A few weeks ago, I was walking through one of our high school hallways at the bell change. As teenage bodies spilled out of doorways and began making their way to their next class, I was quickly surrounded by former students looking for hugs. After wrapping my arms around the first two or three, I heard an approaching student ask, “Can I get one, too?” I laughed and replied, “Of course. You belong to me.” This was immediately followed by a deep voice coming from down the hallway, “What about me? Do I belong to you, too?” I looked to see who the speaker was and saw Malcolm, a senior football star, who I had taught four years earlier in the eighth grade. “Yes, absolutely,” I began to respond, when I was interrupted by a different voice coming from the other direction, “I get one first. I belonged to her before you did.” Ethan, another senior, was right. I had taught him in the seventh grade. He had, indeed, belonged to me first.
They all belong to me. I suspect that most teachers feel this way about their students. After all, we spend time with them every day for most of a year, or in the case of Montessori teachers, for two or even three years. Our students belong to us because we know who they are.
And knowing who they are is critical for understanding what they need from us. What they need from us in order to make academic gains. What they need from us in order to develop personal responsibility and leadership skills. And what they need from us in order to get through difficult situations or interactions.
Being aware of the importance of knowing my students left me in a quagmire, however, at an important moment in my career.
Sixty-seven percent. That was the number I was banking on. I was running discipline data, and I already knew that 67% was my golden number – the percentage I didn’t want to exceed.
But . . .the results were yielding something different.
90%, 87%, 85%, 90%, 82%, 84%
These numbers weren’t just above 67%; they were way above it.
As I ran quarter after quarter of discipline data, I kept hoping to see something different, a change in the trend, or at least an outlier or two.
But that wasn’t the case. Every quarter, the same pattern emerged: our Black students were involved in disciplinary infractions at far higher rates than any other racial group, and at far higher rates than their representation in our population would indicate – 67%.
As Gamble’s Positive School Culture Committee Chair, I had begun this process because we were curious about a blip we saw in the student survey data related to school climate. When we disaggregated the responses by race for the questions that dealt with fairness of consequences, we noted that our black students felt that consequences were less fair than our white students. The rest of the responses were fairly consistent across racial demographics, so it caught our attention when we saw that 52% of our African-American students felt that consequences for misbehavior were seldom or almost never fair; whereas only 34% of our white students felt this way.
It wasn’t a huge gap; it was just bigger than anything we had seen in response to the other survey questions. However, it caused us to pause and reflect on what it might mean. This survey question was about student perception, but we realized that if we disaggregated our discipline data the same way that we had for the survey data, that we would be able to compare reality to perception.
Which is how I found myself repeatedly staring at my computer screen in disbelief and horror as every quarter showed nearly the same thing about our discipline data – our Black students were markedly over-represented.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. These results aren’t different from what has been widely reported nationally: students of color face harsher and more frequent disciplinary consequences than their white counterparts. In fact, the national data shows a significantly wider discrepancy than the data at Gamble. Proportionally, our data notes that every 1.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of our Black population; whereas nationally 2.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of Black students.
Doing better than the national average is not, however, something to celebrate. The cost of these high-level discipline responses is high. We know that suspensions and expulsions lead to a decreased likelihood that students will graduate from high school and an increased likelihood that these students will wind up incarcerated. On average, one out of every three African-American males will be incarcerated during their lifetime.
None of this was new information for me. I just didn’t want any of it to be true at Gamble. I wanted my school to be different. I didn’t want us to be culpable. I wanted my students to be protected. Unfortunately, that’s not what our data indicated
Schoolhouse Rock taught us, “Knowledge is Power.” Now that we had the knowledge, what were we going to do with it?
Turns out, it’s easier to compile the data than it is to address what it shows. There is no quick fix solution.
We decided that the first step was to be transparent — to share the data and to acknowledge our concern about it. To this end it was shared on teacher teams and at PTO; some of our high school teachers shared it with students as well.
Those of us who teach junior high chose not to share it with students. We didn’t know how to craft the conversation in such a way that it would be structured and pro-active, and we didn’t know how to guide our students toward recognizing both the gravity and the complexity of the situation.
So, for more than a year, we did nothing.
Although, I suppose, it wasn’t really nothing. It weighed on all of our minds as, tragically, during the same time frame, police shootings of black males – another example of implicit racial bias – was repeatedly in the public eye.
Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Brendon Glenn, Sam DuBose, Gregory Gunn, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher …
It is not possible to see this list of names and not worry which of my students could join them.
We knew that we had to talk with them about all of this, but the prospect of that was so intimidating. I know there are other teachers, like this one, who were braver than I. There were teachers all over the country who were having these difficult conversations with their students.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to have these discussions – we did – we just wanted to make sure that we did it “right” – that we found the right materials, that we structured it well, that we prepared students correctly, that we tied the content to our cycle of study, that we identified the perfect time to have the conversation, and that we did everything within our power to ensure that it was a productive conversation, rather than a damaging one.
While each of these factors is important, waiting for this confluence of perfection was, of course, a subtle kind of avoidance. Waiting on perfect, allowed us to do nothing.
But, finally, this October, we began to find some traction. Our second quarter novel, After Tupac and D. Foster, included thematic undercurrents of racial bias. In light of this, Beau, my teaching partner, also assigned a reading about a study of implicit racial bias in preschool classrooms: Implicit Racial Bias Often Begins as Early as Preschool, A Study Finds by Yolanda Young.
With this assignment, the die was cast. Although we didn’t even realize it yet.
We didn’t yet know how profoundly this beginning would impact the entirety of the quarter, but we did know that we needed to be very conscientious about how we prepared our students for engaging in this conversation. Because we wanted all students to receive an identical message about the expectations for how we talk about these sensitive topics, we arranged the room to accommodate both of our seminar groups at the same time.
As we do before any seminar, we reminded students to keep their comments relevant to the text, to disagree with statements rather than people, to give everyone opportunities to speak, to not form alliances, and to be open to changing their minds.
But this time, because of the emotionally-charged subject matter, we had to provide additional guidance. We had never before explored such challenging content with our students. This type of careful preparation is critically important before embarking with students on any topic that is likely to elicit strong reactions.
We instructed students to give each other the benefit of the doubt. To be careful of their words but also to be honest and to risk making a mistake. To recognize that we might inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings and to be willing to share these feelings and question one another as a means of seeking understanding.
And then we began. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.
But, like in most things, our students rose to the challenge beautifully, and we had a powerful and engaging discussion. We hadn’t planned to bring up the school discipline data, but in both groups, the conversation naturally led in this direction. When that moment appeared, (and it happened nearly simultaneously in both groups), we openly shared the disproportionate percentages, and explained why they were concerning.
The students’ response was flabbergasting. I was prepared for them to be angry. I was prepared for them to be indignant. I was prepared for them to blame us.
I was not at all prepared for them to discount it entirely.
“That used to happen at my old school.”
“My teacher did that last year. I always got in trouble just because I am black.”
“I have a friend who says that happens at his school.”
And most notably, “Well, that probably happens in high school.”
The closest they came to seeing the data as personally impacting them was by claiming that if it was a problem in our building, it must be something that happens in our high school program and not about junior high … or them … or us.
Their interpretation is simply not true; the data contains no indication that there are differences between grade levels, and I am still dumbfounded as to why they responded in this way. Perhaps, like us, they simply needed more time to process it.
We hadn’t intended to make the concept of implicit racial bias and its impacts the subject of all our seminar discussions for the quarter, but the deeper we delved into the subject, the more there seemed to be to discuss. We decided to run with this idea, and each week throughout the quarter, we seminared on a different aspect of racial bias.
At times, our conversations were uncomfortable.
When reading about “Stop and Frisk” policies, a student asked whether that meant that every police officer who engaged in this type of policing was racist. That’s a touchy question to answer, but it helped us examine the difference between individual racism and societal racism, as well as the difference between overt racism and implicit racism.
During one discussion, a white student courageously noted, “Somewhere, deep down inside, everybody is at least a teeny, tiny bit racist.” This comment elicited strong reactions, but it helped us to turn the lens on ourselves.
On several occasions during the quarter, when given behavioral redirection, students accused us of racial bias. That felt terrible, but these challenges helped us to reflect carefully on our reactions and responses to student behavior.
It was through this process of self-reflection that I realized that we had made a mistake – we had skipped a step.
Maria Montessori said, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” This is one of my favorite quotations, and yet I had forgotten it here.
The teacher must prepare herself. It was not just our students who were impacted by these difficult conversation; we were experiencing this, too. We had been guiding them, but had failed to use our resources to prepare ourselves.
