What’s Your Story?

-by Jack M. Jose

“A hundred years later, their spirit lives on,” claims the commercial for the Dodge Motor Company. In one action-packed minute we see a fast-paced parade of evolving Dodge cars engaged in a road race between the competitive Dodge brothers, “pushing each other like only a brother can.” We are left with a sense of striving to perform better, and go faster.

A Nike commercial aired during the 2016 Olympics shows transgender Olympic athlete Chris Mosier training over time. He gets asked multiple questions along the lines of “How did you know you would be strong enough to compete against men? How did you know that the team would accept you?” He responds to each, “I didn’t.” Finally he is asked, “Didn’t you ever want to give up?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t.”

Chris Mosier Nike Ad
Chris Mosier’s tenacity communicates a core value at Nike. “I didn’t quit.”

The commercials are thrilling, inspiring even. Stories are a powerful way to convey a feeling or a central tenet of a company, a brand, or even a school or community. Stories can evoke emotions and create a sense of familiarity and loyalty in a way that almost nothing else can. Stories promote achievement, action for a cause, and loyalty.

What is your institution’s story?

Who founded it? Why does it carry this name? What is important to you? What memorable people made their mark? Who do you hope to inspire?

And, most importantly, what qualities do you hope to instill in the people who work there and the people you serve?

We tell stories about our workplace all the time, but which stories are those? Unfortunately, all too often, we tell the stories of someone trying to skirt the rules to their own benefit, an act of vandalism, or thoughtlessness on the part of a co-worker. We tell “war stories” to demonstrate that we are seasoned veterans, and in part to help ourselves understand the truly unusual and confusing things that happen in our day. It makes sense on an individual level, but it raises important questions about the health of your institution.

If someone was listening to our stories, and had only our words to form their opinion, what would they think about our school? If those negative incidents are the only stories we tell, what does that reveal about us? What are our priorities? What are our values?

You see, you are already telling the story of your institution every day. So why not construct it the way you want it to be told?

At the start of each year at Gamble Montessori, we tell our story. In a nod to the key Montessori lessons, we call it the Gamble Great Lesson. You can see a short version of it, edited for the general public and to fit a predetermined theme, here. We got the idea to tell our story from Brian Cundiff, the Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s Pizzeria. We had approached him for advice on developing a system for training and supporting teachers who were new to the school. His advice formed a large part of our Teacher:Teacher mentoring program. But he started the meeting by telling us about his company’s founder, Cincinnati legend Buddy LaRosa. Buddy had one goal, Brian told us at the end, he wanted to make the customer smile. That way you knew you had made them happy.

As he explained the LaRosa’s training program to us, Brian kept returning to the story. The program starts with the story, and a related mission statement is posted in a prominent place at every store. Their customer service survey asks, “Did we make you smile?”

We knew we had to tell our story the same way. And we had to tell it repeatedly. LaRosa’s told the story over and over, in different formats. Companies brand theirs onto clothing, signs around the workplace, and advertising. Our friend Marta Donahoe, co-founder of our sister school Clark Montessori and CMStep (an international Montessori teacher training program), explained that the reason you tell a story like this over and over is because “you want them to feel it in their bones.” We understand what she means. The story should become part of who your employees are, and they should be able to embody the values of your institution.

Mentoring LaRosas

Our story is powerful. Not because I am an evocative writer, but because we tell stories of the strength and generosity of our students, and how we have humbly learned from them. It is not uncommon for teachers to cry when they hear it. (It’s not all that unusual for me to cry when I tell it.) Teachers have told me it helps them get through hard days, because they remember the bigger picture of what we are doing. Teachers from other schools approach to say how inspirational the story is, eager to return and tell their own. Our story has garnered a lot of attention in our field, and we have presented to groups how we created it. Krista and I have taught other educators how to tell their story.

The process of writing your story can be uncomfortable, but is not especially difficult.

You can do assignment #1 now, at your computer: Write about a time in your school or in your classroom when a child met or exceeded your expectations for being their best self. This could include an act of kindness, an act of social bravery, a moment of self-discovery a moment of learning, or something else.

Before you start (unless it’s too late, in which case you don’t need to hear this!): Be Brave. Be open to sharing and be open to revising your ideas until you get it right. Then find a friend, or a stranger, and share your stories with them. (We use shoulder partners in our presentation.) Watch their reactions. Ask them for their feedback. Or share them with a co-worker who knows the story. Often a person familiar with the details can tell you the part of the event that resonated with them, remember important details you left out, or point out the parts that you, the storyteller, tell with clear passion. Then tweak the story to emphasize these pieces.

You can do this now, if you have someone nearby, or keep reading and do it later.

You see, you are already telling the story of your institution every day. So why not construct it the way you want it to be told?

Starting from a story is a natural way to go about it, but you can also start from the traits you want to emphasize at your school and work backwards from there. Here is a list of possible traits to prompt your imagination:

 

Kindness Social bravery Leadership
Self-discovery Learning Changing perspective
Grace Courtesy Encouraging others
Patience Responsibility Loyalty
Forgiveness Honesty Compassion
Humility Perseverance Creativity

Of course there are others. You can find them in your school’s motto or vision and mission statements, or the core values if you have those.

Assignment #2: Working from those identified values, brainstorm stories involving your students and staff that show those traits. Then choose one and tell the long version with the extra details that help make it real. You are telling a true story, and you want them to inhabit the moment.

Some people find it easier to work in this direction, from the concepts to the stories rather than starting from the stories and identifying the values.

Gamble’s Great Lesson, which you can read here, features stories about students who exemplify grace and courtesy, who look out for each other, and who accomplished academic feats. It pays homage to the families and teachers who started the school, which is important to us. It shows how we can choose to see every event in a positive light, and that we value grit and inclusivity, and that we –time and again – rise to a challenge. Almost none of these virtues are named in the lesson. Instead they are revealed in the stories we choose to tell. This is the power of a well-chosen story – it conveys a notion far more powerfully than a vision statement or a list of core values.

Once you have assembled your stories, it makes sense to connect them with an overarching narrative or metaphor, and/or place them on a timeline. Our story does a bit of both, talking about the school as if it is a developing child, and using a timeline, which complements the idea of a child growing over time. This is a helpful structure for us, because we have been in existence a short time. I can imagine someone at an older school telling a story structured in sections based on the relevant virtue exhibited, with brief vignettes told rapidly to build a sense of the consistency of the virtues over time.

What qualities do you hope to instill in the people who work there and the people you serve?

When your Great Lesson is finished, and you have worked it out with one or more trusted editors, you must tell the story. You must set aside time, in a formal way, to sit the group down and tell them the story. This “real” telling of the story, as opposed to the video version linked in the opening paragraphs above, should include artifacts. These can be almost anything from professional pictures to trinkets from important events. Ours includes professional graduation pictures of a couple students we mention, a glamour shot of the school, a piece of spiritwear, and a grainy cell phone picture of the senior night basketball game in 2012. Yours is limited to what is easy to display as you tell the story. I sit on the floor in front of my staff, but yours doesn’t have to be. However, the telling must be formal. Tell it to your students. Tell it to your teammates. Tell it to the employees. Tell it to your advertisers. Just tell it. Regularly. We tell it at the start of each school year. Then improve it, add to it, extend it, but keep it the same at its core.

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In every institution there are stories we tell repeatedly. We have done this from the dawn of language. These span from Homeric tales of bravery told around a campfire, to slick advertisements aired during the Super Bowl. Our stories reveal the soul of the society and institutions that created them. The ones we tell over and over are the most important stories. Thursday afternoon I told it to our Teacher:Teacher Mentoring group. Tuesday before that I told it to my entire staff at our annual staff retreat. Sunday night before that I told it to a meeting of our mentors. After telling it to my staff, I invite my staff to tell it to our students.

Tell yours again and again, until your people can feel it in their bones. That is, tell it until everyone deeply understands the values it imparts; then keep telling it because it brings comfort and courage.

We would love to hear your Great Lesson. Send it to us. Do you want feedback on where to start? Just ask.

Gamble’s Mentoring Program: Teacher to Teacher

-by Krista Taylor

On the first day of school in a new building, I got called into the principal’s office.

I was mortified. This had never happened to me before in all of my years in the classroom – not as a student, and certainly not as a teacher. But on the first day of school in my first year of teaching at Gamble, Jack stopped into my classroom and said, “Ms. Taylor, can you please come see me before you leave today?” Whoa boy, nothing like getting the blood pumping just a little bit faster on an already anxiety-ridden first-day! With trepidation I went down to the office after dismissal. Jack’s first words to me were, “You came from a top-down school, didn’t you?”

“Ummmm . . . I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You came from a school where administration did the disciplining, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Gamble is a team-based school. You sent Denice down to the office today, but generally that kind of situation would be handled by the team.”

I left his office not much clearer than I had been when I entered. I now knew I shouldn’t have sent Denice there; however, I remained clueless about what I should have done when a student wasn’t following directions, walked out of the classroom, and refused to return when told to do so repeatedly. And I was also left wondering what exactly a “team-based school” was.

I seemed to keep embarrassing myself like this. For weeks, I didn’t know that I could enter the building directly from the back parking lot rather than walking all the way around. The first morning after someone kindly informed me of this, I found myself looking at the many unmarked doors at the back of the building trying to determine which was the one I needed. One of them was propped slightly open – surely that must be it. I confidently proceeded, and that was how I inadvertently walked directly into the boys’ locker room. Thankfully, no one was in there at that time. I rapidly retraced my steps praying that no one would see me.

About a month into the school year, the secretary stopped me and said, “You haven’t been signing in. You’re supposed to sign in every day.” Oops. Once again, no one had told me.

These were simple things that a building tour and a daily procedures explanation would have covered, but it was no one’s job to do this for me, and I simply didn’t think to ask.

So how do we help people who are new to our building acclimate to both the simple things – we have to sign in every day – and the more complicated ones – here’s how we handle discipline in our building? Not to mention the basics like which door to use!

My blunders led me to strongly advocate for a Teacher Mentoring program at Gamble. It wasn’t that the staff at Gamble wasn’t helpful – they were happy to answer any questions I had. It was just that I didn’t know what questions I needed to be asking, and there was no one explicitly tasked with showing me the ropes.

I wanted to create a mentoring process that would do three things.

  • provide guidance on the basic pieces of working in the building
  • assist with understanding the processes used for handling a variety of situations
  • include a deep sharing of the school culture.

Essentially, our mentoring program would cover all the layers of What We Do Here.  It would also provide a consistent person that a new employee could comfortably turn to who could patiently provide answers and guidance as often as necessary.

It took me awhile to convince Jack of the importance of creating something like this, and once I did, his first question was, “Well, how do we do that?”

“Ummmmm . . . I’m not really sure. New staff need to understand the basics, as well as all the things that happen during the year, but it also has to be more than that; they have to know who Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 3.42.50 PMwe are – at our heart.”

Neither one of us was entirely certain how to put all that together into a workable structure.

Fortuitously, that summer, Jack was on jury duty, and one of his fellow jurors happened to be Brian Cundiff, Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s (a local pizza chain). Jack managed to get us a meeting with him to discuss their “Onboarding” process.

LaRosa’s makes pizza. We educate children. What could we possibly learn from them?

