From the innovativeEd mailbag: Flummoxed in Flannery

From the innovativeEd mailbag: a reader looks for ways to keep pathways of conversation open with their colleagues when it comes to talking about difficult topics. Meet “Flummoxed in Flannery”.

“Dear InnovativeEd,

With everything that’s been going on lately, simple conversations with coworkers have turned into a minefield of hurt feelings, recriminations and misunderstandings. So many of our conversations that should be about teaming and pedagogy wind up being derailed by political concerns and debates about our personal values. We should be spending time working out plans for students’ best learning interests, but instead we struggle to stay civil.

I adore my teaching team, and I’m worried this patch of difficulties will do long-term damage to our ability to reach students. Am I worrying without cause? Is this happening to everyone? What are some ways I can have healthy, respectful conversations with the other adults in my building? Help!

Sincerely,
Flummoxed in Flannery”

 

Dear Flummoxed in Flannery,

You have described such an important dilemma! Thank you for this question. I’m so glad that you raise this issue, because you are right to be concerned. The interactions of adults in a school building can indeed be felt and perceived by students. What’s more, the adults in the school can act as role models for the students as they strive to engage in healthy and respectful conversations.

That’s why I’d like to suggest a kind of two-pronged approach to address your dilemma.

First, I’d suggest that your staff and school colleagues invest some time into setting norms or community agreements.

If you have existing norms, I’d suggest that you revisit them in a formal discussion and through a valid process. Making space to engage together in creating norms that foster healthy and respectful dialogue is so important.

I’ll share that my own team has carefully developed a set or norms that guide our work and our meetings. Here are my team’s community agreements.

Welcome our fully human selves

  • Connect, build relationships and community
  • Bring our whole selves and our values to the work
  • Express gratitude
  • Communicate and attend to negative impact
Be present 

  • Be aware of how you’re showing up for yourself and your colleagues
  • Hold ourselves and each other accountable to our agreements
Seek and offer feedback

  • Bring our dilemmas and work to the table
  • Be clear about the feedback you are seeking, give feedback focused on the request
  • Embrace challenging feedback
Value mistakes, struggles, and failures as opportunities for learning and growth

  • Celebrate risk taking
  • Make space for vulnerability
Strive for clarity

  • Ask if you don’t understand
  • State expectations
  • Surface assumptions
  • No is not an invitation to negotiate
Take space, make space, hold space

  • Notice power dynamics in the room, share power, and empower others
  • Seek to hear all voices

 

Most important is that those norms are maintained and used as a group.

Norms should not just sit on a document or on a piece of chart paper.

At the start of every meeting for my team, we take a moment to read through the norms and each person chooses one to focus on for the time. Sometimes we invite all participants to set an intention from one of the norms and place it in the chat feature of our Zoom. You can also do that in person or write it individually on paper.

Each of these strategies helps agreements live and breathe as they should. When we do this work, they are likely to guide adult behaviors and interactions.

Additionally, dear Flummoxed, you may find that you approach political issues and social justice matters, well… differently than your colleagues.

I’ve commonly seen that while some educators feel very comfortable discussing and weighing in on emotional topics, other educators choose to avoid them completely.

My second recommendation, therefore, is to create a space for the educators in your building to have difficult conversations about race and inequity.

Racial disparities and oppression in our country have absolutely infiltrated every part of our lives — including school. Teachers and educators must engage in the work of becoming educators for social justice, no matter how each individual is approaching and entering the work.

For example, you might choose to do a book reading together as a faculty and staff.

In one of my professional team spaces, we have read articles such as How to Be an Antiracist Educator by Dena Simmons  and then used a protocol to engage in discussion.

Additionally, you might choose to take a course together.

Taking a course with your team like “Let’s Practice Talking to our Children About Race” offered from Courageous Conversation Academy would provide a space with support for you and your colleagues.

Whatever you choose to design, you will need to carefully establish some norms and agreements.

The folks at Courageous Conversation have created four agreements for Courageous Conversations with this very intention.

flummoxed

And you might choose to review these as a school or team and adopt these agreements before engaging in any of these scenarios.

I will also share these general tips and guidelines that you can share and use with your school faculty and team. Some of these I gathered from this workshop by Kathy Cadwell and her Harwood students in March. She and her students shared a wealth of resources.

One of my favorites is this Guide to Respectful Conversations. It seems to originate from We Repair the World, and it contains some important suggestions. I find myself returning to some of them like, “Use I Statements” and speaking from my own experience when I find myself in difficult conversations.

Finally, engaging in civil and respectful conversations with colleagues takes work, and I admire your honest plea for help.

In an often stressful and chaotic world, healthy and successful adult dialogue is so very important, especially in our schools. We want to model for our students that adults can talk about hard things, and it’s essential for a thriving democratic society. I hope these suggestions make a difference in your school interactions.

Thanks for writing, Flummoxed.

Yours in courage,

innovative Ed

Author

Rachel Mark

Rachel Mark joins the Tarrant Institute as a Professional Development Coordinator in the southern part of Vermont. Prior to working with TIIE, Rachel was a middle school literacy and social studies teacher at Tarrant partner school Manchester Elementary-Middle. As a teacher, Rachel loved exploring new content and new methods with inquisitive young adolescents. She thinks middle schools are the most dynamic learning centers in the state. Rachel is passionate about supporting teachers and helping them overcome obstacles; it’s her mission to break down the barriers that teachers face in implementing change. She is interested in student reflection and portfolio based assessment, inquiry and project-based learning When she's not reading, researching and supporting teachers, Rachel loves to play. She balances her life shuttling three busy kids around by getting sweaty and zen - yoga, exercise, and being outdoors are how she recharges her metaphorical batteries.

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