Confronting the societal demon of racism in a mixed-race group of colleagues is a daunting task. We agreed to commit one meeting a month to discussing this topic through the lens of a variety of resources that we would take turns providing. Like we did with students, we established special meeting norms for creating a “Courageous Space” in which to engage in these conversations.
This work is an ongoing process, but so far we have watched Bryan Stevenson’s video Confronting Injustice and read John Metta’s article “I, Racist” and engaged in rich conversations on each.
None of this is enough. None of it marks our ending place, but taken together, it is our beginning. We have embarked upon this journey. It is a complicated one, and it requires us to be brave. And to be humble.
It requires us to take a hard look at both what is happening around us, and what exists within us. Next week’s post will detail the initial work we did with our students to help them synthesize their learning and their experiences, and to guide them toward activism.
 U.S. Department Of Education Office For Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION 1 (2014): 1-24.Education Week. U.S. Department of Education, Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2017. <http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf>.
 Amurao, Caria. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.
At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.
Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
This post was originally published on 9/19/16; however it reflects the commonality of our fall camp experience each year. This year our camping trip takes place the weeks of 8/28 and 9/5. In order for every student to participate, we are actively seeking donations for student scholarships. If you are interested in helping, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.
What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?
Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously. Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.
I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.
originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17
by Krista Taylor
Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.
It was the witching hour at fall camp. That tricky time that happens each day as the afternoon activity wraps up, dinner preparation must begin, and the canoeing group, which necessarily includes the bulk of teachers and chaperones, hasn’t yet returned to the campground. What this all means is too many wound-up students and not enough adult hands to go around.
I had just led our afternoon activity of a serious Olympic Games competition. This consisted of multiple activities such as wheelbarrow races, leapfrog races, football tosses, and one-legged stands. You know, all the famous Olympic sports.
Hilarity had ensued as student less-than-gracefully leap-frogged over each other and attempted to distract each other from standing stock-still on one leg for an unfathomable amount of time. The event culminated in a raucous Olympic medal ceremony replete with extremely off-key anthem singing.
And, this year, there had been a little thunder thrown in for good measure – just to help keep everyone calm.
And thus the witching hour began with 25 hyped-up adolescents and me. I needed to get them settled and working on their packets, so I could begin overseeing dinner crew, but I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to manage the transition.
I must have felt really desperate because I threw all caution to the wind and tried something new – all the while being absolutely certain that there was no way it would work.
I put on my best serious and quiet “Montessori voice” — not an easy feat on the third day of camp right after the Olympic games and just before an impending thunderstorm – and I said, “Do you guys remember last week when I told you about The Silence Game?”
Maria Montessori designed The Silence Game in her work with young children. She asked the children to be quiet, to “create silence,” and then she waited across the room from them and called their names individually in a barely audible voice. When a child heard his name called, he would walk across the room as quietly as possible and sit down silently.
I had introduced this concept to my students the previous week as the foundation of the practice of solo time that we use in the Montessori adolescent classroom. So in the controlled chaos of the moments just following our Olympic games, I told my students that we were going to play this game. I asked them to create silence, and when I tapped them on the shoulder they were to silently walk over to the pavilion area, have a seat, and begin working on their assignment packets.
I really did not think it was going to work.
But it did. This cluster of pubescent energy that differed little from a litter of puppies, closed their eyes and stilled. As I quietly moved among them, tapping them on the shoulder, they remained silent and practically floated, one at a time, toward the pavilion.
I very nearly giggled in my astonishment at the game’s success. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
In The Soul of Education, Rachel Kessler identifies the yearning of silence and solitude as one of the seven gateways to the adolescent soul.
“The longing for silence and solitude, often an ambivalent domain, is fraught with both fear and urgent need. As a respite from the tyranny of ‘busyness’ and noise, silence may be a realm of reflection, of calm or fertile chaos, an avenue of stillness and rest for some, prayer and contemplation for others.”
Montessori used The Silence Game to help young children develop focus and concentration as she asked them to remain silent for gradually longer increments of time.
In the busyness and constant engagement of today’s world, children need this opportunity to practice silence even more than they did during Montessori’s time. A recent study conducted by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds to eight seconds. To put this into perspective, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. 
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimuli such that, for many of us, silence and stillness are uncomfortable. We are easily bored and seek out the next engaging thing, often through ready access to mobile devices.