As it turns out, we learned a tremendous amount. LaRosa’s had developed a thoughtful process for ensuring that every employee understood what the company was about.

A number of statements stood out to me during that meeting.

  • The employer has a responsibility to grow team members
  • You need to train every person in your system in order to ensure maintenance of the culture you are trying to establish
  • The best teachers are your peers
  • In order to articulate what needs to be communicated about your culture, look back at your vision statement and be a storyteller

Their program included all three of the layers we had identified as important for teaching “What We Do Here.”

An overview of expectations and procedures is covered in their pre-orientation requirements – essentially a reading of the staff manual. LaRosa's101bFollowing the pre-orientation, instructions for how to handle a variety of situations are given during an in-person orientation session. But the most important thing that Mr. Cundiff shared with us was the importance they placed on sharing the Buddy LaRosa story, with every employee and every customer. This is the story that every new employee hears.

“As people traveled to Buddy’s original pizzeria to satisfy their hunger, sharing pizza, smiles and stories together he quickly saw that the more his guests smiled, the more often they came back. As his business grew, Buddy began to realize that the making smiles part was the most important work he did – LaRosa’s reason to exist. Reach Out and Make Smiles was born soon after as Buddy’s Service Philosophy.”

This philosophy is summarized and displayed on pizza paddles in every restaurant. It goes beyond pizza; it explains who they are, at their heart.Mentoring LaRosas

During the summer before the 2014-2015 school year, using what we had gleaned from LaRosa’s, and, adding some additional pieces to support the complexity of a teacher’s job, we set out to craft our Teacher to Teacher Mentoring Program at Gamble.

The most important component of our model is that teachers new to Gamble are paired with carefully-selected veteran teachers. This one-to-one pairing allows for a high-level of consistent support provided by a reliable and knowledgeable peer.

We put together a booklet (linked here) to serve as our overview of the basics. Most importantly, it includes a checklist of important things for mentors to cover with mentees before school even starts –among other things it includes:

  • A building tour
  • Where to sign in
  • How to use the copier
  • Where to find various supplies and materials
  • How the discipline policy works
  • An overview of emergency procedures

We also schedule periodic meetings throughout the year which cover a variety of topics such as:

  • An overview of Montessori philosophy
  • The requirements of our teacher evaluation system
  • Testing protocols
  • Professional development requirements
  • Monthly 1:1 check-ins to problem-solve concerns and provide encouragement and support

But all of these pieces – the before the school year overview, the monthly meetings, and the 1:1 check-ins – are all about the nitty-gritty of the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that arise so frequently in a school building.

None of them touch on the bigger piece – the piece that explains who we really are as an institution, what the culture of our program is. What is our pizza paddle, our fundamental values, our whole point? How do we share our heart and soul with new staff?

LaRosa’s had taught us the importance of telling our story, but what was our story? We quickly realized that we didn’t have just one story, we had many. A re-telling of the stories that exemplified us at our best would convey our fundamental values – our heart and soul. Instead of a pizza paddle what we had discovered was our Montessori Great Lesson.

 The Gamble Great Lesson is a re-telling of the stories where we live into our values. As such, although every part is true, it holds a somewhat mythical status, and it serves as a foundation for our Mentoring program by defining the deepest parts of What We Do Here. It is the kind of thing that Marta Donahoe, founder of CMStep, and a mentor to both Jack and me, would say needs to be experienced again and again, so “they feel it in their bones.”

In light of this, we hold 2 Mentoring meetings before the school year even begins. One for mentors only, to define the role and describe expectations of the program, and one for both mentors and mentees, which serves as a get-to-know-you gathering. Jack tells our story, The Gamble Great Lesson, at both of these events.

And in what always simultaneously seems as short as the blink of an eye and as long as an epoch, we will be wrapping up our year of mentoring, and celebrating the end of the school year together. In my mind, each year is a success as long as no one got called into the principal’s office on the first day of school, or inexplicitly found themselves in a locker room! However, I hope that our mentoring program provides so much more. I hope that it provides our new teachers with an easier transition. I hope that it serves to powerfully share the remarkable place that our school is. But mostly, I hope it provides a friendly face and a safe forum in which to ask questions, share concerns, seek solutions, and feel assured that they are not alone. After all . . . it’s what we do here.

 

 

 

 

Good Books: The Checklist Manifesto

-by Jack M. Jose

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It always seemed to happen this way: The parents left the room at the end of the meeting, and walked down the hallway. We resumed our team meeting, addressing the next issue on the agenda. Someone would exclaim, “Rats! Forgot to ask them about the permission slip for the field trip!” And he or she would rush to the door, but the parents were gone.

Or maybe we had forgotten to explain a key upcoming homework assignment, or mention an important project deadline.

This was a chronic experience for each of the teacher teams I was on at Hughes Center. And it turns out that forgetting things is a problem for people in other professions too. I learned a simple and effective solution to this vexing problem in a book about making detailed lists, and following them in order: The Checklist Manifesto.

 

Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon and author, starts The Checklist Manifesto by differentiating between errors made in the face of great complexity (because we do not know enough), and errors made by ineptitude (because we fail to access or use what we do know). Speaking from his profession as a surgeon, great complexity is a reality of his daily work. We encounter similar complexity as educators – what is the necessary preparation to help a student understand or create an appropriate metaphor, or to know when to solve a problem using the quadratic formula? These are complex, but knowable. As professionals in a particular discipline, we should be expected to have a grasp of the solutions to these intellectual progressions. This is where our expertise is absolutely necessary and irreducible. Checklists cannot necessarily help with this.  Errors of ineptitude or oversight, however, are the kinds of errors that checklists are designed to eliminate. Procedures need to happen in a certain order, and doing them that way creates better outcomes.

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picked up a newer version of The Checklist Manifesto at a book store last year, and saw that it had a new introduction. Though I had read the book years before, I was immediately drawn into the narrative, demonstrating how a checklist was instrumental in helping to safely (and famously) crash land a plane into the Potomac River. More on that later, as I talk more about the book that helped me see the world of my work completely differently. Principals and teachers inhabit a world of tremendous complexity. There are layers of expectations placed on their students, dozens of types of assessments, and countless instructional tools and techniques at their disposal to help their students master the skills necessary for promotion. Within this complexity, there are some processes that repeat somewhat endlessly into the future, processes contained within a single class period, a day, a week, a quarter, a semester and even a year. There are right ways to do many of these regular processes. Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.

 

Checklists to help with routine events

In 2012, as part of training for principals in Cincinnati Public Schools, a member of the Board of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital spoke about the mistakes made by doctors at the hospital. They had a patient mortality rate of 4.6% in 2001, which had been a very slight improvement on the year before.  This placed them above the middle of the pack for similar hospitals, and had been a point of some pride for earlier leadership. However, they had become dissatisfied with being in the middle of the pack relative to the percentage of children dying in their care. Each number was a tragedy, and there was no excuse for not taking effective measures to prevent them. The Board at Children’s was especially concerned to note that many of these deaths were, in their estimation, preventable. Doctors administering incorrect medicines or doses, doctors and nurses making mistakes that resulted in infections, such as pneumonia acquired while on a ventilator. They instituted a series of reforms which included checklists. At the end of 2011, their mortality rate had been cut dramatically[1].

Gwande provides as an example a different institution, Johns Hopkins hospital, where checklists were instituted for a specific common ventilator procedure. In addition to a clear set of steps posted where all could see them, nurses were given the unusual authority to stop the procedure if a step was missed. Prior to the implementation of the checklist, secondary infections had been the leading cause of complications and deaths at one of the world’s most prestigious medical facilities. This simple addition nearly eliminated those infections.

Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.

So checklists can help eliminate mistakes as we repeatedly complete important procedures. An example of an academic use for routines is the weekly checklist in the structured classroom. In a typical classroom, a child might receive one or two assignments each day, with varying due dates. Assignments may even be dispensed one at a time. However, a checklist is an important tool in helping a child develop skills related to managing time and work. The Montessori weekly checklist enumerates planned lessons and activities, such as regular reading time for students to encounter challenging and engaging material, teacher-led mini-lessons to provide new content, and shelfwork to help each student develop existing skills. The checklist format aids the student in utilizing her time wisely to complete the necessary work. Powerfully, the checklist in this case serves the “patient” and the “doctor” equally, as utilizing the format from week to week ensures that the necessary modes of instruction are regularly used, instead of a teacher falling back on a favorite or comfortable routine or lesson format.

 

 

Checklists to help with infrequent events

The popular rock band Van Halen’s live performances included massive amplifiers, fireworks, lights, and electric and audio cables spread across entire stadiums. Their shows were memorable, but their demands as a band were legendary and one was individually ridiculous: they demanded M&Ms at every show, with all the brown ones picked out. Their manager explained to Dr. Gawande that it was not because they were pampered celebrities with an aversion to brown candies. Instead, their demanding checklist was created to make sure that the performers and fans were safe on stage every night. There was a lot that could go wrong, especially as the lead singer was hoisted in a harness for a spectacular entry, and fans stood near scaffolding holding massive audio equipment – and did I mention fireworks, water, and electricity? The tour double-checked everything the day they arrived; if there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would know that the venue did not pay attention to the details. It was not a frivolous demand; it was a fail-safe to ensure that no one’s safety was at risk.

So checklists can help make sure that an infrequent or even one-time event, such as a Van Halen show in your local arena, happens flawlessly.

I explained earlier that Gawande said checklists could help with errors of ineptitude or oversight, where someone makes a mistake in carrying out a familiar procedure. This is the team meeting problem. We would enter a conversation with a specific objective, and the intention to cover one or two items in particular, such as poor grades, or a particular disciplinary incident. The conversation would address the big issue, and the parent might bring up new and important information. We would wander off-task, fully engaged in the new direction of the conversation. These can be contentious meetings, full of hurt feelings and embarrassment for students and adults alike. It is understandable that everyone involved might forget other, less significant topics momentarily. Perhaps we missed a signature on a permission slip for an upcoming trip, or we failed to make sure the family could access the online gradebook.

Inspired by this book, and motivated by our repeated experience, we created a team meeting checklist. We made a simple list on the bottom of the page, charting the things we might need to cover in a conference. We used our old meeting form with this small addition and we found that we forgot less, and accomplished more, than we had before just by assigning one person to run through the checklist at the end of the meeting, to ensure we hit each topic.

This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection.

Okay, so maybe conferences are not life-and-death situations on the surface. And they definitely are not rock-n-roll concerts. However, they can be important moments in a child’s education, and key pivot points in the relationship between a family and the school. Getting things right in the conference – covering the important issues fully, addressing critical needs, and valuing the family’s time – is an important part of building trust and making sure that the student’s needs are met. There are a finite number of things that can potentially be covered in a conference, which have a seemingly infinite number of permutations. A checklist like the one here is an investment in the golden triangle – the relationship between the student, teacher, and parent.

 

Checklists to help in moments of conflict or crisis

Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will be the first to tell you that he finds it odd to be famous as a pilot because he crashed a plane. As his passenger jet lifted off from LaGuardia airport in 2009, it struck a flock of geese, causing damage to both jet engines. There could have been dozens of causes. The airline industry, which has an understandable focus on safety, has used checklists for years, and they had one for just this situation. Sully and his copilot were able to speed twice through this troubleshooting checklist before deciding they needed to look for the safest possible place to land a plane in Manhattan. He chose the Hudson River, and there were – famously – no deaths. He attributes his clear thinking to his familiarity with the checklist. The process for eliminating all possible causes reduced his panic and allowed him the time to find the best place to crash land.

