Learning A VERY Harsh Lesson in Public Speaking

whole truth.pngBy Bill Henk – Being an education dean at a major university has made me something of a public figure.

Nice, right?  Not always.

Truth be told (the whole point of this particular post), the opportunity to represent Marquette University has always felt like an extraordinary honor to me.  While I’m normally pleased to serve in this role, it comes with the potential for notable risk, too.

You see, seeming missteps of any kind on my part. whether real or not, can prove to be harmful to my college, the university, and even to me, both professionally and personally.  Just to be clear, I take my responsibility to my institution so seriously that I put it well ahead of my own welfare.

As a result, my intent today is to take aim at setting the record straight, in this case about my regard for public education.  My hope is to insulate my university and my College of Education colleagues from any undeserved guilt by association with my words or actions. 

What’s the Problem?

I’m especially concerned about how a current misunderstanding of some public remarks I made several months ago might reflect upon Marquette, the College of Education, and our faculty.  To the best of my knowledge, the concerns are not widespread, but I want to nip them in the bud nonetheless, because I find them so distressing.  Unfortunately, I do so at the risk of adding fuel to the fire.  But in the interest of the truth and my own integrity, I’ll gladly take that risk here.

For the record, I completely own anything I uttered that might rightly reflect badly on me.  Why?  Because what I said was true, and I said it in a context that should not have made me the victim of a journalistic low blow, whether it was intentional or not.

Setting the Record Straight 

A clarification and elaboration of the circumstances are necessary, because a quote attributed to me in a local publication would have readers believe that I’m a harsh and arrogant critic of public schools, particularly local ones by implication, when almost nothing could be further from the truth.

As I noted in a recent post, it can be extremely gratifying to be quoted appropriately in the media.  But when one’s remarks are relayed in an inexact or incomplete way, or taken out of a full context, false impressions can occur.  Even if the impressions are inadvertent by all parties concerned, they can be extremely hurtful.  Consider my effort here as an attempt to tell the whole truth.

And I want to say near the outset that I’m not at all angry toward those who have formed these impressions and expressed them to me or anyone else, because under the circumstances, the conclusions they’ve drawn are understandable.  They are responding to what they think I meant by what I reportedly said.  To my mind, they are entitled to nothing but the truth  — not to mention something of an apology, and maybe not only from me.

everything is not what it seemsFact is, I am disappointed at the way my comments, which were made at a unique type of special event, were handled by the media — who by the way never had the courtesy to let me know they were present in that role.

It wouldn’t have mattered, though, because as I said, everything I reported that night was truthful.

Time is NOT on My Side

Believe me, I wish I didn’t have to take time to do any damage control over the matter, because of its handling.  Time is my most precious commodity these days. But I care too deeply for the educators I may have inadvertently upset not to do so, even if the number is relatively small.

I should also point out that the article quoting me might otherwise be excellent and the author outstanding.  However, that would mean having the actual time to read the whole thing, which I don’t.  So, all I’ve looked at is the small sample of the text that contained my “quotes.”  I figured that was the least I could do since my colleagues who saw them said they sounded nothing like me.

At any rate, my recollection of the remarks is somewhat different, and I’ll point that out below.  And just in case either the readers or the writer/editors of the article in question associate guilt with “protesting too much” here, I want to reiterate that I am merely telling the truth.   

So Help Me God…

The bottom line is that I believe the quote attributed to me stretches the license of professional journalism.  Normally I can live with some fallout over what I say in public, but this time around I just can’t let it go.  It has created a significant misimpression in the minds of some number of professionals I respect, and it needs to get righted immediately.

In short, the quotes make me seem like I’m throwing our local public schools under the bus, and some educators who work there are  mad at me for them.  I hope those who are offended will give me the benefit of the doubt when they hear the whole story.

First, I’d like them to know more about the  context where my remarks were made and to point out how a faulty inference can be drawn from my words.  (I also think that my record on public education is instructive, so I include it in bullet form after the post).

As the article states, my quote was taken from a promotional event, an open house, at a local Catholic high school.  I was speaking to the parents of prospective students, all eighth graders.  In my remarks that night I noted how earlier in the school year I had spoken at the kick-off event for teachers at this school, and I had never before seen such enthusiasm among a staff on the first day back after summer.  Interestingly, that precise sentiment didn’t make it into the article.

Anyway, I very briefly contrasted that experience with  a few others I had earlier in my career in some public school districts where many teachers were clearly not happy to be there.  My quote referenced them grabbing coffee on the first day back and looking like they were living out a nightmare, because they were so quiet.

I honestly don’t recall making the exact statements attributed to me.  To be perfectly honest, I think I said something sounding even more negative.  EIther way, on those speaking occasions, some of the teachers literally ignored me altogether, reading newspapers and even knitting.  Maybe I was THAT bad of a speaker, but I don’t think that was it.  In any case, those experiences left an indelible impression, but they are not an indictment of all public schools for goodness sakes.

set the record straightMOST IMPORTANTLY, HERE’S THE THING.  Those experiences occurred at least a decade and a half ago, in some wealthy suburban school districts in another state!

Frankly, I’d have made that clarification loud and clear if the media had identified itself.  And what also did not get stated in the article (which in fairness to the media didn’t occur to me to say at an event promoting Catholic schools)  is that the next most enthusiasm I have ever witnessed by teachers and principals on the first day back from summer occurred in the Milwaukee Public Schools!

In sum, what bothers me is that my intent was to provide a well-earned shout out for this Catholic school, not disrespect public schools, which is how the handling by the media portrayed it.  By my way of thinking, it was the the author who took the shot at our local public schools, not me.  This time around I got the proverbial bad rap.

Now What?

My hope would be to find the time to write directly to the magazine to express my concerns.  With my schedule, I’m not sure I can.   So instead, I chose to spend my time here, because I knew I could tell the whole story — accurately and completely — and because I knew to a certainty that it would be available to the public, not subject to the discretion of an editor.  Not only wouldn’t I be limited to 250 to 500 words, but now I can refer anyone with a concern about my quotes to this post with the hope that they’ll grasp the circumstances..

Sure, I was speaking on behalf of a non-public school.  But I have spoken on behalf of every manner of good school over the course of my career.  For me, it’s never about the delivery system, and always about how well students are being served.  That’s because, in the end, I am a child advocate.

And finally, for the record, I fiercely support every public school whose leaders and staff provide our children with the highest qualify education possible.


Also for the record:

  • I went to public school for 13 years, and am deeply indebted for the quality of education I received there.
  • I taught exclusively in public schools by my own choice.
  • I regularly defend public schools, administrators, and most of all, teachers in my writing and speaking.
  • I have voluntarily served public schools for over 30 years as a professor, department chair, and dean.
  • I often blog about the value of public education and and urban educators and cite examples of their excellence.
  • I’ve extended a standing offer to MPS to tell its many good stories on our blog and have told some of them myself.
  • I regularly attend and participate in events in support of public education.
  • I am regarded as a very strong advocate of public schools by those who actually know me.
  • I’m currently involved in a series of new initiatives that will benefit local public schools, their principals and their teachers.
  • I believe no city can thrive without a vibrant public school system.

In other words, anyone looking for a critic of public schools should be advised to look somewhere other than me.

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