Punchback: Answering Critics

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

by TOM SALTER

As a society, we spend billions annually trying to get other people to like us. We wash, brush, primp and paint. We wear a certain brand of tennis shoe, brighten our smiles and tuck our tummies—all in hopes that people will love and admire us. However, no matter how much perfume or antiperspirant we use, somebody will think we stink.

Educators are similarly obsessed. We spend inordinate amounts of precious resources attempting to persuade people who are unlikely to support public schools to do just that.

Former Sen. Robert Kennedy is credited with saying, “Twenty percent of the people are against everything all the time.” He may have been optimistic. Assuming Kennedy was right, that means two of every 10 people in your community are rooting for you to fail. My advice: Get over it. If every student graduated with an advanced diploma, made a perfect score on his or her standardized test, received a $100 dollar bill every morning and was served Russian caviar at lunch, someone would complain that the caviar was imported.

A superintendent once told me he could not wait until Mrs. Jones’ son graduated. He claimed she called every week complaining about everything from the principal’s attitude to the sauce on the spaghetti in the lunchroom. Every educator has a Mrs. Jones or two (or three or four) who necessitates the purchase of a calendar specifically for counting the days until that child graduates. It seems we spend 80 percent of our time dealing with the 20 percent of the people whom we seemingly cannot please.

Three Camps
You basically can break down any group into thirds. About one third are considered “on board.” They know the importance of public education and, recognizing that we are not perfect, believe we are doing the best we can with what we have. These folks do not need convincing. Do not ignore them or take them for granted. Put forth the effort it takes to keep them informed and headed in the right direction and make sure they know how much you appreciate their continued support.

On the other end of the scale, about one third of the community detests public education. They are convinced you are running a second-rate babysitting service. The only information they get about schools is what they read in the newspaper or hear about education on the network news, and most of that is negative. It is not that they do not see the occasional good news story, they just choose to believe that anything positive is unsupported fluff designed to cover up the evils lurking in our halls.

Of course you cannot ignore the nonbelievers. You have to try to communicate with them. I once spent the better part of two hours in a "discussion" with a local activist in the parking lot on a hot August night following a back-to-school event on whether whole language techniques or phonetics were more effective in teaching reading. The result? The two of us were more entrenched than ever in our separate views and my wife was mad that I missed dinner.

It is a mistake to spend 80 percent of your time and effort on the people you cannot please. Spend 20 percent of your resources on them and save the 80 percent for the group that will listen.

The final group lies between the cheerleaders and the naysayers and they are unsure what to believe. These folks see the good news and the bad. If we could only show this third of the population what is really happening in our schools, we win the battle for public opinion. Unfortunately, we have used up all of our time, money and energy dealing with the nonbelievers, and the media only tells the story they want to tell. We have nothing left to try to convince this group, yet they are the ones we have to win over to bring the public back into public education.

Reserving Resources
It is important to identify the people in your community who fall into each group and make a communication plan to reach them. You need vehicles that address each group’s concerns, answer their questions and promote your strengths.

Don't take shortcuts. Every group has a distinct opinion of education based on the group’s world view and a best way to reach them with information. Make lists of the different groups, parents, non-parents, senior citizens, ministers, Realtors, etc. Write a sentence or two for each one that answers the question, "Why does/doesn't this group care about public education?" Then ask yourself, "What can we do to make sure this group supports our schools?"

This is where a key communicator list is vital. Key communicators are the opinion leaders in each group. Know who they are and communicate with them often. That doesn’t mean just sending a newsletter. Two-way communication is necessary. This is especially true with the middle group. The ones on either end of the spectrum often will seek you out. The middle third, the ones that can go either way on the issue of public schools, are often observers rather than participants. Reserve as much of your scarce resources, human and otherwise, as possible for them.

While it may depress you initially to discover you cannot make everyone love you , you should feel great relief in knowing that you can narrow your focus and still make a positive change in public opinion. If you can bring that middle group into the fold, you win. Tax referendums will pass, PTA meetings will be standing room only, and the calendar on the wall will give you more to look forward to than graduation day for Mrs. Jones’ kid.

Tom Salter is communication director for the Alabama Department of Education, 50 Ripley St., Montgomery, AL 36104. E-mail: tsalter@alsde.edu