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Jerry Buelter: Failure to communicate

Jerry Buelter
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” — Cool Hand Luke

I doubt there are many lines recited more often than this one from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” And yet, how often are our issues with one another nothing more than a “failure to communicate?”

Is it because we choose not to listen to one another? Or is it because we lack clarity in our auditory or visual presentations?



As a former coach, a lack of communication was apparent by the actions taken by my team. I have little doubt they heard me describe what I wanted them to do, but as to whether or not they listened to me is another story altogether. There is, however, no doubt that I was not as clear as I should have been all the time. Not having your team on the same page often led to lost yards or points and could result in defeat.

As a teacher, if my instructions were more vague than I would have liked, students had a greater chance of missing out on important material. More than once I found that it was I who lacked clarity in my presentation. In most cases, my ability to communicate clearly was the key component in the success of my students and players.



In time, I got better. I made sure to give visual as well as oral directions. I might have my students demonstrate they knew the directions, sometimes going over a problem or walking through a play with them.

As serious as breakdowns with communication can be, oftentimes the failure to communicate can become humorous or work in your favor.

For example, I was coaching basketball from the sideline, and we were holding a slight lead as the clock was running down. My point guard happened to be close to our bench, and I called out to her to call a timeout. Behind her back, she flashed me three fingers, thinking that I wanted her to take a 3-point shot. I stood up and shouted, “Mitch! Mitch!” Without hesitation she received the pass and fired up a three. Swish! I looked like a genius.

A while back, my wife and I were visiting a friend. She teaches elementary school in the Denver area. She told us a story about the trouble she was having with a student of hers who continued to disrupt the class. A meeting was set up with mother and child to see if they could come to a solution regarding his misbehavior. Our friend came up with the idea that if the boy’s behavior was beginning to cause a distraction, she would signal him by tugging her earlobe (Carol Burnett style). In turn, he could do the same thing to let the teacher know he was losing focus and might need a break.

Mom thought this could be a viable solution and readily agreed. The student, however, became sullen and started to cry. Both mom and teacher were perplexed as to what had come over her son. When asked why the solution was unacceptable he stated, “Well, how am I supposed to reach Mrs. G’s ear so I can tug on it?” A simple failure to communicate.

My wife teaches math, and as we all know, math teachers expect students to show their work. As was often her practice, she would go over the proper way to receive full credit for answers. On this particular day, directions were given “Do problems 1-5, then leave room for problems 6 and 7 and do problems 8-10.”

Her students got right to work. After a few minutes, a couple of her students rose from their desks and went out to the hallway. Soon others followed. They would leave the room only to reenter a few moments later. What are they doing? she thought to herself. She went out to the hall and asked, “What are you guys doing?”

One of her students responded with a quizzical look, “Well, ‘Leave room for questions 6 and 7.’” Another failure to communicate.

As a driving instructor, I remember asking my student driver to take a right, and she did. What I meant to say was to take a right at the stop sign. Fortunately, we ended up in a vacant lot. Major failure.

Up to now I have only mentioned times when I and others may not have been as clear as they should when communicating with others. At the beginning of my column, I mentioned that sometimes we fail to communicate because we don’t listen.

Communicating goes both ways. Listening may be the greatest gift we give to one another. It allows us to be empathetic. It helps build relationships. It helps us build on our own beliefs. It speaks to a larger purpose by helping us become more human and more humane.

This leads us to an important point. If for any reason you are unclear as to any information coming from your school, please do not hesitate to ask for clarification. When it comes to your child’s education, the last thing you need is a failure to communicate.

Jerry Buelter taught and coached at Steamboat Springs High School for 20 years and served as an assistant principal and principal at Steamboat Springs Middle School for 17 years.


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