-by Krista Taylor
The day before winter break this year, I found myself pacing back and forth in the hallway outside of Sylvia’s classroom just before first bell, trying to muster up the courage to go in. I didn’t do it.
I returned to that same spot during my planning bell. This time I managed to get through the classroom door, but wound up just having some silly conversation about something random, and then exiting.
I tried again at lunch thinking surely that the third time would be the charm. I had no greater success.
The night before, I had resolved to have a Difficult Conversation. (see Jack’s post on this topic linked here)
A few days earlier I had popped into Sylvia’s classroom to ask a question, but in the brief time I was there, I had observed students in this class violating several of our basic Building-Wide Expectations. When I corrected them, they told me that they were allowed to do these things in this class.
It bothered me. Not because the students’ behavior was particularly disruptive. It wasn’t. (The rule-breaking in question was about dress code, headphones, and the food and drink policy.) It bothered me because our Building-Wide Expectations are supposed to be just that, “Building-Wide;” they are supposed to be “What We Do Here.”
It would have been easy to just ignore it. Ignoring it was especially tempting because Sylvia was someone who had regularly supported me, helped me out on many occasions, and someone I consider a friend. I wanted to choose what was easy.
Besides, correcting a fellow teacher isn’t even my job, is it? Isn’t that the work of an administrator? Co-workers are under no obligation to hold each other accountable to expectations. Right . . .
This was the argument I had tried to hide behind for days, but it just wasn’t sitting properly with me. How was I helping things by being privately irritated by the actions of someone I like and respect? How was I helping things by not addressing my concerns directly? By failing to do so, I was potentially setting my colleague up for being corrected by an administrator – how was that helpful to her?
Avoiding the Difficult Conversation certainly felt better for me, and likely for Sylvia as well, but was it really better? Was I really being supportive by not saying anything? Was I really being a friend? Was I advocating for the needs of students? Was I really doing my job? Ultimately I decided that I was not, because when it comes right down to it, I do believe that it’s the job of co-workers to hold each other accountable. I believe this, in part, because it is a component of what we agreed as a staff to do for one another back in August of 2013 when, together, we wrote our Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement.
Developing the Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement
Each year, Gamble holds a two-day staff retreat during the summer. The retreat is a combination of professional development and team-building activities. Participation is purely voluntary and unpaid, yet almost our entire faculty attends. This is, in part, because each year, the retreat is led by Gamble staff and is structured around the specific needs of our building. However, I believe that the primary reason for the high-level of attendance is the tremendous commitment of our faculty to honing their craft and to developing our program.
At our retreat in 2013, we had to address the elephant in the room.
The 2012-2013 school year had been challenging. We were preparing for a significant expansion in our junior high – this meant that our existing junior high teams were being disbanded and reformed as new teams. Our ninth and tenth grade team was experiencing partial staff turn-over, and our high school program as a whole was exploring new ways to increase inclusion of students with disabilities. Add to all that the challenges of moving our entire program from one building to another across town, and it is little wonder that we were experiencing stress on a building-wide level. On virtually every team, teachers were angry with one-another. It felt almost like a contagion. Arguments were popping up in committee meetings. Regular “venting” sessions were happening behind closed doors. It didn’t feel good. Anxiety was high. Tempers were short. Frustration was increasing. We were talking about each other rather than to each other, and you could have cut the tension with a knife. Summer couldn’t come soon enough.
As a team-based school, there is very little that is ever done at Gamble by anyone operating in isolation, and this makes us heavily interdependent with one another. Team functionality is critical to our success and well-being as an institution. Part of the natural cycle of teaming is “Storming” – a period of time when conflict and discord emerges within groups. This is not a problem per se – conflict is often what moves us forward, and it can be a powerful part of the growth process. However, we were being profoundly impacted by the storming we were experiencing, and we had become a bit stuck. We needed help navigating through this storming phase.