Checklists can not only be used to make sure that the necessary steps all happen in a moment of high tension or anxiety, they can also work to make sure that steps happen in the correct order. At Gamble Montessori high school, we realized that when students returned from suspension, that they felt dislocated from the school – out of touch with what they had missed in class, and still feeling as if their teachers distrusted or disliked them because of the incident. So we instituted a return conference checklist, which we explain in more detail in our post Welcome Back. We had learned from experience that these steps had to happen in a certain order. Too often, these conferences after an incident immediately start with a description from someone at the school of what happened. The student often would react one of two ways: they would either dispute the details of what was being said, or they would sit in silence and mentally remove themselves from the conference. We know that a student in this mindset will not be a partner in problem-solving for the future. So we turned the old, ineffective conference model on its head. Our checklist starts with a non-negotiable step where every adult at the table offers a strength that they see in the child. Only later in the conference is there a brief description of the incident followed not with accusations and a re-hashing of the event, but with everyone involved being asked to partner in helping the student be successful moving forward.

This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection. The student, having been welcomed back with a shared awareness and acknowledgement of his strengths, gets to become a partner in problem-solving how to help himself be successful moving forward. The intentional sequence of events works to help students return to school ready to learn.

Ordered checklists, simple lists of routines and important processes, are tremendously useful in many professional situations, including education. Whether in routine events, infrequent occurrences, or moments of conflict, having a list of the correct sequence of steps to try can help make sure we reach the best possible outcome for all involved.

Perhaps there are processes for which you already use effective checklists, or there are processes at your school that need to be “checklisted.”

We would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

[1] “Newsroom.” Cincinnati Children’s Earns National Award for Patient Safety. Jim Feuer, n.d. Web. 30 July 2016.

Seeking Inspiration? — Read this Book!

-by Krista Taylor

If someone had told me that I would discover my favorite book of all time at a school sponsored professional development training, I would have laughed out loud. No way. Simply not possible. But it’s true, I did. During the summer of 2011, among the three books assigned as pre-reading for the Ascend Leadership Institute was The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. The text on the back of the book says, “In the face of difficulty, we can despair, get angry . . . or choose possibility,” and from the very first pages I was hooked.  Jack was also deeply impacted by this book – it served as the impetus for the Giving an A teacher evaluation process that he implemented shortly after reading it, and when discussing who would get to write this post, we had a bit of a scuffle. I won.

The Art of Possibility is a life-changing work. I have recommended it to others more often than any other book I’ve ever read, and rather than loan mimgresine out, I purchase new books for those who want to read it. I love my copy so much that I consider it a kind of talisman . . . or perhaps a blankie. It is underlined and annotated, and has been so well-loved that the pages are beginning to separate from the binding.

So what is this book actually about?! It’s about life. And leadership. And perspective. And hope. I would like to say that reading this book opened my eyes and elicited such great changes in me that I am now . . . well . . . that I am now perfect. Unfortunately, that would not be a true story. Instead let me say that reading this book opened my eyes, and now, sometimes, I can see with a different perspective. Other times, I forget entirely, and for every two steps forward I take, it seems that I take one step (or sometimes even two) backward. Just as I say about my students, progress does not happen in a straight line, and surely mine has not. This book, however, has served as a catalyst for change, and it continues to provide grounding and reminders when I feel that I have lost my way.

The content of this book seems impossible to summarize, so rather than trying to do so, I want to share the ideas I have found most impactful. I know that these sections have such resonance with me because they are the areas with which I struggle the most. While it is tempting to tell you stories of how I courageously implemented these practices and mindsets, the truth is I don’t have many of those stories – I ask that you view those that I share here as the exception for me, rather than the rule. I continue to be a work in progress.

The Myth of Scarcity

In the first chapter, Zander and Zander discuss the myth of scarcity. The idea that when we believe that there is not enough of an important thing, it leads to competition, judgment, mistrust, and fear, but that ultimately, this way of understanding the world is false. Here is how they describe living with a scarcity focus. “On our path to achieving a goal, we inevitably encounter obstacles. Some of the more familiar ones, aside from other people, are scarcities of time, money, power, love, resources, and inner strength. . . . The assumption is that life is about staying alive and making it through – surviving in a world of scarcity and peril.” They write that a better model is found in seeing the world as “A Universe of Possibility.”   “Let us suppose, now, that a universe of possibility stretches beyond the world of measurement. (p.19) In this reality, the relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.” (p. 20)

We no longer live in a world in which “survival of the fittest” makes sense. While neuroscience has taught us that the human brain remains wired to scan our environment for threats in order to trigger the “fight or flight” response when necessary, we no longer have to live this way in order to survive. Instead of seeking out the threats, or problems, what if we embraced possibility? The Zanders note that living “in abundance” brings greater abundance — that when you give up competition and scarcity thinking, greater connections and resources follow. We don’t have to succumb to the temptation of constant comparison, or that what you have takes from me. The thought that if you are an incredible teacher, it makes me less of one; that your creativity reduces the uniqueness of my work, or that your success threatens mine. We live in a society where we are regularly pitted against one another in competition. This is true, even in education. Over a year ago, out of 20 finalists, I was named the Hawkins Educator of the Year. I rarely talk about this honor, and the official plaque with my name on it sits at the bottom of my desk drawer where it has been since I first brought it to school. I simply cannot bring myself to hang it up because, you see, in my mind, if I am the Educator of the Year, it somehow seems to imply that those around me are less, and that is simply not true. Why not 20 winners? Why not 200? Why not all of us? Ultimately, it is only in giving up the idea that there isn’t enough to go around that allows us to “step into a universe of possibility.” (p. 23)

Being a Contribution

Without the inevitable competition that scarcity thinking necessitates, we can let go of the notions of success and failure, and instead focus on the more achievable concept of being a contribution.

“The drive to be successful and the fear of failure are, like the head and tail of a coin, inseparably linked.” (p. 56) It seems nearly impossible to let go of the importance of success. Isn’t this the whole purpose of living – to be successful? Perhaps not financially per se, but to be successful in each of our roles – as a spouse, parent, friend, colleague, teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc? This list could go on and on. Just thinking about being successful in all the possible ways feels exhausting, but, without that, what is it all about? Isn’t success the whole point? The Zanders say no. They suggest that we replace that entire concept. “All at once I found that the fearful question, ‘Is it enough?’ and the even more fearful question, ‘Am I loved for who I am, or for what I have accomplished?’ could both be replaced with the joyful question, ‘How will I be a contribution today?’” (p. 57) How much easier it is to think about simply being a contribution each day, rather than getting it all just right. I wish I could tell you that I have mastered this perspective shift, but I have not – I’m not even close. That’s why my book is falling apart; I have to keep returning to it to remind myself that there’s a different way. As the book notes, it is a “discipline of the spirit” (p.62) that is transformative. The one thing that I have discovered is that there is great joy is saying yes – in making myself a contribution to others. So often, I come across the advice to “set boundaries,” “know your limits,” “learn to say no.” Each time I hear this, I want to say, “Why?” Why on Earth would I say no to something that will help? What would happen if we all just said yes to one another?” I get teased about this socialist-type philosophy of relationships, but why not “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need?” Beau said it best on a summer evening when I was overwhelmed by a time-sensitive and monumental work task that had nothing to do with him. He offered to come and help. I protested, until he clearly and firmly said, “Shut up, Krista. We’re a team. We help each other.” Being a contribution allows us to use our ability to meet another’s need. It leads to relationships that are rooted in the premise of “I’ve got you” – when you have a need, I am there to contribute. 

Being a contribution, to individuals or to the world in general, occurs most easily through calling on our Passion. This is how the Zanders describe the process of giving way to passion: “Notice where you are holding back, and let go. Release those barriers of self that keep you separate and in control, and let the vital energy of passion surge through you connecting you to all beyond.” (p. 114)

Please allow me to be the first to say that the idea of “letting go” sounds utterly terrifying. And yet, I know how it feels when I have done it. It feels like flying – like being lifted by an ever-present current, so that no matter what risks I take, I cannot fall. Why is it so hard to trust that process?   And while I don’t believe in magic – I only believe in hard work – tapping into passion seems to elicit a kind of timeless magic. “The life force for humankind is perhaps nothing more or less than the passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate. Enrollment is that life force at work, lighting sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. “ (p. 139) I don’t believe that we can do this unless we say yes to one another. Let’s give up the concepts of balance and limits in favor of “scattering light in all directions.” We need more light.

Responsibility

And yet sometimes Passion eludes us. Sometimes we get seduced by the siren song of the downward spiral. It is easy to fall into this trap as it can feel so much safer to assume failure. “Downward spiral talk is based on the fear that we will be stopped in our tracks and fall short in the race.” (p. 108) The downward spiral occurs by focusing on the negatives – that same scanning the environment for threats. This leads to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, which can be paralyzing. This is my great Achilles’ Heel. During the first five weeks of this summer, I compulsively walked the equivalent of several marathons while engaged in countless hours of obsessive rumination on the challenges Gamble was facing at the end of the school year. In the process, I mentally catastrophized the situation such that I had myself nearly convinced that things would never get better, I was powerless to effect change, and that the best recourse was simply to quit trying.   I allowed myself to become fully entranced by Downward Spiral Self-Talk.

The Zanders strategy for addressing the Downward Spiral is through taking responsibility, or what I would call “owning your part.” As comfortable as it is to point fingers and assign blame, responsibility for every conflict and every challenging situation is held by all impacted parties. “You can always grace yourself with responsibility for anything that happens in your life. You can always find within yourself the source of any problem you have.” (p. 152) While on the surface, it may seem that taking personal responsibility might only result in greater discomfort, this is not, in fact, the case. As I frequently tell my children, my students, and myself, “You can only be responsible for you, but you are always responsible for you.” You cannot force anyone else to change, but you have the power to make choices that influence every situation you are a part of. This dispels the feeling of powerlessness that the downward spiral elicits and allows for the emergence of glimmers of hope. Ultimately, this is what knocked me out of my early summer Downward Spiral stupor. What was my role in the situation and what corrective actions did I need to take? Once I was able to answer those questions, I was able to see how I could get the things I was responsible for back on the right track.

I reflect often on the Zanders’ question, “Who am I being that they are not shining?” (p. 74) They being anyone you are engaged with – students, employees, colleagues, friends, family. Essentially, when there is a problem, what is my part? I am ineffective, helpless, and hopeless when I find myself stuck in the blame game – focusing on who is at fault. I open up to possibility and to change when I can see the steps that I need to take to impact the problem. This attitude extends far beyond personal benefits.   “Imagine how profoundly trustworthy you would be to the people who work for (with) you if they felt no problem could arise between you that you were not prepared to own. Imagine how much incentive they would have to cooperate if they knew they could count on you to clear the pathways for accomplishment.” (p. 158-9) The benefits of combating the downward spiral through personal responsibility are far reaching and generate a deep-seated trust that is powerful and inspiring.

