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Let’s Talk! Communicating with Teachers

Can we talk? Some of my teaching colleagues have only two requirements for a successful field trip — their kids don’t embarrass them and nothing (animal, vegetable, or mineral) gets broken.

Some of the docents in your museum also have only two requirements for a successful tour— the class gets to the museum on time and they leave promptly.

Of course, we ‘re not like that, so let’s talk about our requirements! I think we both want the class to have such a positive experience in your museum that forever after they will seek museums and museum-objects as sources of pleasure and personal expansion. How do we work together to provide that positive experience? We have to start by communicating.

What’s happening?

You’ve examined the curriculum I’m required to teach, and you and the other members of your museum’s education division have designed tours that complement that curriculum. You’ve studied developmental stages of school-age children and incorporated that information into the school program. You even invited some teachers to help you develop the tours, so they are well aware of how effective your institution can be in furthering our educational goals. However, how do you communicate that effectiveness to the rest of the teachers in our school system? How do you make certain that the teacher and the class who can most benefit from your program know of its availability? There are a number of ways!

First, start at the top! Arrange a visit with the superintendent of your school system. Explain your museum’s education program and ask if you may join the next meeting of the system’s principals to share the program with that group. All field trips must be cleared by If the docent and teacher communicate about several important issues before students visit an institution, the tour can only be better for everyone. photo: Museum of the Cape Fear school administrators; having them on your side is a major plus.

While you’re in the superintendent’s office, ask for a directory of school personnel. This book will give you the information you need to direct exhibit and tour information to specific individuals, the best way to ensure that the teacher and the class get the word!

Next, choose where to send notices of exhibitions, schedules, calendars, and announcements. As a courtesy, it’s always a good idea to send a copy of any information going into a school to the principal or headmaster (they hate surprises!). The same information should then be directed to the people most likely to use it . . . and that varies from school to school and from exhibition to exhibition.

The best way of notifying individual teachers is, of course, to send a copy of your announcement to each teacher. This is prohibitively costly in many cases; this is where that personnel directory becomes most valuable. Target a specific discipline most likely to use your resources or tour and notify the curriculum supervisor for that discipline, the subject or grade leader in each school, or the media supervisor in each school with a cover letter asking that the information be disseminated. Of course, if you can afford it, send each school enough copies of your exhibition calendar to distribute to every teacher in that school. Send them in August so teachers can include you in their year’s plans.

What can I expect?

Okay, I know about the great new program your museum is offering, and I’ve called and made arrangements for my class to come. Now I’d like to know what you’re really planning to do with my class. Oh, I know what it says in the brochure, but I want to know what you will do. I want to know how well my students need to be prepared ahead of time — I don’t want them to act like dodos, but I don’t want to steal your thunder, either!

I want you to know that they haven’t studied this topic before; you’re their introduction. (Or, I want you to know that they are quite familiar with the subject, and you’ll lose them if you are too rudimentary.) If I tell you the main concepts I want them to know, will you be able to make sure they’re covered? Will you reinforce the vocabulary that we’ve studied in class? Are we both on the same theoretical ground?

Do you want me to divide the class into smaller groups or is that part of your get-acquainted activity? Do you want the adults to stay with the groups or disappear? Do you have a hand’s-on activity planned — I hope it isn’t one I’ve already done! I’ve talked to the education director (or maybe I’ve just talked to her secretary), but I’d really like to talk to you — the docents who’ll be working with my class. Could you please give me a call?

One of the unique facts of school life is that most of the time teachers are required to be with their students. We don’t have office hours or a secretary, and our “planning period” (if we have one) is usually taken up with a parent conference, an unplanned bloody nose, or a stack of 30 essays to read. In other words, we’re hard to call! But, not impossible!

Call anytime during the school day and ask for my schedule. The office staff can tell you when I have a planning period. If you leave a message, I’ll call you back when I have time. Sometimes I don’t have time until you’ve already left the museum. If I may call you at home, please leave that information with the school secretary. I really do want to talk with you.

What can you expect?

During our conversation, we’ve discussed the concepts the tour will cover. We’ve agreed on the “when’s” and “where’s.” You may even keep a card file that helps you understand me better — I hope there’s a note there somewhere saying: “Littleton, sixth grade, brought class to archeology program in Sept. each year since 1990, small classes, good discipline, students usually well prepared, teacher tends to coach too much, but means well.” I have a list of docents who’ve given my class good tours before, and I ask for them when I schedule a tour. There’s one more item, however, that we need to come to terms with. It’s rather “touchy.” I’d almost rather not mention it, but it is important. Who’s the boss?

I do expect you to be in charge of my class from the moment they step into your museum until the moment they leave. They will be aware of that split second when authority passes to you; you and I must be aware of it also. I will not relinquish my authority until I understand that you are ready to take over. If I feel that you are not in charge, I reserve the right to reclaim my class. Remember, I have to spend the rest of the year with these folks!

You have the right to expect their attention and respect, but you must know enough about your subject and my student’s development to deserve attention and respect. If I get caught up in the excitement of your tour and begin to “participate” you must (gently, I hope) remind me that there should be “no coaching from the audience, please.” You may and should ask for my help in any activity in which you want me to participate. You should also ask me to intervene if you have a problem with any of my students.

If a docent demeans a student or gives consistently incorrect information, I will, as politely as I can, reclaim my class. Of course, that will not happen on your tour because you’re not that kind of docent. And, besides, we’ve had the opportunity of sharing our goals and expectations beforehand. I feel so much better after our little talk; don’t you?

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Let’s Talk!: Communicating with Teachers,” The Docent Educator 4.1 (Autumn 1994): 18-19.

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