The summer staff retreat seemed to be the right time and place to talk about our resident pachyderm. As a member of the retreat planning committee, I asked Jack to allow me to lead our staff through a problem-solving process. To this day, I have no idea why he trusted me enough to let me do this.
Once I had the go-ahead, I had to figure out how to guide our entire faculty through one giant, whole-group Difficult Conversation. There was no existing blueprint for this.
After significant reflection, I developed a plan that ensured each of the following:
- Focus on solutions, not problems: Getting bogged down in identifying problems would only serve to distance us from one another and keep us focused on the negative.
- Engage all participants in order to enhance buy-in: If we want people to implement change, they must believe in what they are being asked to do; this is easiest when they have had the opportunity to give input.
- Find a path to consensus: In some situations, making decisions by majority vote is appropriate, but something like this requires that everyone is on board.
- Provide enough time to allow for a thorough process: It is not helpful, and can be detrimental, to open up a sensitive topic without the resources of time and energy to see the conversation through to resolution.
- Generate something substantive: It is not enough just to come up with good ideas; there must be some kind of visual repository or tangible product that is developed from those ideas.
Here is the specific step-by-step process we used to help extricate ourselves from the whole-building storming we were experiencing.
Step 1.) Name the elephant. Like most schools, we have all kinds of rules and processes for helping students understand how to interact with one another, but we had nothing that guided our adults. This meant that when we were under stress, we had no protocols to turn to for assistance. We needed to create expectations for ourselves. The first step was simply to identify this as a need and as something that we would all benefit from developing.
Step 2.) Brainstorm. Each participant was asked to record on notecards three explicit actions or behaviors that they believed they needed or wanted from their colleagues. The provided prompt was, “What do you most want/need from your colleagues?” The specific process directions were to record up to 3 specific actions or behaviors, phrased positively, that each individual wanted from their colleagues. Each suggestion was to be written on a separate on a separate index card to allow for sorting in the next step.
Step 3.) Identify commonalities. All of the index cards were then collected, shuffled, and redistributed to small groups. Each group went through their stack of cards identifying responses that were similar, and determining the weight of each category based on the number of comments on that topic. This served several purposes. It gave participants the opportunity to anonymously see each other’s responses. It allowed common threads to begin to emerge. And, most importantly, it got everyone engaged in working collectively on the task.
Step 4.) Consolidate and find common language. Each group reported out and those things that had been identified as important to the majority of people became apparent based on the number of responses. We worked to ensure that individual voices were heard and honored, while still maintaining the value of seeking consensus from the group. We debated word choice. We argued about the importance of specific components. We touched on old, long-buried arguments, and, at times, we stepped on one another’s feelings. This part of the process felt much like tiptoeing through a minefield.
There was angry debate over the importance of including a statement about cultural differences. Several staff members felt that it was critical to have this explicitly stated, while others believed that it was implied in the components we had already agreed upon and was an unnecessary addition. This argument was indicative of the struggles we were experiencing. Of course a statement on cultural awareness was an appropriate thing to include in our agreement. With hindsight, I can’t believe that we were arguing over such a thing. It seems utterly ridiculous now, but at the time it was hotly contested.
As the facilitator, it was challenging to allow the discomfort to be felt and to use it as a catalyst, while not becoming side-tracked from the task, or allowing the work to devolve into a battle between competing agendas. I had to listen hard, carefully re-state, negotiate personalities and old conflicts, and keep pushing toward the goal of establishing shared expectations.
Step 5.) Create a tangible product. Somehow, we made it through – we clarified, we compromised, and we came up with the following statement to identify what was most critical to establishing and sustaining beneficial interactions with one another.
“Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement for working collaboratively and supporting each other. We will utilize effective communication, which is grounded in respectful and professional conversations. We will strive for excellence while maintaining positive interactions and attitudes and providing each other with instructional support. We will have empathy for each other, and be open to seeing and celebrating each other’s unique and different perspectives — including cultural ones. We will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions.”