Rule #6/How Fascinating

While I certainly acknowledge that the perspective shift the Zanders propose is challenging and requires difficult internal self-reflection and work, they are light-hearted in their approach, providing just one rule, which they call Rule #6. Rule #6 is very simple – “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” (p.79) They prevail upon us to “lighten up,” saying, “Humor and laughter are perhaps the best way we can get over ourselves. Humor can bring us together around our inescapable foibles, confusions, and miscommunications, and especially over the ways in which we find ourselves acting entitled and demanding, or putting other people down, or flying at each other’s throats.” (p. 80) Ummmmm . . . guilty as charged . . . I don’t do Rule #6 so very well. One strategy for getting closer to not “taking yourself so damn seriously,” is the procedure they provide to their students when a mistake has occurred. Fortunately it is simple, humorous, and nearly pain-free. “When they [students] make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’”(p.31) So, next year, if you see me briskly walking through the hall, with my arms in the air, muttering “How fascinating,” under my breath, understand that this is progress for me. Just continue about your business knowing that I have not lost my mind, I have just screwed up yet again, and am practicing embracing possibility and Rule #6 .

An Invitation to Possibility

I highly recommend that you read this book. It is challenging in the best possible ways. As for me, I’m waiting on the incantation, magic pill, or snake oil that will transform me. Until then, I will keep my trusty copy by my side and continue re-reading the underlined and dog-eared pages, each time trying to get a little closer to living within The Art of Possibility.

 

 

Talking About Tragedy

-by Jack M. Jose

Events of the past two weeks have shocked the nation. Videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been widely spread, and even more widely discussed and debated. The shooting of 11 Dallas police officers, leaving 5 dead, while they escorted a Black Lives Matter march, created a national crisis. Then a truck ran into a large crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people. And Sunday morning’s news brought the deaths of 3 more police officers in Baton Rouge. … Or perhaps you are reading this article after these events have faded; in that case you can likely fill in your own tragic “news of the week” that has created a comparable feeling of anxiety and dread.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear.

Our children arrive at school with questions and concerns. They have seen horrific images. They have heard of deaths and worse. Perhaps their parents have shielded them from it, and they’ve learned about it in the halls, or perhaps their parents have involved them in the discussion, have added on their own fears and conjecture. We know that when the world of safety and well-being is at risk, our bodies produce adrenaline, and we are unable to master even short-term memory tasks, let alone take on the deep learning demanded today. Our students, less familiar with the news and thus less able to deal with the experience of the stress reaction, are even less capable of dealing with it. They cannot just “forget about it” or even push it to the side for too long.

Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.
Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.

What do you do when you can’t ignore it, and an outside tragedy simply has to be addressed in your classroom? There are a series of questions to guide you through the process of addressing fears, whether it is the questioning of a single child or a group of wary adults. Through the lens of these four questions, we can start to address the difficult work of talking about tragedy. For the purpose of unification of the article, the Philando Castile shooting will remain the primary (though not the only) example throughout.

What do you know?

With younger children, “What do you know?” is an obvious first question. (It is especially handy when you suspect there is a “birds and bees” question coming. Often, “what do you know” lets you start a couple levels easier than you thought!) This gives you a chance to assess what the student(s) know, and to determine what, if any, misconceptions they may have about the situation. The same is true for our adolescents and even adults engaging in a conversation. Asking “what do you know” is a great start to any discussion, because it grounds it in facts.

The teacher is a helpful guide in this conversation, and she must be diligent in her attention to details. It is important that there is precision in language, and that the individuals involved are spoken about respectfully. For example, if discussing the shooting of Philando Castile, our conventions of discussion would dictate that we refer to him as Mr. Castile, and to the officer involved as Officer Yanez. Later we might need to look up the names of Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, and the other officer involved to facilitate the conversation. We might point out that news agencies would be unlikely to publish the young girl’s name, because she is a minor and responsible media generally respect the right of privacy for minors. These conventions of manners and civility retain the dignity of those who are being discussed, and thus uphold our own classroom values. We can establish the city in which the event occurred, the date and time, and other factual information.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring. The knowledge that an effort is being made to be objective and to get things right helps calm our students. Refusing to use loaded language such as “resisting” or “assassination”, with the explanation that these words are characterization rather than facts, will keep the conversation in a more rational spot.  It can also create order and reason among students who, especially in a case such as this, may have very different and strongly emotional interpretations of the significance of the event.

What do you fear?

This is an important second question, and the one that most clearly allows you to address the fears of the individual students. By asking this question, you will get to peek inside their minds, in a sense, and find out what drives their strong reaction. Using the example above, a student might express a fear that their own father or uncle might be at risk, and you might learn that their concern stems from that individual being a black man, or an officer, or both … or neither.

The fears of children can be outsized and, in our minds, irrational. However, dismissing their concerns out-of-hand is not reassuring. In their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish remind us that in order to stay in good communication with our children, at any age, we must first accept their viewpoint as valid. If a child expresses a fear that police will go around shooting more and more people, the teacher must resist the urge to laugh or mock this viewpoint. “That’s ridiculous, you don’t have to worry about that,” might seal the deal for an adult, but it is not reassuring to a child. In fact, it will likely damage their trust in you, and make it less likely that they will open up to you in the future, since they will then know their viewpoint will not be seen as valid.

Instead, if a fear seems outsized or irrational, it should be treated with respect, and revisited with examples and gentle questions. “Why do you worry about that?” is a good follow-up question. This might elicit a specific incident in the child’s past that opens up a related set of fears. Or, it might prompt the child to self-examine. In this questioning, the student himself might note that although he saw this one video, that in fact he knows several adults who have stories about being pulled over and this has not happened to them. The teacher might provide other related facts, perhaps about the number of traffic stops daily that pass without incident, or an investigation of what draws people to become a police officer. The desire to help others, which is a common answer to that question, does not correlate well with an eagerness to shoot others.

The teacher must guard herself against personalizing the issue. It is a powerful human tendency to treat our personal experience as if it is proof of something true when, at best, it is merely a pixel of evidence in a much larger picture. That does not mean that her perspective and experience are not true or a valuable part of the conversation; it does, however, mean that it should not be treated as the end of the discussion on that matter.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear

I was teaching at Hughes High School in Cincinnati in April, 2001 when 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Officer Steven Roach, kicking off weeks of civil unrest in our city. I was a white teacher in a classroom of predominantly black students, and we found ourselves involved in a challenging conversation about the incident. My most vocal students were advocating for running from the police, perhaps just to show me their attitude toward authority, or perhaps for other reasons. By using the Socratic method of questioning, I helped the students have a fact-based and growth-focused conversation about the incident. As we covered the details we knew, a student pointed out that Mr. Thomas ran because he was scared. I asked, “And how did Officer Roach probably feel?” Students offered, “angry,” “salty” (slang for “embarrassed”) and then one student said, “Awwww!” and the room went quieter. “No,” this student exclaimed, aware that he’d had an important insight.  “He was feeling scared too, running down a dark alley after some guy.” This changed the conversation for us, as some of the students had not considered the perspective of each person involved, just the person who was most like them.

Sometimes the fear a child expresses is completely rational. The child whose mother is a police officer is understandably afraid for her safety when she is at work. A child might fear what could happen if his father got pulled over by police. When these fears are expressed, there is not a statement to be used as a talisman to push them away. There should not even be a desire to push them away. Fear is real. Fear is personal. It is not, in itself, irrational. Attempting to simply soothe someone’s fear or to make them feel better is not the answer. Understanding and sympathy – literally “feeling with” – are the best tools at our disposal. “I am certain that you worry about that. I am sorry that it causes you anxiety.” Feeling heard and understood is good medicine for fear.

What do you hope?

Taking the discussion from the realm of fear to the realm of hope can be a pivotal moment in a conversation, and a transformative moment in the classroom. Asking this question next allows the group to move on from the discussion of our fears – where, sadly, we may compound each others’ fears, as students now hear new things which make them scared – to a more positive focus.

One important change the question “What do you hope?” brings about is greater involvement in the conversation. Some students may have sat out the first part of the conversation because they did not know as much as their peers, or because their thoughts were being well-represented by other students, or because they were simply uncomfortable sharing their fears with others. Some may not have gotten involved because they feel no direct connection to the incident. However, we are all creative, and those students whose voices were not heard during the discussion of our fears are often interested in describing their vision of the world as it could be.

Frankly, children are really good at “hope.” Their optimistic eyes can see opportunities for peace and cooperation that we adults have long since stopped being able to see. And like in the “fears” discussion, the teacher will receive some ideas that she, with her age and wisdom, might feel tempted to dispel. Fortunately, I probably do not have to tell anyone that you should not say to a child, “Well, we can’t ALL love EVERYBODY.” So they will propose a more perfect vision of the future that may exclude violence, or eliminates the need for police, or may likely come up with something we cannot even image. The correct answer for this is “Wouldn’t that be great!” Meanwhile, the teacher can still root the optimism to reality. The child who suggests “We can make it so the police don’t shoot,” might get a response that “Yes, perhaps with different training this could happen.” The switch in the conversation is not merely semantic, however. The human brain needs to experience optimism, and can be trained to do it.  A student proposing a majestic, sweeping solution can be helped to make it more specific, which makes it less ethereal and more likely to occur – a solution rather than a dream. Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, acknowledges that creating realistic steps within an optimistic view helps redirect the anxiety into a constructive state of mind. This makes the situation survivable, and thus more mundane.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring

This question also engages us – students and teachers – intellectually, and gets us out of our amygdala and into the rest of our brain. We are also heartbroken by these events, and the sense of powerlessness we feel to affect change. This question is more than an exercise, it is a form of therapy. We cannot resist problem solving under most conditions. It is a strong evolutionary trait (coupled with the also-indispensable ability to worry about the future) that has treated us well over time.

17k53yHow can you act?

Fred Rogers, longtime host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, would get scared seeing tragic events on TV as a child. His mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” He says that this thought brings him comfort to this day. All around us, in every situation, there are people who are helping rather than hurting. It brings him comfort because it draws us out of helplessness into our sphere of influence and allows us a chance to take action.

What do we know? What do we fear? What do we hope? How can we help?

When we learned that Philando Castile had been a cafeteria supervisor in a Montessori school, members of the Montessori community in Cincinnati wanted to do something specific and positive to honor his life. We reached out to one another on Facebook. A small group met at Gamble on the Wednesday after the event to brainstorm a response. What we came up with was a three-part response. First, we agreed to act in our own backyard. In response to a suggestion that we should put a picture of Philando Castile on our cafeteria, which we rejected, it was proposed that instead we honor our own cafeteria workers with a picture in a prominent place. We also sent a peace lily to Mr. Castile’s funeral, with the message “To the Family & Friends of Philando Castile – Our hearts are full of love and sorrow as your family and our country mourn the loss and celebrate the life of your son, brother, and friend. In sympathy, Cincinnati Public Schools, Montessori Coalition.”

Then we turned to the issue of talking with our students, staff and parents. We acknowledged that this conversation would vary based on the age of our students. Elementary schools were likely going to plan for a different type of conversation than our high schools. Within our own conversation we were able to anticipate challenges of underlying biases and beliefs. We acknowledged the importance of setting up an opportunity for our parents and staff to talk in a safe place. We were learning to dance together, we realized. We had to make it okay to step on each others’ toes without quitting. This was true for the teachers and administrators, and would be true in our classrooms, and in our PTO meetings as well, where a great diversity of opinions would be aired. Creating this atmosphere starts with an overt statement at the beginning of the conversation: at least one of us is likely to say something unintentionally hurtful or offensive, but we all have made ourselves vulnerable by attending this conversation. We have to respect and value that risk.

