Sunday, September 22, 2013

Critical Conversations #SAVMP

This week's prompts for our #SAVMP blogging were questions about encouraging Critical Conversations.

  • How do we create a culture where "pushback" is encouraged?
  • How do we know when to stick with the minority over the majority?
  • How do you create a team that will give you honest feedback?

It put me in mind of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Certainly, Lincoln created a team where group think was never going to be a problem! At schools, I suspect leadership teams are not put together the way that Lincoln's cabinet was. Certainly at Westtown, leadership positions were not awarded as favors to political allies (or rivals), as rewards for roles played in one's election or for one's ability to hold a difficult border state in the Union. Indeed, at schools leadership teams are constructed one hire at a time and evolve with each new hire.

For me, these three SAVMP questions of the week turn me back upon myself and my own aversion to providing difficult feedback, to having difficult conversations with colleagues. When I first stepped into my new role, I knew this would be my greatest challenge. I participated in our school's peer coaching program and asked for a specific colleague as coach with the intention of leaning into this discomfort. Over the school year my coach and I worked through Difficult Conversations. He helped me explore the reasons for my dis-ease and we role played several different sorts of conversations. We also kept a log of the conversations I was having with colleagues and how they fell on a continuum from easy to difficult and challenging. What I found was that I need to always keep four things in mind when approaching any conversation I anticipate might be difficult: assume the best from the person I am speaking with, remember that the needs of our students come first, and that the well-being of our school comes second only to that of our students. Finally, and not least, never forget there is a person sitting across from me in this conversation. Not surprisingly, I generally have to remind myself of these givens before I have a difficult conversation. 

But this isn't what the original prompt was about, Creating a culture for promoting critical conversations is  about both leadership teams and faculty teams; about encouraging the realization that truth can come from any corner of the room and that not all truth is easy or convenient. In debriefing our relatively new 360 faculty evaluation process, teachers evaluated in the second year of the program reported that they had felt uncomfortable receiving difficult feedback and recommendations for growth from a peer. They had all enjoyed being commended by peers and having their successes celebrated. But they felt the more challenging recommendations for growth should be handled by a supervisor.  I believe the true power in this process is that the message is delivered by a peer. I believe that we all need to become if not comfortable at the very least adept at offering and receiving the criticism of our peers as well as their commendations. I know I am in the minority in this position (though it is shared by my evaluation clerks and Head of School). Needless to say, the peer evaluation teams will continue to give recommendations for growth that will sometimes be challenging.  In this way, I believe that teachers create a culture in which they both support and challenge each other to be excellent educators. I think an extension of this process will be a willingness to engage critically with any discussion before us and a willingness to give honest feedback. If we learn to do this with peers, we will be better able to do it with grade, division, and school wide initiatives. This is a learning edge for all of us, most especially me. 

1 comment:

  1. I love your 4th point: to remember that whomever is sitting across from you/me/us is a person. Something that took a long time for me to learn but you put it succinctly. Thanks Margaret