Several years ago, when a Former Power departed and a Then-New Power arrived, it seems that the Former Power had ordered copies of John Miller’s book QBQ! The Question Behind the Question for a school-wide book study that never materialized. The Newer Power was a fan of the book (which is definitely worth a read if you haven’t read it, and which inspired this blog post just over a year ago), but was concerned about using it as the Former Power had planned. “If I give that to you all,” said the Newer Power at a meeting of a small advisory group, “and everybody knows it’s a book about taking personal responsibility, I’m afraid you all will get a message that I don’t want to be sending right now.” So the books sat on a shelf, and they’re probably still there … but the message that Newer Power sent was more powerful than the book study would have been.
Messages are important … and not just the messages you intentionally send. The ones you send unintentionally, even unconsciously, can be even more important than the ones you know you’re sending. I felt a twinge of sympathy for a Current Power who’d been tasked with sending out Official Directions for some upcoming weather-makeup days. The email was full of intentional and necessary messages about things like using the time well, and dealing with students’ and parents’ concerns, and some procedural issues that needed to be clarified. But underneath those intentional messages was an undercurrent, one that didn’t come from That Power at all … and it probably didn’t even come from the Greater Powers Indeed who had assigned the task. “This is for you bad, lazy teachers,” that undercurrent seemed to say, “because you’re too bad and lazy to figure these things out for yourselves. Don’t you dare be bad and lazy on those makeup days!” Is that what it really said, or is it just what I perceived?
Now, let me be perfectly plain. There was nothing in the overt words of the email that intentionally sent a message like that … but I have a suspicion Ms. X and Mr. Y will be upset about the tone of it, even though the writer probably didn’t notice that tone at all. It’s funny, in a way, because Ms. X and Mr. Y are usually oblivious to the tone of the messages they send their students, and if a student gets upset, Ms. X and Mr. Y are puzzled, even annoyed. ¨We had so much to cover today, and that one student Z was talking, and I told them to shut up and get busy, and they started crying! What is wrong with them?” More Than One Ms. X has said to me over the years. And yet That Same Ms. X, within a week or two, would be mad or sad because of something a Power had said, not said, done, or not done. Something about the hierarchical structure of factory-model schools causes folks within them to be hyper-sensitive to the tone (or even the perceived tone) of messages from On High, but oblivious or worse to the tone (let alone the perceived tone of messages sent to Those Below. And it doesn’t matter where you are in the hierarchy, either! As long as there’s someone Above, you’ll probably be sensitive to the tone of messages from them; unless you take particular care, you probably won’t think too much about the tone of messages you send Below.
And I think that’s why it’s so hard for some “Latin Family” members to think about the messages they are sending (or perceived as sending) to those around them, or to me, or to a hypothetical observer who doesn’t know them. As teenagers, as students in factory-model schools, they’re used to being at the bottom of a hierarchy, and when you’re at the bottom, you get told and you get messages. You may not like those messages; in fact, you probably hate it when Ms. X yells and labels or Some Power storms and threatens, but you’re used to being on the receiving end of messages. “Take those notes!” yells Ms. X, “Because this will be on the test.” And everybody knows that means Ms. X wants her words repeated, her thoughts reproduced. To take responsibility, even ownership, when it comes to your own words and actions? To think about the messages you’re sending? That’s a much larger paradigm shift than it might seem.
But when you’re building a joyful learning community, thinking about messages is important … and it’s even important if you’re just trying to build a better-functioning factory-structure, one that will produce slightly better results (however those are defined) at slightly lower cost (however that is defined). At the beginning of a busy day, my mind still reeling from this insight, I’m wondering what other new insights and discoveries await … and I’m wondering what kinds of messages we’ll all send and receive today!