With our staff, we agreed to participate in an awareness-raising activity, to help our teachers be aware that each of us are struggling with hidden issues and concerns.

In the proper structure, and given a safe place to express fears and ideas, students can come up with some impressive solutions. This conversation will always be emotional, challenging, and exhausting, but difficult conversations frequently are. Following these steps will help create a better sense of understanding and efficacy among all involved.

Exeter Math Institute: Math or Social Justice?

-by Krista Taylor

“Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I’m sorry, what?

It was the first day of math training, and this was the initial task.   I had signed up for this professional development opportunity because Jack said it would be good, and because I have spent a significant amount of time over the past several years trying to improve my math instruction. Because, you see, I was “bad at math,” and that is not something that I ever want to pass on to my students. As a result, I have worked hard at becoming a better math teacher.

Math has never come as easily to me as other subject areas. In the 7th grade, I was “honors-tracked” in all subjects. I only stayed in honors through the end of the 8th grade, but by then the damage was done because my course of study in math had already been accelerated. I skated through Algebra II in the 9th grade, and very nearly failed Geometry in the 10th. At that point, I stopped taking math altogether. My advisor told me that I shouldn’t even consider taking Chemistry “because of all that math,” so science went as well. While that opened a lot of time in my schedule for terrific courses like Art History, and the History of the Theater, ultimately quitting math early did me no favors.

What irony then that teaching math has been a part of my job description throughout my career.

It wasn’t until I spent three years co-teaching math at Gamble with Katie Doyle that I began to feel a sense of competency. This was reinforced by the occasional proclamations of my own children when, upon returning home from work in the evening, I would hear, “I’m glad you’re finally home; I’ve been waiting for you to help me with my math homework!” Every time, I was tempted to turn around and look for whoever most certainly was coming in the door behind me. “I’m sorry, you’re waiting for who to help you with your math homework?”

Which brings me back to the math training. I want to be a better math teacher. I want teaching math to feel as fluid for me as teaching English does. I want to be certain that I am serving my students in the best way possible. To that end, I know I need to keep working at math. So, I committed to four summer days of math PD.

Which brings us back to, “Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but you see, I think I’m in the wrong training. I want to get better at teaching math, not doing math!”

I wasn’t nearly that brave, so instead I did this. (Okay, with the group I was working with, and assistance from the teacher, I did this. It’s still pretty cool.)

Exeter math paper

I’ll admit it, as an adult learner, the math was interesting. We were working on problems from the 9th and 10th grade math curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Yes, THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Arguably the most prestigious 9th-12th grade prep school in the country. Tuition for boarding students at Exeter is $47,000 annually; for day students, it is a mere $36,500, and there are rigorous admission criteria. The average class size is twelve; the student-teacher ratio is five to one. THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Full stop.

The Exeter math program is unlike any math instruction I have ever experienced.FullSizeRender (9)

  • There is no textbook, only a binder full of problems.
  • There is no direct instruction.
  • There is no modeling.
  • There are no examples.
  • Nearly every problem is a multi-step, word problem.

 

The structure of the class is such that when students enter the classroom, they immediately begin putting answers on the board from the homework the night before. Then the group discusses each problem, assessing accuracy, determining alternate methods, revising the work, questioning the results. The teacher’s role is to provide a few prompts and probing questions to deepen the understanding of the group, and to correct inaccuracies. Once all of the problems have been explored, new homework is assigned to be analyzed the next day in class. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the instructional process each day.

But, at the end of Day 1, I found myself feeling aggravated. I wanted to get better at teaching math to MY students. My 7th and 8th grade students at Gamble Montessori High School in the Cincinnati Public School System. How in the world was spending 8 hours a day for 4 days completing Exeter math problems going to help me to do that?!

Exeter students are not my students.

Exeter students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year. Seventy percent of my students are eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program. Exeter students must demonstrate academic excellence in order to be admitted to the program. Thirty percent of my students are identified as having a disability; many more struggle with significant skill gaps. Exeter students either live at school full-time or remain on campus until 8:00pm each evening. My students go home at the end of a 7-hour school day, and some of them experience significant stress in those home environments. Exeter students are instructed in class sizes of 12. My students are in classes with 25-35 of their peers.

Exeter students are not my students.

The second afternoon, during a break, I had a casual off-hand conversation with Sami Atif, one of our instructors who is a math teacher at Exeter. We were discussing the make-up of the student body at Exeter.

He said, “It’s a cultural thing.”

Taken aback, I defensively asked, “What do you mean, exactly?”

His response surprised me. “It’s about culture.  These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem.  I don’t think I ever questioned a teacher when I was growing up.  I wouldn’t have dared.  These kids don’t have that issue.  It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

The conversation lagged, the break ended, and we went on with class. But his words hung with me. I revisited them on the drive home, and at some point before I went to bed that evening, it hit me like a kick in the gut.

“These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem . . . It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them.

Days three and four of the training were different for me. I was all in. Not just for me, for my students, too.   It helped, of course, that I was witnessing my own math development in action. I was thrilled on Wednesday evening to discover that not only was I able to approach nearly every problem assigned for homework, I was able to get to an answer that I was near certain was correct.

Here is an example: “Let A = (-2,4) and B = (7,6). Find the point P on the line y=2 that makes the total distance AQ+BQ as small as possible.”

IMG_0448 (1)

That was the change in me after three days of practice.

And I started to observe the instructors. This was far more than a curriculum; it was a methodology. The first thing I realized was that they never (never!) provided or confirmed an answer. This prompted more than one person to question whether the instructors actually even knew the correct answers! Instead they met questions with questions and provided guidance in the form of suggestions or references back to previously constructed knowledge.

By this point, I was writing down everything they said because I know from past experience that when looking to make a shift in practice, sometimes you have to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I was seeking a script, so I allowed the instructors to unknowingly provide it for me themselves. Here are some of their prompts:

“It looks like maybe you were thinking . . . “

“Are there any other ways to get there?”

“That’s a step I want to process more.”

“That’s really interesting.”

“Are there any other ways to look at this?”

“Are you convinced that you’ve found the correct answers?”

This strategy is known as “Harkness teaching” as it was first conceived of by Edward Harkness, an oil magnate who gave a significant donation to Exeter Academy for implementation of a teaching style that he described thusly:

“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

Oh, yes, Mr. Harkness, I, too, see your vision as revolutionary.

And yet I remain haunted by the question of “how.” How can I possibly implement this in my classroom – keeping in mind that many of my 7th and 8th grade students arrive with math skills that are expected from a 4th or 5th grader. What can I do to help them to reach this level of math confidence and comprehension?

What I didn’t realize initially was that this work had already been begun by Savannah Rabal, a junior high math teacher at our sister school, Clark Montessori. Savannah was out of town for the first two days of the training, but when she arrived on the third day, I began picking her brain for how she had done it. Her wise words, “Trust the Process,” provided me with hope in my ability to implement something similar in my own classroom.

Here are some of the expectations that she and her class developed for working with this type of instruction.

Exeter Savannah

So perhaps it is possible to do something like this after all – to provide my students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers solving high-level math problems through exploration, discussion, discovery, and critical thinking. I do not know yet exactly what implementation of this methodology will look like in my classroom, but here are my thoughts so far:

  • Begin with just 1 day a week
  • Provide direct instruction in expectations for the process; allow for student input and suggestions as we identify strategies for working together
  • Establish small groups that would work together consistently
    • Groupings could be heterogeneous, allowing stronger students to support those who are struggling
    • Groupings could be homogenous with differentiated questions, allowing strong students to work together toward acceleration, while struggling learners would be obligated to take risks and make attempts to approach the task without the support of their typically-relied upon peers.
    • Groupings could be a flexible combination of both homogenous and heterogenous groupings, allowing for the benefits of both options
  • Develop scaffolded supports to support student exploration and learning
    • Teacher prompts
    • Written structures such as guiding prompts and organizational supports
    • Pre-select appropriately leveled questions or design our own
  • Begin the process by working the problems together in class rather than expecting students to tackle them independently as homework in the initial roll-out phase

I’ll be honest. I am nervous as all get-out to even attempt beginning this process. There seems to be so many hurdles in the way. The challenges my students face with math content is just the beginning.

How on earth will I get my colleagues on board? They will not have the benefit of a four-day experiential training to elicit their buy-in; they will only have me (and Rosalyn and Erin, who also attended the workshop) waxing prophetic and showing them the materials that at first glance seem utterly ridiculous.

Even if I only implement this approach one day a week, it will throw us further off the curriculum content pacing that the district expects. How can I demonstrate that this is beneficial enough to make it allowable?

What will the parents think? Savannah already had this experience when a parent contacted her saying, “So, I hear you don’t teach math anymore.” Many parents are already wary of Common Core math, and already feel beyond their ability to assist with junior high-level math. What will they think when we throw this at them?

And what will happen when it doesn’t go as I have planned? In fact, the only thing I am certain of is that it won’t go exactly as I have planned. What then?   Will I have the courage to stick with it? Will my students? Will my fellow teachers? Will my administrators?

It helped to discover this excerpt by Elisabeth Ramsey in the Exeter “Introductory Math Guide – Written For Students By Students.” It feels a bit as if she was writing directly to me regarding my apprehension about implementation, “I learned one of the more important lessons about math at Exeter; it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. Your classmates will be supportive of you, and tolerant of your questions. Chances are, if you had trouble with a problem, someone else in the class did too. Another thing to keep in mind is that the teacher expects nothing more than that you try to do a problem to the best of your ability. If you explain a problem that turns out to be incorrect, the teacher will not judge you harshly. They understand that no one is always correct, and they will not be angry or upset with you.”

And I continue to hear Savannah’s words echoing in my head, “Trust the Process.”

And Sami’s comment, after I acknowledged him for the powerful impact his words had on me, “Yeah, this is social justice work.”

So, remembering the feeling of: “I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them,” I am ready to take the plunge. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

The Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

-by Krista Taylor

Seeking Courage

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.

elephant

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 kindsGSA slide 1 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.  GSA slide 2The 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 throuGSA slide 3gh 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.

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.

IMG_0439 (1)

“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.

Dear Sylvia,

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.

 

No Failure of Nerve

-by Jack M. Jose

Often we have used this blog to talk about our strengths – strategies we have used at Gamble Montessori that have resulted in a greater sense of student belonging, or increased learning. In this post, however, we examine a philosophy that seems at odds with our character as a student-centered Montessori blog. The book at the heart of this post, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman, challenged me like few other books have. I struggled with it, I denied its value, I argued its premise, while feeling a strong undertow of truth. In fact, even though it prompted strong and decisive action on my part, it may have been only in this week that I have come to fully understand its underlying message, and how it fully fits with what we do here.