And yet there is plenty of evidence that our brains need this silence and solitude. Spending time in silence:
Relieves stress and tension
Replenishes mental resources
Allows the brain to access its default mode leading to deep and creative thinking
Classrooms are busy places. There is little time or opportunity to rest, and yet neuroscience is discovering that the rewards of silence are great.
In the secondary Montessori classroom, Kessler’s concept of an adolescent longing for silence and solitude is combined with Montessori’s philosophy that the child can be taught to focus by being asked to practice silence for increasing periods of time. We call this work “solo time.”
Solo time consists of a period of time lasting anywhere from ten minutes to forty-five minutes. Some schools practice solo time daily; other schools do it once a week. During solo time, students must engage in a silent, independent activity. Choices often include coloring, journaling, reading, sketching, puzzles, Play-Doh, Legos or other building material, or just sitting in meditative silence.
When the concept is first introduced, many students take immediate joy in participating in solo time, but quite a few students, and even some adults, actively dislike it. They find it hard to remain still, they are bored, and they are drawn to whisper to their peers, move around the classroom, or otherwise meet their need for greater stimulation. At the beginning of the year, after each of the first few times we “do solo,” we discuss, as a class, what this experience was like. Many students describe how challenging it is for them to be still and to refrain from interaction with others. Some require behavioral redirection to be able to comply with these seemingly simple expectations.
Over time, however, almost all students develop enjoyment for this quiet time.
Solo time is especially powerful when it is conducted outside. Sometimes, we are able to do this on school grounds; however, we also hold outdoor solo time during our overnight field experiences. Our most profound of these experiences is the 8th grade culminating trip to Pigeon Key, Florida. Solo time on Pigeon Key is especially transcendent because it feels so remote from “the real world,” and thus really provides the opportunity for deep silence and solitude. Students are powerfully affected by experiencing solo time in this setting, and they beg to do it more often and for longer periods of time.
Last year after the solo time on the first night on the island, Cavin wrote this in his journal.
“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 had wanted there to be more time.”
His words are especially profound because he had been battling depression all year, and had spent some time in the hospital due to suicidal ideation. What greater gift could we give him then an opportunity, even if just for a few minutes, “to worry about nothing?”
Solo time is just one way of embedding a practice of silence and solitude into the classroom.
It is all too easy to get caught up in all the things that need to be done in the limited time we are with our students. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we have five hours each day or just a single fifty-minute bell, the time is never enough. It’s hard to consider giving up any of this precious time to something as simple as silence.
And in the adolescent classroom, it can be equally hard to imagine that our students are actually going to cooperate in this. After all, the need for socialization is one of the critical hallmarks of the adolescent being. It is embedded in their very nature to interact nearly constantly with each other.
However, Kessler describes this gateway as a longing for silence and solitude. While on the surface, it may not be something students prioritize, they have a deep need for it.
In a similar vein, classroom mindfulness practices are growing and gaining national attention. A number of programs, such as Mindful Schools and CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators) have sprung up both as a means to train teachers to bring these practices into the classroom, and as a strategy to support teachers in coping with the stressors and demands of their job.
Public schools in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewherehave implemented the use of mindfulness both as a daily practice and as a way to help students calm down when they are engaged in conflict or misbehavior.
These programs are seeing powerful outcomes related to both reduced discipline and increased achievement. While there has not been a tremendous amount of research conducted on the impact of meditation on the developing brain, initial studies demonstrate some important benefits.
Mindfulness practices come at little to no cost, seem to have no negative impact, and have the potential for significant positive gains. Mindfulness is gaining ground as a structure that may be of great benefit to schools, teachers, and students, but why hasn’t this ancient concept been adopted sooner and more quickly in classrooms around the country?
I can only try and answer that question based on my own experience. I have been trained in bringing mindfulness practices into the classroom three times. Yes, I said three times. The first time I received this training was in 1999. Right. Eighteen years ago. I later completed two different mindfulness programs, in 2014 and in 2016, respectively. And yet I still have not implemented a mindfulness practice in my classroom.
Because it’s scary.
Imagine telling 30 adolescents to close their eyes, sit silently, and focus on their breath. Okay, admittedly, it doesn’t sound so scary when it’s written out like that, but in the moment it feels like the critical balance between control and chaos could be tipped at any moment. All it would take is for one student to say something goofy, or make a weird noise, or expose the practice as a sham, and suddenly, the whole class would be disrupted, and you would spend the remainder of the time trying to regain control of the group.
