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Rebecca Rider column: Make dialogue easier to have

I think the school system and I have arrived at a slight difference of opinion. I noticed it last week while I was touring the four schools mentioned in the proposal the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education heard on April 7.

I’ve been trying, as my schedule permits, to visit all the district schools. They may be in the same system, and they may run similar programs — some even have the same floor plans — but I’ve noticed that each school is unique. They have their own flair and flavor.

I wanted to talk to the principals, PTA and teachers, if I could. I succeeded with two out of three.

I was told I needed to arrange any tours through the school system. I had no issue with that – it made sense, and it saved me a little bit of time. If going through the system would put the schools at ease, I was happy to do so. My goal was to talk to people about their concerns, not set them on edge.

Once the tours were arranged, I was told that someone from the school system would meet me at the schools. And this is where the system and I disagree.

I don’t mind being accompanied on tours or I would have objected, and I did want to see those schools. But I think if my goal is to talk openly and honestly with people – teachers in particular – it was a little counterproductive.

I’ve been told that having someone from the school system puts people at ease, it lets them know that any interview is officially sanctioned. In a way, that may be true. But from my perspective it also ensures chances of hearing an honest opinion plummet.

People tend to be wary talking to the press, as is – particularly teachers, I’ve noticed. Trying to get a teacher to talk, on record, about a problem or an issue or a concern is like pulling teeth. I’ve been trying to talk to teachers about the proposal since the day it was announced with no luck. Several promising interviews backed out.

Which I can also understand. To many of these teachers I’m a stranger. I’m a member of the press, and a new one at that. They don’t know me, and I haven’t earned their trust.

I accepted the extra tour guide because I wanted to see the schools, no matter what. These are places that have the stamp of their communities all over them. It is the community that is fighting, tooth and nail, to preserve its history. I had to see them.

But it’s a rare person who will give an honest complaint when their boss is listening in. Answers and opinions are worded with much more care, or are censored all together. When someone stops in the middle of answering a question to restate their quote to a system official who has just walked up, I begin to take issue.

I do not believe they are being open with me. And while I believe the principals were honest, I also know they did not, exactly, answer the question I was asking. I did not hear from teachers.

School officials have said, over and over again, that they want to promote conversation about the possibility of consolidation. But they often seem oblivious to the fact that their actions can so easily shut down dialogue among employees.

Maybe teachers are worried about repercussions. Maybe they just don’t have an opinion. Maybe I’m not at all personable. I don’t know why, to my knowledge, a large number of teachers have gone mum on the issue, but I think it’s something that requires careful consideration.

The school board wants open conversation and dialogue about this issue. I think they’ll find that some of the best advice will come from within the system itself – from the teachers who have molded and shaped the schools, and in turn the communities, into what they are.

No one knows a school, or a community, like a teacher – they are the heart of the district. But conversation is not going to happen if they feel like someone is looking over their shoulder – if they feel that, for whatever reason, they’re unable to speak freely.

If the district wants conversation, it needs to start by opening the lines of communication within its own borders. As much as I’d love for teachers to know they can come talk to me about concerns, I think the bigger issue is that they are comfortable speaking publicly, period.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if they choose to speak to me, to the system, or to the board, I just want them to be heard, and for them to know that their opinions have value. And if that is happening, I have yet to see the results of it.

Contact education reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264 or rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com



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