This week (June 14, 2016), I had the pleasure of listening to and talking with Dr. Steve Perry. We had invited him to the Cincinnati Public Schools’ principal retreat for a shot of adrenaline and encouragement at the end of the year. We already knew his commitment to children. Dr. Perry received the honor of being featured in CNN’s Black in America series because of his success in his Hartford, Connecticut magnet school, Capital Prep. One measure of his success is that 100% of his predominantly minority and impoverished students have gone on to 4-year colleges, every year since 2006. He is a dynamic and engaging speaker, and an advocate for the potential of every child.

Jack with Dr. Steve Perry
Jack with Dr. Steve Perry at the 2016 Cincinnati Public Schools Principal Academy

During his presentation, he talked about times when he had to draw tough lines which could not be crossed by parents or teachers. I found myself drawn to him because he seemed to have great comfort and facility, and to even revel in drawing these hard lines. Lines that many of us are not comfortable drawing. Conversations few of us seek out. I suspect that I may be even less willing to draw these lines than the typical principal.

He seemed to particularly relish taking a righteous stand in consistent defense of the dress code. He exuberantly recounted exerting his authority against the wills of those teachers who wanted to wear jeans to school, “Are you kidding me?” he asked us facetiously, drawing laughter from the crowd of principals and assistant principals. Likewise, to the parent who suggested a special day when students, perhaps as a fundraiser, could come to school without their uniforms, “Are you nuts?” Laughter again, spurred on by his deadpan delivery. Perhaps we were all drawing the mental picture of having the occasion to ask those words of a parent – I am sure we each had a particular parent in mind – and then actually delivering them to her face. I laughed nervously, wondering why he would take a stand so strong the dress code, on a matter seemingly so trivial.

He admitted to finally relenting and explaining his seriousness to the parent. The dress code was so stringently enforced because he knew that some of his poorest students’ best clothes were their school uniform clothes. What message did he send if, in the interest of raising funds for whatever deserving cause, the rules designed to create a greater sense of dignity and equality for students could be discarded. “So her kid could wear her new jeans to school?” He paused for effect. “No.” And to the teachers, to whom he offered no explanation, the implication was that they should clearly know better than to send a message to children that teachers were granted privileges not given to the students, and were thus in some way above them. Or to suggest that less was asked of teachers in the classroom than was asked of the students. It is clear that this should not happen in a school where everyone is a learner.

I admit it was thrilling, inspiring even, to hear a principal speak so brashly. So forcefully. When the time is right, I hope I can muster the needed moxie. I wonder, what are the issues that are this serious? As the phrase goes, on what hills are we willing to die? Dress code, promotion, good instruction, respect, homework, safety?

I invite you to join me as I ask myself that question. On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Perry is famous and influential and controversial not just because he takes these stands, but because he has created successful schools in multiple places. He has done it his way, with confidence, and bravado. He has stepped on some toes along the way, and has been willing to offend those who he felt provided obstacles to his goals for the school. I do not seek to emulate him in this, or recommend that others do. I suspect even he doesn’t act that way all the time, as he also expressed a sincere personal commitment to learning from everyone he encounters. But there is evidence that it is important to take strong, non-negotiable stands on some things. Without clear boundaries, the student and the classroom and the school are left confused, their possibilities unfulfilled.

In sociologist Edwin H. Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve_, published posthumously, the author worked to summarize the findings of a life spent examining leadership.

Failure of Nerve

Three years ago I was asked to read this book as a vestry member – an elected leader in my church – by our newly hired Dean, Gail Greenwell. She meant it as a challenge to us, I believe, to be willing to do unpopular things in order to do what is right for the organization. Given that the nature of the advice in the book is that there are appropriate times to exclude people from your community, I eventually came to find irony in its selection as a book for a church that prides itself on inclusion. I read it, cover to cover, with notes and underlines and dog-ears up to the last page before the epilogue. It was a tough slog, being as it was stitched together by his editor and family members after his death (this is not necessarily a book recommendation!) and, just between us, I think I was the only person on the vestry to get through the whole thing. I suddenly find myself wondering which vestry members might actually read my blog. I guess I will find out Sunday!

In short, Friedman argues the need for boundaries, and lays the responsibility of the health of the organization squarely on the shoulders of the leader. First, though, he argues that the leader must embody the change. “If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them,” (page ix) and later, “what counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how.” (page 17)

Physician, heal thyself!

This is his challenging call to the leader: you only must transform yourself. This is far harder for a leader who prides himself on being inclusive and supportive, and who perseveres in the belief that each of us is capable of success.

In discussing a community as an organism, he suggests that a focus on empathy rather than responsibility can allow a “virus” to survive, and eventually consume the organism. He argues that the “virus” is the individual who has no ability to self-regulate, who is “by nature all take and no give.” While he gave the example of attempts to work out a “mutual accommodation” of Hitler prior to the onset of World War II, where various efforts were made to appease Hitler. One of these was the Munich pact, which handed a key portion of Czechoslovakia over to the dictator. A year later, the country did not exist, and the Germans invaded Poland. From Friedman’s book, a less dramatic example persists in my recollection, nearly four years after my first reading.

On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Friedman was a panelist at a convention, and the time came to take questions from the audience. His comments had elicited some strong feelings, and one woman crowded her way through the line, commandeered a microphone, and demanded to be heard. The decision fell to an organizer of the event, and he allowed the woman to speak. This was a failure of leadership, or a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, to allow her to speak simply because she was so passionate. She was permitted to impose herself on the entire organization, the entire convention. Not surprisingly, her comments did not bring up a new perspective, instead becoming a jeremiad against Mr. Friedman and other panelists. The whole process disrespected those who lined up according to the instructions, it insulted the panelists, it offered nothing new to the conversations and was instead a plea for the individuals to abandon their years of research and deeply held beliefs in order to accommodate her feelings.

There are parallels to this behavior in the classroom, PTO meeting, or the school office. We have seen the student or the parent who has decided that their immediate needs and strong feelings should take precedence over the schedule and the rules.

When should you take a stand? Certainly for matters of safety. For instance, a child who crosses a street out of the crosswalk deserves a strong response and quick correction. That behavior is not acceptable because it is not safe. This is not controversial.

However, what about the dress code? What about promotion and retention? What about crowding in line? What about civil discourse?

Each year, one or more parents schedule a meeting with me in the early summer to make the argument that their child should be promoted to the next grade, regardless of their academic achievement and effort. In almost all of these meetings, there are real – and sometimes heartbreaking – explanations of why that child did not complete the work at home and did not achieve promotion. We provide countless supports in the classroom. Students have differentiated work, reduced homework loads, support from the teacher and intervention specialist, after-school support, and on some teams “amnesty days” where old work can be turned in. Parents have unprecedented access to their child’s grades through an online gradebook system, we send home paper report cards 8 times a year, we have student-led conferences at least twice a year, the second time focused on students who are not thriving academically, along with open houses and multiple modes for parents to reach teachers.

I ask my teachers to do everything they can to assist students. We are all accountable for learning and promotion. However, at some point the student owns the responsibility for doing the work. If I were to yield in this conversation, it would disrespect their work and the work of other students, some of whom encountered their own personal heartbreaks and struggles during the year. Standards mean something.

To the parent of the child who makes a compelling and emotional appeal about the effect of non-promotion on their child: I understand. What you are saying is true. It is also true that the standards mean something. Effort means something. No child who works hard and makes progress will fail. Failure, however, to meet a given standard, is not the end of the story. It is a moment. We love the child the most when we say “you have not reached this high standard … yet. But you will.”

The disrespect of promoting a child who fell short of the standard because of a passionate plea of a loving parent would be one of the symptoms of the “virus”, and the effect on the system would be immediate and apparent. A student who sees someone trying less but still getting promoted, may seek an easier way out next year, and might feel that their hard work is not valued. They might resent the inconsistency and lose trust in the system. And the child herself would know that she had been given, not a gift, but a pass. This child would get the implicit message from her teachers, “we didn’t think you could do it.” Allowing this to happen would demonstrate a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, a failure of leadership.

In this regard, though, we understand that teachers are not students. Their stakes are higher. A failure by a teacher to meet the needs of a child, by being disrespectful to a student, by not challenging students fully, by physically invading their space or by failing to call them by their given names, is a different infraction. This must be met strenuously, and can’t so easily be forgiven. A teacher should never be the virus.

Not every line we draw at school is non-negotiable. Not every infraction requires the hardline response. At Gamble, promotion is one of those non-negotiables- there are clear expectations and you must meet them. For Dr. Perry in Hartford, the dress code was one (of many).

What are your non-negotiables? Comment with a time you made a hard stand on an issue.

Pigeon Key: A Glimpse Into the Heart and Soul of Education

-by Krista Taylor

“Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.”(Maria Montessori)

Imagine, if you will, forty-five 8th graders waiting for a plane to depart. A woman  asked if we were all “taking a vacation.”

airplane

It’s not a vacation,” exclaimed Sabelle, “it’s an EXPERIENCE!”

She couldn’t have said it better. The trip we take with our 8th graders each May to Pigeon Key, Florida is an experience. This year I had the opportunity to go on the trip for the first time, and I can only describe it as life-changing . . . for my students . . . and for me.

I have been on powerful multi-day field experiences with my students many times before, but nothing compares to this one.

It is so much more than a field trip. What is it exactly? It seems impossible to properly capture the magnitude of this trip – the awe and wonder, the beauty, the precious time.  So what is it?  Here’s my best answer.

It is an immersive marine biology study.

It is a hands-on exploration of human impact and the critical importance of conservation of our natural world.

It is a time for students to face personal challenges and to reflect on their growth.

It is an opportunity for students to develop and demonstrate leadership skills.

It is a rite of passage marking the conclusion of junior high and the readiness to move on to high school.

Perhaps Qualey’s words, taken from her journal, best capture what it is that students are seeking from this experience.

Hopefully I change on this trip to be a better person. I’m really trying to think positive, so I can come home with a new attitude and learn how to love myself.”

Over and over again, the most powerful moments for me were the opportunities to view the experiences on this trip through my students’ eyes and to witness their transformative power. The only way I can properly capture that is by sharing students’ written journal reflections and their spoken comments.

(Note: Although, there were 45 students on this trip, the majority of the student comments in this post were written by those in my “grading group.”  I believe that they are an accurate reflection of the thoughts and feelings of all the students.   While we generally use pseudonyms to protect students’ privacy, in order to be able to give them credit for their written work, names in this post have not been changed.)

Getting There

 For many of our students, this was their first experience on a plane. During the days leading up to the trip, they shared their fears about what could happen on the flight. As we settled into the aircraft on the morning of the trip, I could see the anxiety on their faces, even though most of them were trying to conceal it. Our group was split up, so many students were sitting with strangers. How I wished that I could be seated next to each of them – to provide reassurance and to watch their eyes grow wide as they went above the clouds for the first time.

The poem that Hadiyah wrote in her journal that evening best captures the worry, wonder, and exhilaration that so many of them experienced.

“Her hand was steady and safe

Replacing my mom and dad at the same time for small moments.

Rising turned the clouds into grass and the people into ants.

Laughter crowded the aisle way;

Familiar voices taunted my ears.

 

I awed as the sky never seemed to end.

Imagination flooding my mind —

It was impossible to pull my eyes away,

Ground like a hot wheel track beneath me,

Clouds casting giant shadows that I never noticed before.

 

The higher we went the more of a map I saw,

While voids of clouds all over

Making me feel like a drawing on a piece of paper.

