Communication is the cornerstone of any successful relationship. Any collaborative effort between human beings whether with in pairs, small groups or on a societal level rely on the ability to share thoughts, ideas and information among the people involved. Communication not only allows us to know what the other people we are involved with are thinking, but it also sets the tone for our relationship with them. Open, honest, respectful communication creates relationships that are based on trust and show that we value each person's contribution to our efforts.
Communication isn't always easy. There are barriers to communication in all types of relationships. These barriers may exist for a wide variety of reasons ranging from personal, emotional issues to wider systematic ones. Communication also breaks down because of the reality that true communication involves not only sharing our thoughts, but also listening and receiving others ideas. Another challenge in communication is that we all filter information that we receive through our own set of beliefs, language and other criteria. What we think someone says to us may not be what they really meant and vice versa.
Communication isn't just about getting information to others, but it is also about creating the environment where we can have discussions and dialog around difficult issues. Any relationship of substance will have disagreements arise around important topics. The disagreements may be minor and involve slight modifications in positions in order to resolve, or they may be major and virtually impossible to solve in a way that satisfies all involved parties. Whatever the level of challenge, communication provides us with the only opportunity to resolve our differences and still maintain a healthy relationship.
As the school year starts here in Madison we find communication to be a topic of great interest and of significant concern to all of us. How do we set the tone for the school year and establish open lines of communication between home, school, other staff members, administration, the community? The communication between individuals and groups in the school settings we work in are vital to the ultimate success of our students. Communication establishes the climate that our students and educators work in. Ultimately it will be the difference in students achieving, or in failing.
Of course, schools aren't the only place where communication matters. As is often the case, schools are a mirror that reflects society as a whole. We are seeing breakdowns in communication on a societal level that have the potential to weaken the foundations of our nation. The misinformation, miscommunication, and general lack of widespread communication that are becoming a common feature of our society mean that most people don't hear or experience different perspectives in any meaningful way. Dialog becomes one sided and/or based on a single perspective. The important question becomes, how do we break down barriers to communication and reach out so that we aren't always "speaking to the choir"?
This is a question without an easy answer. The conflicts that exist in our nation socially, politically and economically are very real, and very intense. As they intensify, people become more angry, afraid and isolated in their thinking. Instead of having forums where many different views are expressed we see our communication become segregated. You see people divided by what news channels they watch, what special interest group they belong to and what demographic groups they are members of. Unless we find ways to bridge the gaps we will find ourselves a divided and antagonistic nation.
Here are a few examples of the ways that communication, miscommunication and/or lack of communication impact our society. . .
Mislead to manipulate public opinion- The Walker administration has been very outspoken in their objections to the implementation of health care reforms. Many people are confused about the changes in the way we will obtain health insurance. The Walker administration has preyed on the confusion to instill fear in the population that will generate support for the administration's anti-reform actions.
Supporters of voter ID laws use the same tactics to validate the need to for electoral reform.
Because of the violent incidents in schools in recent years, there have been calls to arm educators and to put armed guards in schools. Here's a good reason why this shouldn't happen.
It can fan the flames of war and lead us to commit our military in places around the world for questionable reasons.
Deflect blame- Instead of admitting any shared responsibility for the challenges we face, it is common for leaders to try and shift blame to other groups or events.
Restrict access to information- By controlling who receives and shares information we get a distorted view of events, individuals and policies.
An informed public can have an impact- If information is available to the citizenry then they can express their opinions and keep their elected officials more accountable. Unfortunately, sometimes it only results in an admission of guilt and little substantive change ($720 returned from the $11,000+ given to Erwin). It is up to all of us to continue to stay informed and act on our information to keep the pressure on our leaders.
Money impacts communication- In modern society, wealth plays a huge role in the communication of information. In order to be a widespread resource for information and ideas, financial resources are vital. This becomes clear in areas like electoral politics where valid candidates are excluded for monetary reasons.
Communication of values is especially challenging- This was made clear in recent days as the conflict over the Solidarity Sing Along escalated. The Department of Administration tried to paint the issue in concrete logistical terms and avoid any appearance that they were promoting or vilifying any ideology. Participants in the Sing continued to express the idea that they were promoting the Constitutional rights of citizens to express themselves. Many Wisconsinites were confused by the contrasting views of events portrayed in the media.
This confusion expresses itself in many ways. One of the ways that it is demonstrated is in the efforts by opponents of the Sing to try and force the Sing out of the rotunda. Multiple conservative "groups" applied for permits, including a group that "occupied" the capitol for 7 hours on Labor Day. These groups are missing the point of the Sing as I see it. The Sing has never been about taking something away from anyone, it's about adding voice to the debate. The participants in the Sing have always surrendered the rotunda to any groups with a permit and moved outside.
By trying to "claim" the rotunda these conservative groups demonstrate their lack of understanding of what the struggle is about. They show the bitterness and divisiveness that exists in our state in a very real way. It would be safe to say that if there wasn't a Solidarity Sing, few (none) of these groups would want to sing in the capitol. They are simply trying to restrict and control access to our public spaces, something that is exact opposition to the message that the Solidarity Sing Along is trying to share.
