Striking a Chord

By Ries, Eric | Techniques, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Striking a Chord


Ries, Eric, Techniques


One of the surprise stars of the American Vocational Association's convention in Cincinnati was a hometown teacher with a message her peers clearly needed to hear, that vocational educators have every reason to feel great about their jobs.

On the morning of December 6, 19%, more than 100 people jammed into a small meeting room at the Cincinnati Convention Center, where, over the course of about an hour, they were pelted with beach balls, assaulted by blaring music, forced to raise a cacophonous din and strapped to an emotional roller coaster that yanked them again and again from extremes of dewy-eyed poignancy to fits of explosive laughter.

It was a wild, exhilarating ride, and it ended in thunderous applause from an audience feeling luxuriously affirmed and almost evangelistic in their desire to share the spirit of what they'd just experienced with colleagues in classrooms from coast to coast. Dauna Easley, a veteran teacher and fledgling motivational speaker who had Just made her maiden presentation of "Feeling Great About Being a Vocational Educator" at the American Vocational Associations annual convention, had raised a Joyful noise that left teachers enraptured.

Antics and Anectotes

Easley, who runs a laboratory preschool at Scarlet Oaks Career Development Center in Cincinnati, opens the speech by reminding her fellow vocational educators of the talent and professionalism within their ranks. She follows that with a role-playing exercise: Audience members represent the constituencies teachers serve -- school board, supervisors, parents and students.

In the worst-case scenario each constituency utters a different negative phrase or noise -- all at the same time at one ear-splitting juncture. In the best-case scenario, the various words and sounds are soothing, and cooperation and harmony reign. Easley caps it off with a quote from Roland Barth's Improving Schools from Within: "The nature of the relationship among the adults who inhabit a school has more to do with the character and quality of a school and the accomplishment of its students than any other factor."

The bombarding beach balls, meanwhile, are meant to represent the myriad non-teaching duties and responsibilities vocational educators face in the course of any given day. As frenzied music builds an atmosphere of scarcely contained chaos' Easley pitches one ball after another into the furiously juggling audience. The last -- and biggest -- of the beach balls is the one labeled "paperwork."

Elsewhere in the presentation, Easley tells vocational teachers to acknowledge kindnesses paid one another ("Good thoughts not delivered mean squat," she chides) and to put compliments into writing. She further advises them to do as she does and keep an "encouragement folder" to leaf through on those days when being a vocational educator doesn't feel great at all.

She doses her speech with a pair of stories from her personal life that have proven to pack an emotional wallop with vocational educators. One involves a high school graduation party to which Easley was unexpectedly invited by a former student. The other concerns a gift she unwittingly gave one of her former teachers at a critical moment. It doesn't give too much away to say that both anecdotes offer powerful testimony to the lasting effects of teachers on people's lives.

"If you ask adults to name five people who were role models or mentors to them [when they were growing up], 90 percent of the time there's a teacher or guidance counselor on the list," Easley says. "That's how strongly we impact kids. I think the sincerity and honesty of the stories and experiences I relate are what touch people. They're real stories that validate us, that remind of our importance."

Loosing a flood

"Sometimes when you come into a room there's just magic that happens," Easley says of her blockbuster reception at the AVA convention. …

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