Saturday, April 3, 2010

Got a bad soloist? Get a bigger choir!

This may surprise a few of you, but in my early years I actually was a choirboy. At the awkward age of 12 I was the sole member of the Baritone Section in the youth choir at Westchester Presbyterian Church. What can I say, my voice dropped early and kept going south all through my teens. I realized very quickly that if I was flat or sharp everyone in the congregation would know it. God, how I resented all those wimpy tenors who could mask their vocal miscues within a larger group! That lesson stuck with me like scripture: If you don’t want to hear a solo off-key voice you need to surround it with plenty of better singers.

The reverse is also true, if all you hear is the bad soloist, you begin to think the entire choir stinks! My problem is that sometimes our most important debates are shaped by only a few loud angry voices with their own insistent agendas. Being the loudest voice in the room — this seems to be the hallmark of societal discourse these days.

Whether it’s picketing teachers, angry parents resisting school closures, catcalls in Congress, venomous talk show terrorists, edgy newspaper reporters, or biased bloggers they all seem to believe that acrimonious volume will carry the day. They create a cacophony of negativity and a growing sense that to disagree in the 21st Century we have to be disagreeable. The louder, the better.

There has never been a time that I can recall when we had so many controversial, highly-charged emotional issues on our plate in the public schools. The state is systematically de-investing in public education. We are being asked to balance a 2010 budget on a 2005 income. That formula just doesn’t add up and relationships in the educational community are showing the stress and strain. Frustration, scapegoating, blame-shifting, and turf wars abound as we deal with fewer resources to handle mounting problems.

Remember this:

“When the pie gets smaller, the first things to go are the table manners! In this rollercoaster economy, people are wrestling over the table scraps in a public food fight.”

I enjoy a robust public policy debate as much as the next guy, but geez, where has common decency, civility and reasoned debate gone? Out the window I’m afraid. In recent months, I’ve brushed up against some pretty dogmatic, unethical, self-righteous soap-boxers with this unflinching attitude -

“If the facts of a situation don’t fit my preconceptions, I’ll reject them out of hand and condemn the person who points them out to me!”

This same group of hostile aggressive types is willing to jump to conclusions based on only a shred of evidence, feel some perceived slight or hidden agenda at the drop of a hat, and amplify the noise to drown out those who disagree. Nobody wants to accept the reality check that we can no longer conduct business as usual. Nobody wants to give in. Nobody wants to play well with others.

To be fair, many entities of government (including public schools) have spawned and inflamed this attitude because we have not been transparent, responsive or engaging enough in the past. Is it any surprise when people don’t feel heard that they yell a little louder?

Here are some ways to “put a sock in it” with a bad soloist:

1. Make sure you’re singing on key yourself

When you say something publicly have your facts straight, give people straight talk, and deliver your message clearly and pervasively. Model the vocal chops you expect in others.

2. Sing in your own choir loft, not theirs

Never react in a war of words on a critical blog or in the letters-to-the-editor columns because all you do is drive attention to those forums. Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel or his Internet presence in gigabytes because they will always have the last word. Make them irrelevant by shifting the debate onto venues that you can control like your own web site, Op Ed pieces, or district publications.

3. Set the standard for what sounds right

Play to your home field advantage by framing the conversation about key issues. Define the themes, key messages, and factual foundation that everyone works from. Be seen as the definitive resource on the key issues that affect your organization. Don’t just react to what others say first; be the lead singer in the debate.

4. Create an ensemble of positive voices singing your praises

You’re known by the company you keep. Enlist community opinion leaders or people with unique and relevant views to promote a more balanced discussion. Give people talking points so they practice message discipline on your behalf. We should all be singing off the same song sheet. Think of yourself as the conductor or choir director orchestrating a community of voices on a topic.

5. Give them voice lessons, if they’ll listen

Sometimes bad singer just doesn’t have the right sheet music and that’s why they’re making it up as they go along. This could be a teachable moment to transform a critic into a supporter. Don’t presume they can’t change their tune because if you do they probably won’t.

We spend 90% of our time in school administration dealing with the 10% of our stakeholders who disagree with us or have problems with the way we do things. In these troubled times we need everyone to lend their voice to our cause. If they do, maybe we can drown out the negativists and naysayers that seem to relish the spotlight and attack the integrity of public education. Public education has a song worth singing.

All together now . . . Halleluiah!