Performing the Message


When teachers plan their lessons, they may not be aware of all the ways their teaching can be used to reinforce the message they are trying to deliver. Conversely, they may not be conscious of the ways their teaching and other decisions they make surrounding their teaching can undermine their lesson. Clinical teachers, who spend so much time with their students in so many settings, have unique ways to perform their messages in daily life, and must be especially aware of accidentally contradicting their teaching through other actions.

All teaching performs messages to students. This happens whether or not the teacher intends it and the messages being delivered do not always align with the content of the teacher’s lesson. For example, when a clinical teacher insists on organized paper files, but conducts supervision over her constantly messy desk, she sends a confusing and inconsistent message. By contrast, a supervisor who models the organization she preaches underscores the learning several fold.

To perform your message, align your teaching practice and other decisions you make surrounding your teaching with the content of your lesson. This includes the lesson itself, but also your teaching materials, teaching style and tone, the structure of your lesson plan, the activities you have selected, opportunities for reflection and engagement–essentially every facet of your classroom and lesson can be assessed in terms of its alignment with the message you want to deliver. Indeed, performing the message goes beyond even this. It includes all of the seemingly imperceptible moments surrounding everything one does as a teacher. To add another dimension of complexity to this, you can approach performing the message anticipatorily, concurrently, and retrospectively. For example, you can think about how well your plan for teaching aligns with an upcoming lesson plan, whether your teaching decisions bolster your message in the moment, and how effective your teaching choices supported a lesson you’ve already delivered in the past.

Here are some concrete examples, big and small, of attempts to perform the message properly:

  1. Consider a lesson on establishing ground rules. You might anticipate and hope that students will seek to advance communitarian values when proposing ground rules. In response, you might consider how your lesson could promote communitarian values such as commonality and collectivity. For example, you might consider whether all students will be given opportunities to propose rules and to discuss their merits or to voice dissent. You might also consider which format will best induce communal discussion. These choices will have the effect of reinforcing the values that ground rules seek to promote: consensus, mutuality, transparency, and belonging. Consider the opposite: a lesson aimed at establishing ground rules that is strictly unidirectional, where the teacher establishes all rules with no input from students. Such a lesson is likely to result in little to no buy-in by students, and might engender feelings of coercion, distrust, and alienation. Students would also be unlikely to cite ground rules as a common point of reference during subsequent discussions. These ground rules are far less likely to provide a structure for conversations of trust and risk in the classes to come.
  2. For years now, Jean has started every class and many presentations with a Thing of Beauty: five minutes, with the sole criteria that the offering be beautiful to the presenter. In her clinic seminars, a central reason for this tradition is revealed in the sixth week of the seminar, usually a class on Vicarious Traumatization, how to identify it and how to manage it. Since the critical role of maintaining a sense of hope and faith in the beauty of the world ends up being a capstone message of that class, Jean generally explains then why all the classes up until then, and until the end of the semester will begin with a thing of beauty, to help the community experience hope and beauty every time they meet.
  3. In Jean’s clinics, we often pondered the dilemmas of retrauma—that is, how to learn about our client’s traumatic legally relevant life experiences while minimizing wherever possible retraumatizing our client in the process. One ongoing practice in the Immigration Legal Services clinic working with survivors was to ask ourselves constantly how we could use the way we conducted the interview to, wherever possible, reverse the conditions of the client’s persecution. For instance, we could offer the client who was helpless to protect herself power in the lawyer client relationship – through directing our priorities and making choices about the process (e.g., when we will discuss difficult material). We could offer the client who fled her country in despair hope in the form of a well-prepared asylum application. We could offer the client who felt humiliated by maltreatment and detention unfailing respect in the lawyer-client relationship. We could be kind and patient with the client who experienced only cruelty and intolerance in police custody. We could do this even in tiny ways: interviewing clients who had been incarcerated in well-lit cheerful rooms; giving a client power in where she sits in the room, when to take breaks, or how tough a mooter should be in preparing her for an interview. In sum, we tried in every small and large way that we could to contradict abusive, humiliating messages from the past and establish our representation as a safe, respectful, caring context.
  4. In supervision, a teacher performs her message by interacting with students in ways that model supportive professional behavior. A student who experiences a nonjudemental approach from the teacher is more likely to understand its importance in working with a client. For example, is the teacher dominating and judgmental, assuming the student is the ignorant “other?” Or is she student-centered, counseling students with respect for their needs and goals, using inquiry to determine facts rather than making assumptions about the student? In performing this message, the teacher models approaches that students might adapt to client-centered lawyering.

