Have a look at this conversation between the teacher and her student’s parent.
Parent: I am worried about my son’s progress in class.
Teacher: But he is doing very well, he got a B grade this term.
Parent: He finds the homework very difficult.
Teacher: It is the school policy that all students have to complete homework for this course. He needs to practice English outside class if he wants to improve
Other than coherence and clarity (perhaps), this conversation meets none of the Taylor criteria. The teacher hasn’t listened or demonstrated any empathy for the parent. Confidence has turned into defensiveness, and respect is limited. I am aware I am caricaturing to some extent, of course. Many teacher/parent conversations are more effective than this, but many aren’t. How does this happen? The most obvious explanation is that the teacher has trained for and had hundreds of hours of practice in the classroom conversation. What’s more, in the classroom she is confident of the social role conferred on her by the teacher-student relationship. In the parent meeting the tables are not turned perhaps, but at least tilted. The parent in this situation has some authority too.
Now let’s imagine this teacher is equally effective in the parent conversation as the student conversation, applying the same communication skills in both. The conversation might look something like this:
Parent: I am worried about my son’s progress in class.
Teacher: I’m sorry to hear you are worried about his progress in English. What aspects are you worried about in particular?
Parent: Well, he says he finds the homework very difficult and he doesn’t do it sometimes.
Teacher: Do you think it is because he finds the actual tasks difficult or maybe the instructions aren’t clear?
Parent: I’m not sure, he says he is confused.
Teacher: Hmm. I am a bit surprised, he did well in the exam this term. Ok let me check to see if he has missed any homework assignments this term…
Basically the approach to the classroom conversation has been applied to the parent conversation -empathy, questions to elicit further information, open non-judgmental speculations and so on. The feeling now is one of a confident teacher, adopting a collaborative approach, with respect for the parent’s concerns and interest in finding a solution. This version of the conversation is likely to benefit everyone concerned: the teacher, the parent, the student and the school. Conversations like this could represent the difference between being an average teacher/school and an outstanding one. It’s not something you’ll find in teacher training manuals or courses, but it’s worth working on!
One way teachers can improve their communication skills outside of the classroom is to treat them like lessons. In this case that could mean considering mindset, planning and reflection:
- Mindset. Think of the parent as a student in my class; prepare to talk to an ally rather than enemy.
- Planning before the event. What are my aims for this conversation? What questions can I ask? How can I show empathy and respect? What is the best time and place to have this conversation?
- Reflection after the event. How did it go? Did I achieve my aims and did the parent achieve theirs? Do the people involved feel better? What could I have done differently? etc.
We can take this further, as with teaching, by organizing someone to observe us. We could even seek feedback from the other person in the conversation. That might be a step too far in most cases, but if we want to get better at having conversations it’s unlikely to happen if we don’t put in some thought and effort. This is especially important for those tricky conversations with the boss, the parent, the student who is misbehaving, the colleague suffering burnout and all the rest!
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