There are fundamental differences in our society around the term "Labor". For some, it simply means being employed. You are either a "worker" or you are "a job creator/employer". Each group has its role in society and has a different value to society. Current GOP leadership in Wisconsin sees Labor as being of lesser value than Job Creators. They may try to disguise their thinking through rhetoric that suggests they support the "Common Citizen" or "Taxpayer". They will use any available platform to try and show their support for workers in our state.
However, the current Wisconsin Republican hierarchy of an individual's worth to society is evident in their policies when one carefully examines them. Labor isn't something of real value, it is simply another resource to be used by those who are truly valuable and productive.
Those of us who make up the category of Labor are continuing the fight to make sure our contributions to society are emphasized and valued. It is important that we work together and collectively advance the interests of the workers in our state, and across the nation.
One of the most important aspects of the relationship between labor and management is the way that workplace rules and compensation are established. A contract that is negotiated between equals demonstrates the shared interests and respect between the two parties. A handbook, or other mandated guidelines, no matter how "friendly in tone" represent an unequal relationship. They are inherently unstable and create an atmosphere where workers are always vulnerable to changes and have few options for recourse if unfair or flawed policies are enacted.
For decades, educators in Wisconsin worked with administrators and school boards to establish the rules for school workplaces. With Act 10 that has changed drastically. This legislation was enacted, not to improve education or to promote student success, but rather for political and economic gains for a small number of people. Educators operating without contractual protections found themselves less able to speak out against "reforms" that are not always enacted with the best interest of students or families in mind.
Here in Madison we have been able to keep our contract active (although with some significant changes) through strong membership, a supportive community and a school board/administration that has seen the value of maintaining the contractual relationship with staff. This hasn't been easy, and the climate in our schools is not what it was prior to Act 10. However, the contractual protections offered through our negotiated agreements has given Madison educators an opportunity to voice their opinions and act to promote the interests of their students.
For those who argue that a union acts only to benefit their membership, even at the expense of our students, I offer this reminder of what a union can do. A couple of years ago MMSD administration tried to change elementary educators planning times so that we would have the half-hour before school as planning time. This meant that we would begin our contractual day 30 minutes prior to school starting and end our day 15 minutes after dismissal. MTI members rose en masse against this plan because it would weaken our ability to communicate with families and present a danger to students. We often have to help students at the end of the day and busses are late, etc. Because of the strong reaction and several hundred MTI members attending a school board meeting, the policy was never enacted. I was reminded of this action by the union to protect our students on the first three days of school when we waited well over 15 minutes for busses to arrive after school. If we hadn't had a contract at the time it is questionable whether so many educators would have been comfortable speaking out against a flawed policy.
MTI's current contract with MMSD expires in June, 2014. Members have been nervously awaiting news as to whether we will be negotiating a new contract before the Wisconsin Supreme Court takes (and votes 4-3 against MTI in all likelihood) the suit that MTI brought against the constitutionality of Act 10.
We got great news on Friday!!!!
Diversity- We've come a long way in our society in terms of race relations and desegregation. However, we have a long way to go, and we are always in danger of slipping back to a time of segregation and division that we never want to repeat.
Our schools, just like our society, are constantly struggling to provide the most opportunity for all in the most inclusive environment possible. The "American Dream" is built on the idea that we are all equal and that anyone has the opportunity to succeed. However, we know that this isn't, and hasn't, been true for all groups. As a nation we have often failed to recognize and respect diversity in our citizens.
The previous article has been hailed as an example of how charter schools are exclusionary and bigoted. It is true that many charter schools enact policies that exclude students for a variety of reasons and that public schools operate with different expectations. However, instead of focusing on the shortcomings of charter schools, we can also use this article as a reminder that those of us in the public schools recognize that we may create a similar atmosphere in our classrooms and schools. We need to find ways to maintain positive learning environments, prepare our students for success in the future, and still create a school climate that values all students.
Testing and Common Core- The controversies over Common Core continue to magnify. I continue to be offended by the way that the implementation of the Common Core is presented to families. Most of the information from school districts is focusing on how the Common Core will increase the "rigor" in our schools. Yet, I don't believe that students in my classroom will be experiencing a sudden increase in the level of material, or in the academic challenges I pose this year. Can I improve my practice? Of course I can, and I make every effort to do so every moment of every day. Will Common Core and the new curricular materials I have available suddenly make me a better educator? I don't believe so.
Instead of improving my practice, the Common Core "reforms" will serve to decrease the funds that are available for me to be innovative and to provide the highest quality materials to my students.
It will pad the pockets of a small number of "Educational Investors".
It will mean more testing for my students. We will spend the greater part of September gathering data that I will use during the few moments of teaching that I have before we test in October and November.
Charter and Voucher Schools- All of these reforms will provide ammunition for those who want to increase the "choices" available for families. They will point to the test scores and the increased standardization of curriculum as a reason to support the innovative methods and "successes" of the private school system. A private school system that is increasingly using public money and that hasn't proven to be any more successful than the public schools (and often less successful).
Is all this a reason to abandon hope? NO! Instead these challenges provide us with even more motivation to share information, promote our schools and work to defend public education.