The above examples also help us understand an important precept of performing the message: the medium is the message. In other words, the medium by which a lesson is delivered will indelibly mark the content of the message so as to shape the message itself. Revisiting the ground rules exercise, group discussion as a mode of reaching ground rules is a more fitting teaching strategy for performing the message of shared norms and group-designed conversation than talking at students and dictating the rules of conversation.

There are countless examples of how even the small decisions we make about our teaching reinforce or undermine the community norms of our students’ learning. This is true of both formal and informal teaching moments. For example, students will learn something by observing how clinical educators interact with opposing counsel in court or how they react to unanticipated circumstances in the course of litigation, policy work, or in the course of some other legal proceeding. In short, teachers should think carefully about how the many choices they make about their teaching either enhance or frustrate the lessons they seek to impart.

Teaching Students to Perform the Message

Performing the message is also not just restricted to teachers. Anyone can perform the message, including other individuals in the legal sector that students will interact with. Law students should also be taught and encouraged to perform the message themselves. If educators teach students about performing the message, real-world performances by others can serve as vital examples.

The following is a particularly instructive example from our legal work that we sometimes share with students: An Asylum Officer (“AO”) meeting with an Immigration Legal Services client told to the client that he was safe here and that he should tell his story without fear. Just as the client and his student-lawyer were sitting down in the AO’s office, the law student intern representing the client got her hand stuck in the adjustment mechanism of her rolling chair, drawing blood. The AO immediately stopped the interview, retrieved a first-aid kit, and tended to the student’s wound before continuing the interview. Later, the client recollected that it was the AO’s act of caring for the student that helped him believe the AO’s earlier words: that he would be safe here and could tell his story without fear. The AO, by caring for a hurt person, performed the message that this was a secure compassionate place and he could be trusted to receive the client’s story.

This story can also serve as the basis for a class exercise on teaching performing the message. After sharing the above example or some other illustrative anecdote, divide students into small groups of two or three and ask them to think about what message they wish they could impart to new client that the client would immediately and fully understand. Students may come up with messages like “Your story is safe with me,” or “Don’t be nervous,” or “You matter to me as a person beyond just your legal claim.” Next, ask students to brainstorm various ways to perform that message for the client. Hopefully, students will come up with a diversity of examples, such as some verbal version of the message, a particular tone of voice, or a gesture such as smiling. Other possible responses might include offering the client some water, walking beside the client rather than in front of them when leading them to a meeting room, asking about the client’s life unrelated to the case, giving the client power in small and large decisions in her case, or asking about the client’s thoughts about something on which the client may have greater knowledge or experience. These answers are likely to effectively communicate messages of safety, calm, and recognition to the client.

Using the Habits to Perform the Message Well

It is important to remember that performing the message is a continuously ongoing exercise and no person can perform the message perfectly at all times. It is a challenging task that requires us to live our values. The Habits can be useful in taking on this task by making it more manageable and achievable. For example, Habit One, can be used to understand how similarities and differences between you and your audience might influence your performance and its interpretation. This insight could be useful to students in the exercise described above as students brainstorm ways to perform their message. Habit Four can be used to ensure that performances that go awry can be identified and corrected. Habit Five can help a teacher reflect nonjudgmentally on her performances and come back from badly performed messages with a renewed commitment to perform a different message. Using the Habits when performing the message encourages us and our students to approach cross-cultural work with a growth mindset. We can all improve our interactions over time; the reflection encouraged by the Habits promote success and consistency over time.


A clinical educator teaches everywhere she interacts with her students, so in each interaction there is a challenge and an opportunity to perform the message. Performing the message means to embody a teacher’s lesson by living it. As clinical teachers, we can and should think about how we can perform the message more effectively so that it enhances what we say to students and others. Our audience will be in a better position to receive the message we intend to deliver if we have thought about the choices we can make to model what we are saying. The opportunity to do this is in all of our interactions, including those beyond formal teaching settings.

Students should also be invited to think about how they can perform the message for their clients and others in the legal system. They should also be encouraged to identify good performances as they work in the field. A teacher can assist students by identifying others who perform messages that are consistent with the professional and personal values that the teacher and students espouse.

Performing the message is a lifelong process much like the Habits— by paying attention to this process, teachers continuously refine their teaching.

(With thanks to Adrian Gonzalez and Alden Pinkham for their contributions to drafting this page.)