Framing our Messages Effectively: Helping Students Hear & Not Just Listen

Note from John: Thanks for taking the time to read this post.  As I continue my adventure into blogging, I’m very open to experimenting with format, design, etc.  So for at least awhile, I’m planning to make my posts a bit shorter, which will hopefully allow you to engage with them more easily.   In addition to saving you some time, I also hope it allows me to increase the frequency of my posts.

 For a first crack at this, the next 2 (and maybe 3) posts will deal with the idea of framing our messages to students in a way that increases their receptiveness.  Each post in the series will include a few tips and ideas for implementation.  Let me know your thoughts about this change. I’m interested in doing what adds the most value to your professional practice, so please share feedback. Again, I appreciate your partnership and hope you find today’s post helpful.

Framing Our Messages Effectively, Pt. 1

What’s the hardest message you’ve ever had to deliver? How did you prepare for it? I imagine you spent hours, maybe days, pondering exactly the right words, speculating about the potential response, practicing the conversation. Why? Because you wanted to communicate the message in just the right way: clearly, sensitively, and altogether appropriately.

At the heart of being a teacher is being a messenger. Our days are filled with communication—-verbal, written, and electronic—and this brings countless opportunities to share our hearts and minds with students and families. Unfortunately, it also carries with it plenty of chances to make mistakes.

As we consider how we communicate with our many audiences, let’s work to become skilled in how we frame our messages. Let’s pay attention not just to what we say but also how and when we deliver our thoughts. And let’s be ready to explain the why, too

In this series of posts, we will explore tips and strategies for framing our communication in a way that helps students not only understand what we say but also receive our messages in a way that increases buy-in and decreases resistance.

Anticipate the Response

As we develop our practice, one of the most important skills we can hone is thinking with a future trajectory. This applies to really all of our decision-making and is a crucial component of effective framing. Thinking with a future trajectory simply means taking into account how an action in the present will and might affect the future.

As an example: If I choose to hit the snooze button one more time tomorrow morning, that will mean more sleep (kinda) but will also mean more rush this morning. It might mean that I’m late for work, which might cause me to….. and on you go to ponder a multitude of possibilities.

As it relates to our discussion on framing in the classroom, thinking with a future trajectory involves knowing how your message will and might impact students and the class dynamic. Consider two typical scenarios:

Announcing a New Seating Chart or Classroom Policy: Will alter some aspect of the class dynamic. Might benefit the majority of students. Might be met with resistance. Might negatively impact classroom culture.

Announcing an Upcoming Test or Project: Will communicate a plan for having students demonstrate their learning. Will, by its nature, produce some level of stress. Will prompt many questions about the test’s format, how to study, etc.   Might evoke a list of what ifs (What if I’ve been absent? What if I don’t understand?) Might produce parent questions/concerns.

Anticipating the “mights” is going to help you refine your plan and craft your message in a way that reduces the risk of tension and resistance. It’s going to help you consider the questions students are likely to have, which will give you time to think through those answers, rather than coming up with something on the spot.

Too many on the spot answers can easily be misconstrued by students. Even if you offer solid, thoughtful responses, which is exceedingly difficult under pressure, the fact that you didn’t address these questions out of the gate might be interpreted as something to take advantage of, a lack of effort, a lack of thoughtfulness, a sign of disorganization, etc.

So whenever possible, take time to think through your messages by anticipating the students’ responses. Plan for these, and frame the conversation in a way that shows planning and empathy. Your students will respond more positively.

Explain your Rationale

When students understand why they’re being asked to do something, they are more likely to buy in. This, of course, depends on what we offer as “the why.” You’ve got to ensure that the rationale you offer is relevant to your students.

Often, I see teachers get this only half right. They give a reason for a decision or an assignment, but they don’t help clarify how it matters to students.

They say assignments are important and “prove it” by stating something like, “I’m going to collect this at the end of class, so make sure you do a good job. “ Or, “This will be a major grade.” Or, to explain why students should pay attention or focus on a certain concept, they say, “This is on the test.”

And this may incentivize work for a majority of our students. Certainly, many of them are motivated by grades. But two questions:

  1. What about the ones who don’t care that much about grades (who are often the very ones we’re targeting with our Grade Carrot)?
  2. Is this the most compelling reason we can offer students for why they should do the work we assign?

Think again about the parallel to your role as a teacher.

If the most frequent reason your principal gave you for doing what s/he asks were that, “This will be reflected in your paycheck,” you’d do it because you like getting paid, but you’d quickly realize that there’s something unfulfilling and unconvincing about the job.

You’d wonder rightfully, “How will this work matter? How will it help my students or my colleagues or our school?”

Our students have the same questions.

So as we offer them a rationale, tell them how what we’re asking them to do connects to what they’re learning, how it will help refine their skills in a certain area so they can be more successful at doing something that matters to them. Tell them that learning this material—rather than just helping them pass a quiz or earn some points—will allow them to produce work for an authentic audience and be seen as sophisticated and informed and scholarly.   Tell them how the work will help them now and in the long term to reach their goals, to achieve great things, to grow in confidence and ability.

Framing your rationale in this way will dramatically increase buy in and support and enthusiasm (not just among students, but also for parents and even for you).

How Do I Apply this Tomorrow in My Classroom?

Consider a message you are planning to deliver that students might find difficult to accept or about which there might be questions or resistance.

Work through the steps outlined above, and make a script.

  1. How might/will they respond?
  2. What is my rationale, and how does this matter to students?

Tip: Put the message in writing. In addition to clarifying your expectations and allowing students to reference the ideas at a later point, this will also help students who are absent, assist with communicating expectations to parents, and most importantly to our discussion, demonstrate that you have put thought into how best to frame the message you’re delivering.

Bonus: Here are two recent examples of how I focused on explaining-new-routines to my students.

One thought on “Framing our Messages Effectively: Helping Students Hear & Not Just Listen

  1. Pingback: Ready, Set…December! Framing Our Messages in a Season of Excitement & Anxiety | John Tanner Instructional Coaching

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