The sky never seeming to end,

Glancing at my peers seeing their excitement and glee.

 

Time seemed to go slow

Stretching out every moment

The pain in my ears traveling to my head

What a lovely flight of mine

What a lovely time of mine”

 

hands

It is easy to minimize the level of challenge of a first flight, and the sense of pride that comes with conquering this fear. This is what Michael wrote about that experience, “When I got off the plane I felt a sense of accomplishment because it was my first time being on an airplane, and I conducted myself in a professional manner.”

Every time I looked at them on this first day, I felt as if my heart would simply burst with love. They were so open and vulnerable and tender. Such joy written on each of their faces. And finally, after 2 flights, a long bus ride, and a ferry trip, we arrived on Pigeon Key

On Pigeon Key    http://pigeonkey.net/contact/

PK_aerial_enews

Pigeon Key is a five-acre island accessible only by boat, which is dedicated to marine research, education, and the preservation of the history of the island.

The island truly feels remote — like getting away from it all. It is, figuratively and literally, “off the grid,” getting its water from a pipe that runs along 7-mile Bridge (Henry Flagler’s extension of the old Florida East Coast Railway) — and 95% of its electricity from a solar array, with the remaining 5% coming from on-island generators.

Without the distractions of traffic, commercialism, and electronic devices, students were able to experience the natural world in a way that they had never done before.

morning meetingSam wrote, “The United Leaders group went out to the dock and did morning meeting. It was so peaceful on the dock. When I felt peaceful I finally got the feeling of where I was. I saw the sun rise over the water and the palm trees making gentle waveing motions, I felt so excited to be in the place I am.”

Solo Time

Practicing “solo time” is a regular component of our Montessori philosophy. It requires students to spend a period of time in silence. While they are generally in proximity to one another during this time, they are not permitted to interact. They may draw, read, journal, reflect, etc., but they may not do work or sleep. While we typically conduct solo time in the classroom, being on Pigeon Key allowed the experience to be so much richer. Students who often grumble about disliking solo time were begging to be able to do it longer. Many of them recorded their experience in their journals.

solo HWNasiha: “I loved solo time because I got to look at the bright sky going down by the horizon. It was so beautiful. It made me feel so peaceful and calm. Usually I don’t like solo time because I never see the point, but now I like it because of the outside feel and the view.”

solo distance

 

Cornell: “The solo time was literally the best solo time I’ve ever had. Like at first I was worried but then something helped me out, and I could really focus. It’s like you never notice how beautiful everything is with all the negativity around America and humanity. During the solo time I got to see nautical beauty and worry about nothing. It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything. It was pretty cool too, like I wanted there to be more time.”

It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything.”

Learning Together

Hands-on work and real-world experiences are fundamental to Montessori education. The impact of learning this way was demonstrated profoundly on Pigeon Key.classroom

This was our classroom.

 

 

 

 

planktonWe learned about plankton, and then collected samples and examined them under microscopes.

 

 

 

 

jellyfishWe studied jellyfish, and then in the Cassiopeia Stress Lab activity, we explored how various types of water-changes impact these animals.

 

 

 

squid

 

We had presentations on squid and shark – followed by dissections of each.

shark Takko

My favorite lesson, however, was on species commonly found in tide pool areas of the Florida Keys. We then went tide-pooling and had close encounters at the touch tanks with the creatures we found. The students utterly transformed during this. They were so full of joy and delight. I loved seeing them this way.

tidepooling

Within minutes of wading in the water, all the students were eagerly engaged in turning over rocks, investigating, identifying, and handling what they found . . . and just having fun together. The air was full of cries of:  “Oooh look what I found.”

 “Wait, what’s this?!”

 “Look, that’s a big one!”

 “Oh my God what’s that?”

The kids were far more successful at finding things than I was, but Arianna helped me out.

“Hey Ms. Taylor, these are those anemones that grab onto you when you touch them!”

“What?!”

“Look, touch them. They grab onto your finger!”

“Whoa! How did you know they would do that?”

“We learned about it in our lesson yesterday!”

touch tanks 1

 

At the touch tank: Michael didn’t want to handle anything. Wtouch tanks 4hen I insisted, and held his hands while placing first a sea urchin and then a brittle sea star into them, he exclaimed, “I’m not even scared. . . Oh, yes, I am!”

 

 

 

While nocturnal tide-pooling, I overheard this priceless exchange between Destiny and Jermiah:

touch tanks 5

“I found a sea star!”

“No, WE found a sea star!”

“Well, I found it!”

“Well, I picked it up!”

 

Hadiyah described the impact of this lesson in her journal, “One thing that was a surprise for me was how fun the touch tank was. All the organisms were so cool. I wish I could have stayed with them forever.”

The Coral Reef

But snorkeling at Looe Key and Sombrero Reef were perhaps the most intense experiences of the entire trip. We had been preparing for this for months, but our work began in earnest with snorkeling practice on our first day on Pigeon Key. Although a few students were ready and willing to jump right in and use their snorkel gear, many others were not. We had a few non-swimmers, and some who had never been to the ocean before.

snorkeling lesson 2

Cornell was initially fearful just walking in the shallows – he held my hand, and we had to countdown from 10 and go underwater together in order to get him to get his head wet. The PK staff worked intensely with him and within 30 minutes we heard, “I’m doing it! I’m swimming!

snorkeling lesson 3Next, it was time to jump off the dock with snorkel, mask, and fins – demonstrate being horizontal with face in the water, and dive and clear a snorkel pipe. Cornell didn’t wait until the end of the group this time, and only needed a countdown from three. Off the dock he went. Thirty minutes earlier, he couldn’t swim and was nervous to wade!

PK snorkeling 3But snorkeling at the reefs brought another level of challenge. We took a boat out to the site, which is in the middle of the ocean – no land anywhere to be seen. The water was deeper, and even in the shallow areas, in order to protect the coral, we were not allowed to stand. However, once we put out faces in, we were immediately immersed in an underwater world of colorful life.

PK snorkeling 1

 

All but one of our 45 students made it into the water. While snorkeling at Looe Key, we saw several fairly large reef sharks. As a result, a number of students didn’t stay in the water for very long on that first day.

PK snorkeling shark

 

shark video

 

 

 

They were disappointed in themselves, and most of them set a goal to spend more time in the water the next day at Sombrero Reef. Almost all of them did this, and experienced the pride that comes with meeting a challenge you’ve set for yourself.

Michael: “Another very powerful part of this trip was when we went snorkeling because I was very scared to even get into the water. This really changed my view on deep waters and swimming near dangerous animals because I didn’t want to stay in the water for one second on the first day, but on the second day, I was aggravated I even had to get out!”

Alvin: “At Pigeon Key I overcame my fear of snorkeling with sharks. I am most proud of myselPK snorkeling 4f for being gritty in everything I did down in Pigeon Key. It made me realize that I have to be gritty in everything I do in my life.” 

 

 

 PK snorkeling 6

Cornell: “The trip also helped me understand the beauty of the world. Like seeing all those fish and coral. I got so much salt water in my mouth from laughing/smiling when I saw how amazing everything was. It was amazing to just look at it for minutes and sort of just see natural beauty. It’s so beautiful, you know? The world where it’s natural and protected.”

Hadiyah’s Snorkeling Poem once again manages to express the many thoughts and feelings that snorkeling at the reef elicited.

 “Fear crept up my spine

The water like a Gatorade blue

Acting like it had secrets to hide

The deepness threatening me

But under me, something filled with wonder

 

Jumping so quick I almost missed it

Switching snorkles as fast as people end relationships.

Drawing in excitement

Wanting to see everything I ever learned

Curiosity like a small child and a TV

 

Pain in my eyes and throat couldn’t stop me.

Not then, not ever

The type of beauty that could make a grown man cry

It gave a sense of courage.

A sense of passion.

 

Together one minute

Alone the next.

The pointing,

The tapping

The thank yous

 

It felt like days under there.

Permanently burned in my brain

Fragments never to be forgotten

Having new friends

And cherishing them, all in three hours.”

 Maria Montessori was right. True education “is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.” These lessons can’t be learned in the classroom.

Building Relationships

 On this trip, the students learned as much about themBeach 2selves, and each other, as they did about the world around them. They had opportunities to view themselves, and each other, in a new light. They had fun together, and as they did so, they saw themselves changing and growing, and they saw strengths in one another.

Zakeerah’s journal noted a typical adolescent concern, and the tender way her peers took care of her.

“I was worried that no one would want to sit next to me on the bus, and then Dorey took my face in her hands and said, ‘You are a smart and beautiful person.’ If I could have blushed I would have. Then Takko sat next to me on the bus.”

 Hadiyah: “I got to know Sam a lot more today. He is really chill and smart. I like that we are closer now. I already knew he was funny, just not THAT funny.”

Michael: “I was really skeptical about how I would fit in with the other 8th graders I didn’t really know. I think this experience really changed my outloBeach 3ok on a lot of things . . . This trip also helped me bond with a lot of my classmates, who I usually don’t talk to or haven’t really got a chance to know. I didn’t really take to heart not judging a book by its cover, but once I got to meet and bond with a lot of the other 8th graders in Pigeon Key, I felt like I had been lost because I could have found these people and talked to them earlier.”

 

And Qualey, who noted at the beginning of the trip that she hoped to learn to love herself, later wrote: “I don’t know, but today, I see myself changing in a good way, and I’m so proud of myself for growing up and trying to be a positive young lady.”

On this trip, I had the privilege of watching them grow up right before our eyes.

 Transitions

 We hold a rite of passage ceremony on our final night on the island. (This ceremony is a well-kept secret at Gamble. Older students, even older siblings, don’t share the details of this ritual with younger students.) As a part of this closing celebration, students receive packets of letter from teachers and family members – each letter acknowledging the student for the gifts the writer sees in them. They read these letters during their final solo time. It is incredibly powerful for them.

Michael: “It was very impactful for me when I read my letters from the teachers and my family because it showed how much others appreciate me, and I never really knew that so many people actually cared about me. That really lit up my day because I was already a bit mad because I didn’t want to go home.”

Closing Ceremony Poem Excerpts

 “I cried harder at each letter that filled my mind.

Before we were all blinded teenagers.

Thinking nobody cared,

Nobody could come close to understanding.

When everybody tried to.

                                                      (Hadiyah)

 

Teachers crying, students crying

Everyone crying because

They really care for

Each other. Some tears

Of joy, other tears of

Disappointment or sorrow.

 

We’re being set free

Like baby birds finally

Learning to fly. Uncomfortable

At first, but later confident

Because we have the tools

We need to succeed in life.”

                                               (Michael)

And There is Magic

 The Pigeon Key trip is an intense week full of many, many powerful experiences. Each of these moments swirled together spark sheer and absolute magic.

One evening as we were preparing for bed, Qualey looked up at me and asked, seemingly out of nowhere “Ms. Taylor, Do you think I’m going to be ready for high school next year?”

And my response: “Oh, Qualey, I know you’re going to be ready for high school next year,”

There were so many vulnerable and tender moments like this. It was an absolute honor to get to participate in and witness students’ transformation. It is experiences like these that make teaching worth all the challenges. It is why teachers do what we do. We get to stand beside children, and to serve as their guides.

