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Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Professional communication: a case study.
Professional communication: a case study.
This post was meant as an Appendix to this post, but since it turned out to be too large, I made it into a separate piece.
Part I: Dug out from my archive: a letter (with an attachment) to colleagues (with a slightest modification to remove possible identifiers, typos, bad stylistics).
earlier today I have undergone a usual annual event named “employee professional evaluation”. After some consideration, in the spirit of openness, as an extremely open and direct person, I have decided to share with you the core of our discussion with the management.
I firmly believe that sharing this information (which represents no secret) will be beneficial (at least in a long run) to the quality of the education delivered to our students.
Naturally, no names were mentioned during our discussion, and this is another reason to send out this email to all colleagues.
During our discussion, there was one word which was used more often than others, which was “uncomfortable”.
I do understand our natural human need to feel as much as comfortable as often as possible. Although, I believe that we all, as highly educated professionals, should understand that it is simply impossible to have a comfortable feeling all the time we would like to have it.
As Steve Jobs once said, quote: “You can satisfy some of the people some of the time, but you cannot satisfy all the people all the time.”
Also, our everyday experience tells us, that an uncomfortable feeling does not necessarily mean that something bad is happening, as well as feeling of joy or happiness does not necessarily mean something good is happening. When I experience an uncomfortable feeling I always try to find the reason for that in me, as well as in other possible sources, and learn how to deal with it in a productive way.
As I address in my attachment (see below), feelings are the result of an interaction between two parties, and the result of that interaction is always a reflection on both participating parties.
My mentors used to say, a quote: “A jerk needs to know that he is a jerk, and an idiot needs to know that he is an idiot” (sorry for the language, but that was the most accurate translation from the Russian). I encourage you do not hesitate, and tell me every time if you think that I am doing something idiotic, or that from your point of view, I am acting like a jerk.
My mentors also told me, quote: “If you look in a mirror and don't like what you see, don't blame the mirror”, so please don't feel uncomfortable to mirror to me my actions/words if you think they may need some correction or improvement.
When I started my very first job, I was a technical support staff at a computer warehouse at a large University (in Russia). My boss told me that the first rule of staff is, quote: "You cannot care about educating University students more than a professor teaching those students cares about teaching those students”. I have been following this rule since then.
In the spirit of openness, I would not object to have a follow-up discussion on the matter in any form.
Also, as an experienced and a highly-evaluated teacher, I could make and deliver a presentation about what approaches do I use to help my students mastering physics.
In fact, I would be able to provide a series of short presentation on that matter.
Please, feel free to provide any feedback on the matter, ask any questions, or make any suggestions.
Thank you again,
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
An attachment: My specific comments after the meeting with the management:
I want to thank everyone for the feedback on my professional traits/skills/abilities. This recognition is very important to me, and motivates me toward further effort to provide the best professional actions possible.
I would also like to address some of the comments.
Regarding the communication skills, I welcome all and any specific recommendations from colleagues and from management. I would ask management to forward colleagues, or at least their complaints, to me immediately when that happens. This would greatly help to decrease the possibility of miscommunication.
I would also appreciate the list of the specific complaints from the ending year.
Please, note: “Communication” means that when an employee receives a communication related to his/her responsibilities he/she clearly understands the meaning of that communication and if, that communication is not clear, he/she is capable of continue the communication until it will become unambiguous.
The other side of this parameter is how clear an employee can express himself/herself in his/her communication to others. The rank of this parameter must demonstrate how rare or how often the said communication results in miscommunication, or misunderstanding; basically, it ranks the clarity of the communication; plus, it also evaluates such features as: how hard is to establish the communication link, how often would someone wait for too long (on average) for having a clear response, etc.
An example of a bad communication would be a case when someone would issued to an employee a written or oral text, and the employee would not do something requested, or do something not requested and not meaningful. If this type of a situation would be happening on a regular basis that would indicate regular miscommunication.
I believe that there is almost no one among colleagues who would honestly said that my professional communication skills are not sufficient – at least according to the objective professional criteria.
Communication always involves two participants. And all the features of the communication equally reflect the abilities of both participants to communicate. That is especially true for a collection of highly educated people, which implies that said people should have capabilities sufficient to communicate using different communication styles (especially when people may have been growing up in different cultures and specking different native languages). It is not a surprise for anyone that even within one linguistic culture different people use different means to express their views and to establish mutual understanding. The diversity of communicative styles and means significantly increases within a multi-cultural community.
People who grow up in different cultures communicate differently. Even the meaning of “nice” is different in different cultures. And there is no law which requires people be nice. There is a law which requires people be polite.
For example, professional relationship must exclude the use of profanities, swear words, obscene language, etc., and, of course, any physical altercation. I believe that there is no one who could offer examples of me using profanities, swear words, obscene language, etc., or being involved in any physical altercation.
There are objective differences between relatives, friends, teammates, colleagues, coworkers. Professional relationship is already satisfied when employees remain being coworkers. There is no legal requirement which would force coworkers becoming teammates or friends.
We work in a place where representatives from many different cultures meet and communicate. This is a fact that our community is extremely diverse, which requires certain tolerance to the people whose behavior may look differently from what is to be excepted by the representatives from another culture. Diversity is meant to be understood in a wide sense, as many possible cultural traits, features, and not just race, gender, disability, or religion.
Tolerance toward diversity allows people select their cloth, hair style, etc. Tolerance toward diversity also includes tolerance to different traits of a character: e.g. sometime some Italians may be perceived by some people as loud or hyperactive; or the distance between two people in a conversation which deemed to be comfortable greatly changes from one culture to another.
