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April 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 7

How Technology Is Changing Teachers' Discussion Skills

Schools strive to balance tech fluency with face-to-face communications skills.

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Education leaders today are facing interesting challenges regarding the new skillsets of Millennial teachers, who have grown up using the Internet and social media to a much greater extent than previous generations. While they are fluent in technology-based communication (emails, texts, apps), research and anecdotal evidence suggests that many Millennials' interpersonal skills have taken a hit. This skill gap is often evident in the way they speak with parents, peers, and even administrators.
In light of this problem, innovative principals are working to develop and implement strategies to help strengthen the oral communication abilities of their novice teachers. Consider, for example, the following scenario—a composite of real situations experienced by teachers and principals in Long Island and New York City's public schools—shared with me as a university professor and teacher educator.

Meeting Teachers Where They Are

Jackie Miller has been a high school principal in Queens, New York, for more than 25 years. She has held her current position for 12 years and if you ask her what she enjoys most about being a principal, she will tell you without hesitation that she loves mentoring teachers, particularly at the beginning of their careers. She believes that the development of oral communication skills is central to new teachers' professional learning, growth, success, and longevity. Before becoming a principal, Miller taught English language arts, Title-1 reading, and special education for more than 10 years. As a beginning teacher, her mentor taught her something she will never forget: "Always meet your students where they are now, not where you think they should be or would like them to be!"
Recently, Miller has noticed profound changes in her new teachers' discussion skills. As research studies have noted, since the majority of novice teachers grew up in the era of social media and the Internet, their skillsets with regard to communication are very different than those of previous generations (Clark, Algoe, & Green, 2018; Lieberman & Schroeder, 2019; Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018; Misra et al., 2014). For example, Miller and her fellow administrators recognize that while many new teachers expertly communicate via their devices, they sometimes lack the face-to-face oral communication skills needed to be highly successful in their classrooms and communities. These teachers, Miller notices, often seem hurried or distracted in conversations, have difficulty accepting constructive criticism, and miss body-language cues.

Mock Parent-Teacher Conferences

Rather than simply lamenting about these changes and blaming new teachers for their shortcomings, she and her colleagues are "meeting them where they are now," by inventing new strategies to better support them, while concurrently utilizing their unique skillsets in ways that help to promote more effective communication schoolwide.
Principal Miller's concerns became fully evident at a recent new-teacher meeting when several of the teachers stayed after and confessed to her that they were anxious about their first parent-teacher conferences. They told her that they were particularly unsure of how to discuss sensitive topics with parents, including their children's poor academic performance, need for better hygiene, and behavioral issues, to name a few. In response to the teachers' concerns, Miller decided to conduct mock parent-teacher conferences at her next monthly new-teachers meeting, during which she took on several roles, including one of an upset mother coming to the school with tough questions, accusations, and concerns.
In the mock conferences, Miller was surprised by the novice teachers' visible discomfort with both verbal and nonverbal aspects of the exchanges. For example, she noticed that when she pretended to be a frustrated mother entering the classroom to meet her son's teacher for the first time, several of the novice teachers did not stand up and offer the mom a seat. Instead, they remained in place. Further, several of the new teachers did not shake the mother's hand, either at all or properly, or introduce themselves. Finally, when Miller pretended to be a mother crying in exasperation over her daughter's disruptive behavior in school, several of the teachers made no visible attempts to comfort her, verbally or nonverbally, and did not offer her a tissue or some water, or even a moment to gather herself before continuing the conference.