Implementation: So we have a Staff Agreement, now what?
Developing our Staff Agreement was the easy part. Using it to actually guide how we interact is much harder.
This year, on that day before winter break, I never did get brave enough to start the discussion with Sylvia in person. I regret that. Instead I retreated to the safety of electronic communication, and I sent this.
I feel incredibly uncomfortable about having this difficult conversation. In fact, I have lurked outside your classroom on 3 different occasions today just trying to get up the courage to address you in person, but I can’t do it.
Here is my concern. When I was in your classroom earlier this week, I saw several things, which are in violation of our school policies — hats, headphones, food that wasn’t a fruit or vegetable. When I redirected your students, they indicated that this is something that is allowable in your classroom. Can you help me to understand? Even though you and I don’t teach the same students, it’s really hard and frustrating to uphold the expectations in my classroom when others don’t do the same because it sends a message that the expectations really aren’t that important.
My intention is not to come across as hyper-critical, but rather to seek understanding and solutions. Please know that I stand on no pedestal here. My classroom is not a perfect place; we are all “works in progress.” I express my concerns to you based on the understanding that part of each of our jobs here is to push each other to get better at what we do.
I love working with you, and I love the ways you provide me with assistance and support. I just didn’t feel like I could let this concern go un-discussed, and I apologize for not having the courage to do so in person.
I hope you have a wonderful break, and I look forward to seeing you next semester.
This was what I received in response:
Thank you for your candor, and you are always welcomed and invited to share your opinions and concerns with me. I respect you and your opinions perhaps more than anyone else at this school.
Let me address your concerns although it really is just a matter of my shortcomings.
I do not allow headphones in my class, at least not normally. On the day you were here, before your arrival, a student had asked if they could listen to headphones that day, and I said “Yes.” Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I felt like on that particular day it was okay for them to carve out some space for themselves to review.
As far as hats go, the problem is that I generally do not notice them. It is like someone’s shoes, or socks, or belt–they just don’t seem to register in my active attention. When I do notice them, I ask them to be removed.
Food is another one I struggle with. Since Cincinnati has a 53% teen poverty rate (the second highest in the United States), I feel like I never know if a student has eaten on any given day. Even if the school provides them with breakfast and lunch, a student may not have eaten enough calories in a 24-hour period. Because of these things, I am always hesitant as to what I should do.
Rest assured I appreciate your input. Out of the 20 emails that were unopened when I logged into my Inbox, yours was the first I read. I am taking your concerns to heart.
This wasn’t an easy exchange – they’re called “difficult conversations” for a reason. I felt a lingering sense of awkwardness in this relationship for months afterward, but it was an honest awkwardness. There was no hostile residue of unspoken concerns, nor was there any venting to others. (We all know what that sounds like, “You’ll never believe what I saw going on in so-and-so’s classroom!”) Ultimately, I may never know whether or not the issues were resolved, but that matters less to me than knowing that I directly expressed my concerns. Was it my job to address this? Some would say no. I don’t think it’s always clear, but I find myself guided by what Jack says about things like this: “We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.”
That’s the goal, of course, to get better at what we do. Sometimes helping each other to do this feels good. Sometimes it doesn’t. The staff agreement provides guidance regarding how it is we’re supposed to “empower each other to help us get better at what we do;” it gives us parameters to fall back on when we forget what it is we are supposed to do for one another.
The Staff Agreement reminds us that . . .
- We need to talk to each other, not about each other
- Rather than allowing colleagues to vent to us, we need to gently prompt them to address their concerns directly
- Much of the time when feelings are hurt, it isn’t intentional
- Our differences make us stronger, and better able to do our jobs
- We have a responsibility to support each other and to maintain high expectations
- When we focus on the positive, it improves the environment for each of us
We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.
These things are not easy to do. But they are the foundation of institutional integrity.