If some of colleagues may have sometimes uncomfortable feeling while or after communicating with me, and based on this feeling deemed our relationships bad or the communicating insufficient, it cannot be used as an example for stating that I am bad at communication, or that I am bad at professional relationships. Uncomfortable feeling may occur because our communication styles came from different cultures. As the result, our personal relationships may lead to uncomfortable feelings to both. Any communication is an inter-action, and the result depends on both parties. The result of the relationship equally reflects both parties involved in it. I also may have uncomfortable feelings about some interactions with some other people. It does not affect my professional actions. When I need to communicate with someone about my job I do not allow my feelings stop me from establishing that communication, which is one of the signatures of a professional.
Everyone who participates in communication needs to take this fact into an account. And I am thankful to the management for expressing their understanding on the matter.
I would like to state that I send out a general email with the description of the effective teaching practices and approaches (usually once or twice a year). That email also contains an invitation to the colleagues regarding their ideas. When I receive a specific request most of the time I am able to help. However, sometimes the request is technically impossible to fulfill, and I understand that someone may not see it that way, and be upset.
I never get frustrated with undergraduate students, or anyone else in the line of my work.
I have never turned away anyone who had a question or a request.
Thank you again.
From the management
We would like to note that he received an overwhelmingly positive performance evaluation, eliciting a 4 out of 5 overall score (which is considered excellent).
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to us to discuss the matter further. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Part II: An example of communication with a high-level administrator. Again, slight modifications are done to remove possible identifiers.
Dear high-level administrator,
This letter is not about any specific issue, like air conditioning, or IT management, or else; it’s more like a philosophical discourse into general principles of governing from one thinker to another one. It easily could have been an open letter, an invitation to a general discussion.
Your recent letter to the community addresses many important topics.
Except one – the quality of teaching.
Your letter uses word “teaching” only once (“fostering closer collaboration in both teaching and research”).
You mentioned several task forces, but not the task force on the quality of teaching.
You addressed the issue of the quality of research. And you stated that most agree that the assessment of the quality of research must include the opinions of experts, that those opinions are “highly significant”.
Why not using the same approach to assessing the quality of teaching?
I have an experience of educating students of all grades in middle and high schools; I’ve been teaching two-year, four-year college students, university students, school teachers and school and district administrators; I have been an administrator myself running an institution that was an analytical branch of a department of education of a large city (with a million residents). I wrote a book on STEM education, my chapter on teacher professional development was published in a book on the matter. My blog has more than 50,000 visitors. I believe that all makes me an expert in the field of education. I can bet that our institution simply does not have any other expert in the field who could match my experience and expertise in education, including members of task forces, or committees, or judges for various competitions.
But the most important proof of my top expert level is what my students tell me about me.
The other day I was called in a hallway “Mr. V, hi, do you still teach physics?”
It was one of my students from three or four years ago.
We had a brief conversation.
“Of course, I do, I love it!”
“Mr. V, you were the best physics teacher I had”.
“And everyone tells that you are the best”.
“Well, I know some students do not like me”.
“I don’t care what people say on the Internet. All my friends say only good things about you”
“Thank you, I had very good teachers, and I just try to do what I learned from them”.
“I didn’t like physics before taking this class and now it’s one of my favorite classes.”
"I hated physics before taking this course, and now after taking both courses with Mr. V, I actually really enjoy it. He is one of the best teachers I've ever had. Thank you"
“Best physics professor here, only one who cares if students are learning the material. Proves you don’t need a PhD in physics to teach this class. PhD in education is much more effective.”
Naturally, having such a success myself, I want to share my expertise in teaching with anyone who also sees teaching as an important part of their experience.
That is why for many years (!) I have been offering different projects that would, when realized, help to elevate learning experiences of students.
None of my projects has been accepted.
There was no explanation, no analysis, no discussion, just NO.
I also applied a couple of times for some relevant internal positions to which I would be the perfect fit - at least from the professional point of view.
I have never heard back a single word. Even an interview.
That makes me think that the main reason for me being ignored was not my expertise, or my ideas, or my projects, but me – personally.
I don’t like politics, I like my work, I make things done.
I know that some people may find me “uncomfortable”.
Feeling comfortable is a natural intention for any person. However, in a professional world there is a fine line between “comfort” and “conformity”.
At the beginning of my managing career my managers taught me that when people slip from comfort into conformity innovations stop, and a sign of that is that people begin generating many activities that may look like innovations but do not lead to any specific changes – activity for the sake of activity, activity for the sake of being perceived as an innovator without being an innovator. I had to learn how recognize an actual innovation from acting innovative.
I observe some of those signs here.
I worry that you may not see those signs.
There is a natural separation between top administrators and low-level employees.
It would be impossible for you to put on some disguise and walk around asking people for what they really think.
That is why an honest feedback is an important part of your managing.
Students are not afraid of talking to me.
And some of them express worrisome opinions.
For example, I was told that a diploma does not help in getting a research position; that many students who study here have a job waiting for them after graduation, so don’t need to put strong effort in study.
I don’t know if that is true.
I don’t know how many students would share the same views.
But I suspect that you do not know that either.
I also suspect that you do not have the exact picture of the quality of teaching.
I would expect that not having the full picture of the all aspects of the functioning of a such complicated organism as educational institution may hinder your strategic goals in transforming the institution.
That is why I wrote this letter, to offer some food for thoughts.