Spotlight on Nonverbal Communication

Miller used these conference role-plays as opportunities to discuss the importance of body language as part of face-to-face communication. She modeled for the new teachers how she might meet and greet a new parent and how she might empathetically comfort one who was crying. She spent several minutes walking around the room, shaking each of the teacher's hands, while making eye contact, smiling, and introducing herself. She removed a box of tissues from her desk, offering one to a teacher who was playing the role of the upset mother, while consoling her and telling her that everything was going to be OK with her daughter.
From there, she moved on to discussing the importance of saying something positive about every student at the onset of the conference, using several examples in various mock exchanges, including commending both the parent and child for the student's having perfect attendance, always being on time and prepared for class, and demonstrating effort on difficult assignments. The teachers had a discussion regarding the differences between using precise, specific language and vague, general language when discussing with parents students' academic strengths and areas in need of improvement. Miller provided several examples of each, including the difference between simply telling a parent that her child is performing poorly in the class versus telling her exactly what skills the student needs to practice and how the teacher and parent can partner to support the student in improving those skills.
As the mock parent-teacher conferences went on, Principal Miller underscored the importance of teachers having well-organized anecdotal records and academic documentation, including student work samples and test scores, to share with parents and to reference when discussing areas in need of improvement. She emphasized the importance of using subtle language shifts throughout the conference to stress the partnership between parents and teachers in helping to better support students, rather than blaming one another for students' struggles. For instance, simply substituting the pronoun "we" for the pronouns "you" and "I" can go a long way in improving the overall tone of the conference and framing the follow-up steps that the parents and teachers will take after the conference to better support the student's academic growth.

Refining Listening Skills

The teachers also practiced refining their listening skills. Miller encouraged them to increase their wait time by two to three seconds after teachers playing the roles of parents asked challenging questions or made inflammatory comments. She had the teachers practice repeating back what the parent had just said in their own words, making sure that both parties understood one another and that there was no need for further clarification. A discussion also took place about the relationship between demonstrating good listening skills versus appearing distracted, even if one is fully capable of multitasking. Miller suggested, and the teachers agreed, that teachers looking at their cell phones or other devices during parent-teacher conferences—which has happened—is not a behavior congruent with good listening, and could be perceived by parents as being rude and disinterested.

Ensuring Sensitive Interactions

These mock parent-teacher conferences and the discussions that were embedded within them were created by a school administrator in response to an expressed need by the teachers to practice difficult, nuanced oral communication skills in a safe environment—one in which they could make mistakes and analyze each other's discussion skills without repercussions. Interestingly, the discussions that arose organically from the role-plays were sometimes led by Miller but, at other times, brought up by the teachers themselves. For example, immediately following the conversation on handshaking, one of the teachers raised her hand and pointed out that shaking hands is a preferred method of introducing oneself in American culture, but may not be considered appropriate with all parents. It may be considered disrespectful, she explained, for a female teacher to shake hands with a father who is a devout Muslim, since physical contact of that nature with a woman who is not his wife or family member is not permitted.
A similar discussion ensued about eye contact being a culturally mitigated form of body language and that teachers should be sensitive and culturally responsive to differences in what various cultures deem as respectful or disrespectful body language. These deep discussions among staff likely would not have occurred, were it not for the opportunities provided by the mock conferences.
After engaging in the mock conferences, Miller asked for anonymous feedback from the new teachers about whether or not they found them to be helpful, and if so, how and why. The teachers overwhelmingly agreed that they were valuable and thanked the principal for helping to allay their fears and better prepare them for the real parent-teacher conferences.
Once the open house night had passed, Miller sent out a second anonymous questionnaire to the new teachers and again, their responses and comments indicated that the conference role-plays helped them feel much more prepared to meet with parents, particularly those of struggling students. One new teacher wrote, "I couldn't believe it. One of the real parent-teacher conferences that I had last night was almost identical to a difficult one that we practiced in the role-play in the new-teacher meeting. If we had not done those, I'm sure I would not have known how to respond. Those mock conferences really saved me!"

Difficult Conversations

Mock parent conferences are effective in providing support to novice teachers, in part because they move beyond traditional formats to help promote critical thinking and reflection, while also enhancing inexperienced teachers' social-emotional learning skills. Miller believes that several of the new strategies that she is employing with Millennial teachers, including the mock parent-teacher conferences, are now not only helpful but necessary for their professional development and success.
Thanks to the effectiveness of the mock parent-teacher conferences, Miller implemented additional role-plays at her new-teacher meetings, including ones that dealt with difficult conversations between two teacher colleagues. One such scenario involved a push-in special education teacher and a science teacher who did not understand and appreciate each other's roles and responsibilities in their 10th grade science classroom. This role-play gave rise to teachers having opportunities to both model and practice ways to have a collegial disagreement that would result in productive, professional discussion and problem solving.
Another role-play session involved an uncomfortable exchange between an administrator and a teacher. In that particular role-play, the administrator was providing constructive criticism to the teacher about a lesson she observed for which the teacher was given a rating of "ineffective." That scenario gave the new teachers the chance to rehearse several aspects of communicating effectively with administrators, including how to properly defend particular aspects of their practice, how to disagree with differing opinions respectfully, how to keep their emotions in check, and how to reflect on and improve their practice, based on helpful, constructive feedback from an experienced school leader.