The school year ended mere days after returning to Cincinnati, and our two-year time together came to an end. These students will move on to our high school program next year. I will miss them.

This is Hadiyah’s response to what she would tell future students.

“I will tell them that Pigeon Key is a miracle place, andsunset finally, that it was like a never-ending dream.”

I feel the same way.

 

 

**This trip is a monumental opportunity for our students, but as you can imagine, it is quite expensive.  The cost per student is $1,700.  With 70% of our students eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program, this amount is a significant hardship for many of our families.  This year, we were able to provide upwards of $12,000 in scholarships through contributions made to the Gamble Montessori Foundation; however, even with that support, only about half of our 8th graders were able to go on the trip.  My dream is that someday they will all get to go.  If you are interested in helping with this, I am more than happy to provide further information about how to donate, and about how financial aid decisions are made.  Feel free to contact me at taylorkrista70@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

-by Jack M. Jose

Years ago, after the last day of school, I was rushing to clean up my room and finishing items on my check-out sheet. I was trying diligently to accomplish the work that stood between me and my hard-earned summer. I was hot and tired, it felt like I had been battling my students for the last two weeks of school. I was ready to be finished.

Jerry walked into the room with a friend of his I had seen a couple of times. Jerry and I had battled all year. He seemed impervious to encouragement, scolding, poor grades, phone calls home, conferences, and other tactics I could manage in the early stages of my teaching career. He insisted on not doing much work outside of the classroom, and seemed satisfied with the mix of Ds and Fs on his report card.

“I’m out, Mr. Jose. I’m gone and you ain’t gonna see me again, I’m done with this place.” He waived a withdrawal paper in my direction. “Bye.”

In my frustration, and exhaustion, I dismissed him. “Well, go on then. What’s the difference, you weren’t doing much work anyway.”

His entire disposition changed, and his next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.” He gestured to his friend who followed him into the emptying hallways and out the front door of the building.

Now, this was not exactly a difficult conversation, in the sense of a conversation where an important message had to be delivered and understood. This was a simple, short impromptu exchange between a teacher and a student. The way that I screwed the conversation up is apparent in the re-telling, but very human in the moment. Here is what I missed, upon reflection: a student who I had struggled with all year, in whom I had invested hours of calls, meetings, papers getting corrected, and conversations at his desk and in the hallway, was looking forward to leaving the school where he struggled. Before he left, however, he stopped in to see me. I believed at first that he had shown up to tell me off, and so I sort of beat him to the punch. My response to him was, essentially, “Good riddance.” Only after time could I see that he was probably more eager to leave the school and be done than I was, and yet he went out of his way, up to my second floor classroom, to visit me. I see now that there is another, better interpretation of his visit. This young man, who struggled with school, and who had finished his last day and was in fact leaving the school for good, stuck around at the end of the day to come see me and to tell me he was leaving. It is apparent to me that quite possibly he appreciated my effort, and felt that we had forged a connection. I was worth sticking around for, on the last day of school.

Periodically, it becomes clear that a particular topic for the blog, or a particular skill or habit we practice at Gamble Montessori, was derived almost entirely from one particular book, (Or, as in the post “Giving an A”, one particular chapter of a book.) This post is similar. However, instead of being a memory of a book that helped in the past, this book arises both because it made an impact AND because it still has some wisdom to impart. That book is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Douglas; Patton, Bruce, and Heen, Sheila, 1999.)

One of my cousins confessed to me that he really didn’t ever enjoy coming to church, so he only came a couple times a year. We had just attended a holiday ceremony with our extended family and were walking out of the nave. He marveled aloud at how each time “the sermon seems to be talking to me, about me.” He stopped the act of loosening his tie and made eye contact with me. “It’s spooky. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was something to this church thing.”

That is how I feel about Difficult Conversations. It is downright discouraging to note that almost every word in the introduction about the need for this book – especially the unwillingness of people to have the hard conversations necessary to sustain their most vital relationships – seems to fit my ongoing situation, and me personally. It’s spooky.

DaringGreatly-EngagedFeedback-8x10
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown discusses the power of vulnerability – revealing your mistakes or flaws to make it okay for other people to show theirs. Vulnerability, paired with contribution, can be a pathway to powerful and life-altering conversations.

The work of teachers and administrators is fraught with difficult conversations, especially this time of the year. The student whose 4th quarter push fell short, the parent frustrated with a disciplinary action taken late in the year, questions about the evaluation of adults in the building, from paraprofessionals to the principal, all bring challenges to the professional’s judgment and integrity.

One reassurance I take from this book is the authors’ constant reminder that avoiding hard conversations is a common human coping strategy. Our jobs are hard, life is complicated, and things will eventually sort themselves out. So we all avoid.

Of course, I can’t detail most of the hard conversations I have, or the ones I haven’t had. Their intensity and their private nature is what makes them so hard to have, and makes them unfit for sharing here.

In outline, Difficult Conversations examines the ways that each hard discussion is like the others. While acknowledging that there are many different kinds of important hard conversations, each of those conversations have three definable conversations happening within them.

The “What Happened?” Conversation – this occurs when something important goes wrong, due to miscommunication or other factors, and the participants cannot discuss the issues below the surface that created the conflict. Some teachers’ relationships are so strained from past experiences that when they need to work together to accomplish a goal, they struggle to address each other. Even when something insignificant happens, they fail to communicate effectively, and cannot address the issue, instead retreating into blame, which solves nothing.

The Feelings Conversation – in conflict, especially in the professional world, we attempt to eliminate feelings to stay focused on “business.” However, these conversations are hard because they deal primarily with feelings, and failing to acknowledge and address them keeps the conflict alive even if the current issue seems resolved. Krista reminds me of this all the time. Often this is inseparable from the “What Happened” conversation, except that when the feelings, especially of disrespect, go unaddressed, the “What Happened” conversation can never get fully resolved.

The Identity Conversation – in every exchange, each individual is conscious of what their stance and the outcome reveal about them, the speaker. These conversations are often a challenge not because of their importance to the company or the relationship, but because they force us to confront and perhaps question a deeply held belief about ourselves. For instance, a teacher might not want to speak with me about their interaction with a student that led to a conflict with the student. A teacher who sees herself as a loving advocate for students might not want to face the suggestion that she mishandled the interaction with a student, or to learn that there is something to do to repair the relationship.

In these conversations, we consistently take a limited amount of knowledge, that portion derived from our own perspective and experience, and we draw all of our conclusions from that incomplete starting point. We also make judgments about the other person based on our past experience with them.

Our human tendency to misunderstand another’s actions, what is described in the book as the “first mistake” in judging others’ intentions, caused me to horribly bungle the interaction with Jerry on the last day of school. I believed I knew his intentions, and responded to that belief, rather than to his words. In doing so, I made a mistake that I can never repair. Fortunately, I can learn from my experiences, and not repeat the mistake. Well, not that PARTICULAR mistake!

His next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.”

Instead of having the “what happened” conversation at all, we both acted on emotions. I was reacting to my personal frustration and tiredness without regard to Jerry’s situation at all. Instead of addressing feelings, we left them below the surface of our words, sharp rocks just under the waters offshore. What if I had expressed just my feelings, “Jerry, I need to say that this news is so frustrating for me. I feel like I worked really hard with you this year, and that you are sort of throwing that away.” How differently would that exchange have gone? Finally, there is the identity conversation. I put Jerry in a place where he needed to show his friend he controlled the situation and that he did not need school. I put him there because in that moment, my view of myself as an effective teacher had been severely damaged.

Instead, I attacked. Stone, Patton, and Heen effectively address the common conversational misstep that always feels like an attack: the tendency to assign blame, typically to someone other than ourselves. This is not a type of conversation, it is a tendency to pre-litigate the situation in our heads, then have the whole conversation as if trying to prove that it was someone’s fault, rather than to determine the best way forward. As a teacher, it is a simple habit to assign blame to the student; as an administrator, to the teacher or student. This is a common cause of conflict between people in working relationships, especially between teachers and students. Perhaps you have seen a version of this conversation play out in your classroom: “You didn’t do the work correctly/completely.” “Well, you didn’t explain the assignment very clearly.” This creates conflict from the outset of the conversation, and is often resolved by the teacher “pulling rank,” and the unintended consequence is the student feeling like he is no longer in a cooperative environment, and is instead fighting against the assignment and the teacher.

Many of us chose teaching or education-related fields because we want to help others. I suspect this is why I commonly find others – and myself – making a special version of the blame mistake: blaming themselves. This can often lead to avoidance, meaning important conversations don’t happen at all.

Here is how that happens. A teacher fails to turn in an assignment, such as a printout of their grade distribution, at the end of the quarter. Instinctively, I think “that teacher usually does a really good job at handing things in on time, I must not have communicated very clearly.” Then I make a note for how to nudge them, perhaps by adding a friendly reminder in the bulletin, or mentioning it in the blog, hoping, perhaps in futility, that they will read it and amend their ways. I feel good because I gently reminded them, indirectly without blame or confrontation. Meanwhile, the teacher might remain blissfully unaware; either they have forgotten about the assignment, or they are too busy to complete it at this time (and probably too busy to closely review the bulletin or read the blog), or they thought they turned it in. In short, they are not benefiting from the lack of a conversation, and the work is not getting done.

That is the heart of these difficult conversations. In all of the places where the gears of the school are grinding instead of smoothly meshing, there is a challenging conversation to be had. In each, all three conversations – what happened, feelings, and identity – need to be acknowledged. The inclination to blame should be repressed.

Instead of blame, one should focus the conversation on “contribution” instead. Perhaps all of the aspects mentioned above are contributing factors – perhaps notification could have been clearer or more pervasive, and perhaps the teacher was very busy and deprioritized the important work of examining their quarterly grades. Focusing on contribution allows for the reality that inactions or mistakes often have multiple causes. Reality is messy. However, the work still needs to get done. In this case the hard conversation needs to be initiated by the person who recognizes the problem, and needs to be had promptly, preferably with neutral language. For instance, rather than addressing my concern passively through the bulletin, I might approach the teacher and say, “Good morning, my records indicate that you did not turn in your grade distribution at the end of this quarter.” This wording feels very different from “why didn’t you turn in …” which clearly (and perhaps inaccurately) assigns blame to the teacher. In this case, the teacher could identify the problem, and provide information. “That’s odd, I thought I sent it to you already. Did you see the email I sent entitled ‘Pesky B’s’? It seems like every class had a large percentage of B’s, which struck me as odd.”

Here is what I did:

  • I named the situation (you did not turn in your grade distribution)
  • I identified how it came to my attention (my records indicate)
  • I stripped blame from the statement while still naming the concern
  • I allowed for any possibility in the answer – seeking contribution, and allowing for the possibility that my records were flawed

Focusing on contribution allows me to have the conversation with the teacher without blaming, and without violating my “identity conversation” with myself – that I see myself as a fair and supportive teacher-leader, rather than a demanding principal. And in this case, the teacher was able to address the issue without blame, and point out that the work had been submitted in a format I was not expecting. Accountability was maintained, my opinion of the teacher was confirmed, and I did nothing to discount their professionalism.

Even as I recount successes and failures, it is clear that this book’s most powerful use is as a reference kept within arm’s length of your workstation, to be consulted whenever a hard conversation presents itself. If you are human, like me, this will often come in handy.