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Playing by Someone Else’s Rules

There’s a scene in the movie Mr. Mom where Michael Keaton’s character has to drive his kids to school. He does it wrong. The kids in the back seat tell him so: “Dad, you’re doing it wrong!” The school’s yellow-slickered crossing guard tells him so: “Mr. Stevens, you’re doing it wrong!” It seems he has entered the school’s driveway from the south. He is supposed to enter from the north when dropping off, from the south when picking up. This is a very funny scene, but it wasn’t so funny when a real, live principal read me the riot act once for making a similar mistake when I was on my way to speak to a class at his school.

Outreach means getting out of your museum, off your own turf, and onto someone else’s playing field. When that happens, the rules are different. Your outreach visit to a school will be much easier if you know some of their rules ahead of time.

Getting There and Getting In

Getting to a school isn’t necessarily simple. Be sure to ask for directions and/ or a map when you accept an invitation to appear at a school. Leave plenty of time for your trip; if possible, schedule your visit so you will not have to contend with rush hour traffic, or the traffic that builds around a school at the beginning and end of the day. Expect traffic tie-ups and no place to park whenever the school day begins and ends. If possible, make a trial run. You must not be late; antsy children and a teacher who doesn’t know whether or not to start the next lesson are waiting!

If you are going to a school to share part of your institution’s collection with a class, or to appear as a guest speaker for an all-school assembly, it stands to reason that you’ve been invited. Don’t assume that anyone else knows this! Teachers sometimes forget to inform the most important person on the staff, the school secretary. This is a major breach of security, and you won’t be able to get in the place without her okay! Be certain to ask the teacher who has invited you to give you the necessary credentials or good word that will allow you to get into the building. I’m not kidding here! Also, don’t try to sneak in the back way. School secretaries have built-in radar that can detect an intruder better than any of our navy’s latest gizmos.

Seriously, schools are much more security conscious today than in year’s past, and for the protection of those inside, strangers are not welcome. Be sure to check in at the main office where you will probably be given a guide, or at least directions, to the classroom where you will be speaking.

And, with Michael Keaton in mind, follow the school’s parking regulations carefully.

Meeting the Kids

It always helps when making a presentation to be able to scout the terrain, set up your equipment, locate the rest room, and do a little meditation before meeting your audience. This rarely happens when making school visits. Generally, you are required to prepare all your “stuff while being scrutinized by 25 or so pairs of eyes. No matter how many times you’ve set up a projector, handled animal cages, or arranged your notes, doing so with an audience of 10-year-olds will insure that all your fingers will turn to thumbs.

If you can involve the students in your setup, you will avoid wasting valuable “get-acquainted” time. Making the set-up part of the program can put both you and your audience at ease more quickly than will an arbitrary “Beginning of the Program.” It will also let the students see immediately that they will be an important part of the program. Just remember to be “politically correct” — don’t ask for a “big, strong boy to help me move this box.”

Above all, be flexible. The room and equipment you’ve been promised may not be available after all. Have back-up activities if you find that Plan One has become an impossibility. Better yet, don’t plan programs that are too heavily dependent on specific requirements of space and equipment.

Getting Down to Business

The actual presentation in a classroom shouldn’t be too different from a similar presentation in your museum. Except, of course, you’ll probably have fewer art, artifacts, or animals to work with. Discipline may be a little easier in the classroom because the students are “contained” and not moving from exhibit to exhibit. On the other hand, you’re in their world, now, and some may try to see if the same rules apply when the “teacher” is an outsider. As in the museum setting, students who are interested and actively involved are less likely to misbehave. You should not make presentations in schools when school personnel are not present; therefore, any serious breach of discipline can quickly be referred to them.

Remember that you are a guest. Just as you would not rearrange the furniture in a home you were visiting, don’t rearrange the classroom without permission. This includes not erasing the chalkboard. Also, don’t overstay your welcome. Allow time for questions and don’t extend your presentation past your allotted time. Don’t ask the teacher if it’s okay to take a few more minutes. You put her in the awkward position of having to tell you to shut up (of course she’ll do it more politely than that) or run the risk of making everyone late for lunch! Stick to the time limits you both agreed upon in your pre-visit phone call.

And, speaking of pre-visit phone calls, be sure you make one. Find out exactly why you’ve been invited. Are you the opening act for a class visit to the museum, or are you a one-shot presentation that the teacher has substituted for a field trip? You will need to know how many students you will be working with (one class? the whole sixth grade? the entire school?), what sort of space you will have (a small table at the front of a classroom? an auditorium? an “open concept” room?), time limits, any rules and/or restrictions you should know about.

And in Conclusion

A major difference between an education program presented in your institution and in a school is the ending. When you conclude a program in your museum, zoo, or nature center, the teacher gathers her charges, boards a school bus, and drives away, leaving you the luxury of rearranging the room, putting artifacts away, and mulling over the program in peace and quiet. In a school, however, you will be required to bring your program to a close and pack up while the class goes on to a spelling lesson. This can be awkward unless you, once again, make the children a part of the program closure. Make the ending obvious, so the teacher knows when to say, “Now, children, let’s show Mrs. Littleton how much we appreciated her coming today.” Above all, don’t start an activity (such as an art project) and leave the teacher to clean it up.

A Beautiful Friendship

Outreach serves as both lure and community service. In addition to working with students, museums can provide expertise for teacher education in the form of research assistance, in-service presentations, and special workshops. Many schools and museums enjoy a symbiotic relationship in planning and executing educational programs. Teachers are often used as consultants for museum programming; museum personnel can also be made available to assist teachers as they plan their curriculum. This beautiful friendship requires the mutual respect that comes from appreciating the differences inherent in the standards and practices of both institutions.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Playing by Someone Else’s Rules,” The Docent Educator 6.1 (Autumn 1996): 18-19.


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