Leaning on Technology

Although it may hinder their face-to-face discussion skills, young teachers' reliance on technology can also create new communication pathways. To get new teachers accustomed to responding appropriately and positively to constructive feedback, for example, Miller added a tech component to her classroom observations process.
The principal had noticed that her Millennial teachers were more likely than older teachers to be uncomfortable with teaching observations, particularly unannounced ones. To address this pattern and help the novice teachers become more open to being observed and critiqued, Miller implemented what she calls YIP reviews. The acronym YIP (yes to improving practice) is meant to be a play on words: The observation feedback is presented in a format similar to that of online YELP reviews.
During informal observations, Miller and her assistant principals confidentially rate each teacher's performance—giving them one to five stars—much like a customer would rate a restaurant. Teachers are then encouraged to respond to the feedback that accompanies the rating, either in writing to the reviewer or verbally during individual conferences. The extra time to process and reflect on the written feedback gives novice teachers the chance to pause and respond more constructively. It has also decreased their anxiety around the process, Miller notes.
Finally, Principal Miller and her administrative team transformed professional learning to better accommodate Millennial teachers' strengths, particularly with regard to multimedia, branding, and influencing. No longer does the principal host monthly brown bag seminars, in which teachers would read an article ahead of time, take notes and jot down questions, then discuss the article together as a group. Over the past several years, those voluntary seminars had dwindled down to very few participants. Instead Miller has instituted a new discussion forum called Multimedia Mondays. These sessions are held after school on the last Monday of the month, and pizza is provided to attendees. Miller sought the help of two young teachers to assist with the branding and new teacher recruitment. They created a logo and promotional materials, sent out email blasts, and posted on Facebook and Instagram to help encourage their colleagues to participate.
Unlike before, this new format does not focus so much on discussions around articles and print text, but rather on various multimedia pieces, including popular films about teachers and teaching, online tutorials designed for teachers, YouTube videos about classrooms and student-driven projects, TED Talks about education issues, and podcasts created by and for teachers, such as The Teacher's Cup of Coffee.
Excited by these digital options, the novice teachers were now willing to engage in rich discussions. They gained the confidence to speak up and even began volunteering to lead Multimedia Monday sessions. They were eager to share websites, blogs, and podcasts with their colleagues and took pride in being able to impart their technological expertise with more veteran teachers. Attendance at Multimedia Mondays has soared, and Miller has seen improvement in her new teachers' oral communication skills.

Lessons for All

These collective improvements in communication schoolwide have had promising results. The young teachers are more comfortable and confident speaking with their colleagues, supervisors, and parents face-to-face. The principal has had fewer complaints from parents and fewer instances of having to intervene and assist a teacher working directly with a parent to resolve issues with their child.
This progress has led Miller to recall a second important piece of advice that her teacher mentor had given her years ago: "Try and learn something from every single student that you teach. Good teaching and learning are never mutually exclusive. They are always reciprocal." Our Millennial teachers have strengths and weaknesses like we all do. But us veterans can learn a great deal from our novice colleagues, and they can learn a great deal from us—one conversation at a time.
References

Clark, J. L., Algoe, S. B., & Green, M. C. (2018). Social network sites and well-being: The role of social connection. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(1), 32–37.

Lieberman, A., & Schroeder, J. (2019). Two social lives: How differences between online and offline interaction influence social outcomes. Current Opinion in Psychology, 31, 16–21.

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. New York: Penguin Press.

Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J, & Yuan, M. (2014). The iPhone effect: The quality of in-person social interactions in the presence of mobile devices. Environment and Behavior, 48(2), 275–298.

 Jacqueline Darvin is a deputy chair, program director, and professor of secondary literacy education at Queens College of the City University of New York. She is currently pursuing an advanced degree in Educational Leadership and credentials as a New York State School Building Leader and School District Leader.

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