Guest Column

Sending a Signal Through Silence

by LEONARD H. ELOVITZ


If school leaders want to make an immediate impact on improving instruction within their district, they should create, copy and paste the following warning sign on the public address system in every school:

I visit a lot of schools in my roles as a supervisor of student teachers and administrative interns and an educational consultant. I am amazed at how often instruction is interrupted by public address announcements, student pullouts and classroom visitors. If student learning is the primary goal of a school, then instruction should be interrupted only as a last resort.

Earlier this year, I was watching a student teacher doing a masterful job in helping his students navigate through a large volume of data about rain forests in a science research class. Just as the students were beginning to see the relationships and to reach the conclusions intended, a strident voice came over the loudspeaker informing us who would be bowling for the high school team that day, where and when the money for the flowers was to be sent and which teachers had yet to hand in their something or other. The students in the class had to shout their conclusions over the din of others packing up and the growing noise from the hallway.

In another school, I witnessed a student teacher’s middle school science class being interrupted six times in one lesson. Three were public address announcements: one to admonish those teachers who failed to get their attendance in on time, one to request that certain students report to the office and one to give information regarding some fund-raiser. The class was further interrupted by the music teacher who entered like a character from the Inquisition, summoned two students and stood there scowling as they packed up, then marched to the front of the room and out the door.

The next interruption was from another staff member who just had to tell the cooperating teacher something from the doorway. She apparently felt that her curt "excuse me" to the student teacher, who was in mid-sentence in giving students laboratory directions, was sufficient. The final interruption was the return of the young musicians.

How are teachers and students to remain focused with all the distractions? What message is being sent about what is important?

Constant Disruption
Another middle school that I visited was in total chaos due to bus evacuation drills. My student teacher did his best to conduct a lab with his charges moving in and out throughout the lesson.

Ronald Edmonds, the father of the effective schools movement, recognized the problem 20 years ago. In a 1979 article for Educational Leadership, he wrote, "Effective schools get that way partly by making it clear that pupil acquisition of basic school skills takes precedence over all other activities."

Principals sometimes need to be reminded it is their job to facilitate instruction. One way is by spending a little time thinking and planning rather than just pursuing the course that is easiest for the adults. It is easier to disrupt the whole school with the public address system to call down a student than it is to look up the schedule, find out when the student is in a non-academic activity and walk down and get him or her.

Irritated Teachers
Teachers who are serious about their calling become upset over interruptions to the cadence of their classrooms. Coleen Armstrong, a high school English teacher, writing in her Teacher Magazine article "Do Not Disturb," says, "Schools are strange places. I came to that conclusion after I’d been a teacher for about 15 minutes. … Not the least of my problems was the constant annoyance of having every period punctuated with announcements concerning amended bus schedules, needed janitors, even weather updates."

She quickly recognized that schools’ "priorities are skewed. … Custodians mow lawns right under our windows during third period, rather than at 2:35 after classes are dismissed, and no one stops them. We constantly espouse the sanctity of the learning process, yet think nothing of interrupting the concentration of 2,000 people to tell just one that his or her parking lights are on."

During my 17 years as a superintendent, I tried to make it clear to everyone that nothing was more important than the teaching and learning process. We would go out of our way in the central office to avoid being disruptive and we expected our principals to follow suit.

In fairness, many of our principals already were there. They did everything they could to support the learning environment. If your principals don’t, a gentle reminder from the central office might help.

Leonard Elovitz is assistant professor of instruction, curriculum and administration at Kean University, Morris Ave., Union, NJ 07083. E-mail: lelovitz@turbo.kean.edu