It has been quite a different year so far, and with a little more than three months left, 2020 is not exactly trying to promote normalcy. Work-life, school life, and gym life are all upside down and happening in unusual places. Although virtual education sounds extravagant and high-tech and impressive, the actual practice has been archaic and rough. I truly believed that having children focused on screens would be the easiest undertaking considering they always act like they cannot remove their eyes from them. The truth is that those were voluntary screen hours, and now that a teacher or classmate is on the screen, it feels forced and deliberate. (Or so I was told) However, now we are coming up on the fall season, and we were initially allowed to select how we wanted our children to learn this term. A blended learning experience seemed to balance our household’s needs and wants, and everyone was excited about the September 10th start date. That was until it was pushed back and pushed back again and now so much is up in the air because of a failure to communicate.
Communication plays a vital role in every component of our lives. From the time we are babies, we are communicating our needs, like crying loudly for a diaper change, to being toddlers and communicating our wants, think of the ‘No’ stage, to being older children and overly communicating our wants, such as negotiating terms when you were already given a direct answer. With all this communicating going on, I am forced to wonder how teams of adults and leaders were incapable of communicating the reality of school openings with hundreds of thousands of parents in New York City. Communication is something we do daily. Yet, relaying information from the Department of Education (DOE) to the families that rely on it demonstrated just how bad our authorities are at communicating.
As the Lesson Four Module explains, “at its most basic level, communication is about the exchange of information between individuals,” and summarizes a rudimentary notion of how communication works (2020). So, the DOE informed families that they offered three options for learning this fall, and families had to respond and let the DOE know which choice they were selecting. Sounds simple enough. This exchange proceeded through the Communication Process, which the Module illustrates as “an idea is generated by one person, shaped into a message, and sent by the person to another person, who then receives the message, interprets it, and then generates his or her own idea” (2020). This process usually continues repeatedly until an action of some sort is taken or the message is received as understood. We received details about our options, selected a choice, and relayed that info back to the DOE. However, there were more factors at stake than what had been communicated. Most people were aware that the situation could change if Covid-19 case numbers rose above a certain percentage in the city or if too many individuals tested positive who work within your school building. Parents were not informed about the issues with the Teacher’s Union, the problems with the building ventilation systems, and the utter lack of time that the city had to correct these issues. We were all learning more from the six o’clock news than from the DOE.
Our Module takes the understanding of communication further and describes how the process can be prone to errors. It will not matter if someone is communicating a message if noise and bias keep them from providing enough information or keeping the receiver from decoding that information (2020). Then, there is egocentrism, which the Module defines as “an inability to take on other people’s perspectives,” which also adds bias to the process and form of disconnect between senders and receivers (2020). When the DOE did not disclose the other dynamics that were factoring into their decisions for this school term, they essentially did not communicate enough with parents. The DOE’s assumptions did not consider what was happening in households all throughout NYC and did not consider how parents and students would be affected by several delays from the start to the school year.
In her text, Fundamentals of Organizational Communication, Shockley-Zalabak (2015) explains that “communication competency is the ability and willingness of an individual to participate responsibly in a transaction in such a way as to maximize the outcomes of shared meanings” (p. 6). The belief is that those that are communication competent will have the “motivation to engage in communication that results in mutual understanding,” and pursue their exchanges with an understanding that understood messages are reciprocal in the communication process (p.7). For the DOE, the lack of communication competency has led families all over New York City through several rounds of ‘When’s In-Person School Going to Start?’. The game show that families play nightly in September between rounds of Disney+ binges and household chores.
Needless to say, no one could have predicted the extent of the situations in our communities or that a Zoom classroom would become a thing. However, it is crucial for us not to forget the basic skills we have in our arsenal. Our ability to communicate. Perhaps if the DOE had engaged in some communication competence going back to in-person school in New York City would not feel like a dragged-out soap opera.
Pennsylvania State University (2020). Lesson 04: Global Communication. OLEAD 410: Leadership in Global Context. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2075490/modules/items/29697171
Shockley-Zalabak, P. (2015). Fundamentals of organizational communication: knowledge, sensitivity, skills, values. Boston: Pearson.