This is every teacher’s nightmare, but I have to admit I’ve never had this happen.
Each time I’ve dabbled in meditation in the classroom, it’s been incredibly well-received by students. Some students really appreciate it, and even ask for it. Most tolerate it without complaint, and none has ever been disruptive.
And yet, I still don’t have a developed mindfulness practice. #teachergoals2018
For now, we do solo time every week, and more frequently when we are on multi-day field experiences.
If, like me, you don’t feel ready to jump full-force onto the mindfulness bandwagon, there are many other ways, of bringing silent reflection into the classroom – including the establishment of a structured solo time.
CARE recommends implementing the following strategies as a way to get started:
Last week, my students and I were out of the building on a field experience. As our speaker wrapped up, he called on one final student who had his hand-raised. The student said, “I’d like to acknowledge you for taking the time to talk to us today and for answering all our questions.”
Acknowledgments are a regular practice at Gamble, and I typically ask students to provide acknowledgments for our hosts at the conclusion of our field experiences. This time, I had forgotten. But Peter had not.
When Carissa, who was sitting next to me, heard Peter’s unprompted acknowledgment, she turned to me, smiling, and whispered, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”
She didn’t know it, but her statement was akin to throwing me a lifeline. You see, it was just two days before spring break, and I was running from the specter of teacher burnout and losing ground fast. It was a race to the finish to see which would break first – the school year, or me.
Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” (Mirriam-Webster)
Teacher burnout is described in many ways, but I found this list of warning signs to be particularly helpful.
Exhaustion – a fatigue so deep that there’s no way to “turn it off”
Extreme graveness –Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing
Anxiety – The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more
Being overwhelmed – Questioning how you can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate
Seeking —Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm
Isolation –Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability
The stress and exhaustion of teaching is well documented. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 46% of teachers experience high levels of daily stress. This is on par with nurses, and tops the list of surveyed occupations.
Another indicator of stress and exhaustion is the statistic that 43% of teachers sleep an average of six or fewer hours a night. It’s little wonder then that “sleep” was the number one response my colleagues provided in answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about spring break?”
This continual stress and exhaustion leads to burnout, but teacher burnout is more than just a problem for individual teachers and schools. It is so pervasive that it has profound impacts on the profession as a whole.
NPR cites the following concerning statistics: 
8% of teachers leave the field each year; only one-third of this attrition is due to retirement
50% of the teaching profession turns over every 7 years
40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
Enrollment in teacher-training programs has fallen 35% in the past five years; a loss of 240,000 teachers
What exactly is it that causes such high levels of stress in teaching? Those who are not in the field of education are often stymied by this. “Seven hour school days and all major holidays and summers off,” they reason. “What’s so stressful about that?”
However, the difference between the working hours obligated by the contract (as described above) and the fulfillment of the contractual requirements of the job (as described below) is profound. I used to count my work hours each week, but after spending a year consistently tallying 65-70 hour weeks, I stopped counting. It was too overwhelming. And I’m not different from any of my colleagues. All of us work a tremendous number of hours beyond our contractual obligation. Some of this is expected. No one goes into teaching actually believing that the work will be contained within school hours, but how does a contracted thirty-five hour week balloon into seventy hours of work?
Let’s begin with the school day. For me, five of the seven hours each day are spent actively teaching. I am fortunate to have two “planning bells” each day; however one of these is used every day for different variations of team meetings, and the other one is almost always consumed by parent conferences or other meetings. On average, I have one bell (50 minutes) a week that I can actually use to plan.
During my half hour lunch, I open my classroom to students who need help with their work, or who are just seeking a calmer and quieter option than the cafeteria. I eat and work. Sometimes I forget to eat.
I have meetings after school every day with the exception of Fridays, and the third Thursday of the month. These meetings run for 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I have back-to-back after-school meetings.
All of the remaining requirements of teaching must occur outside of the time already listed above. These requirements include:
My friends in business can’t understand. They ask me why I don’t just delegate some of this work. “Delegate?!” I laugh. “To whom??” Teachers are at the bottom of food chain; most of us have no one to whom to delegate. (I am fortunate to have a paraprofessional on my team; however she is shared by seven teachers, so her time is spread very thin.)
There are additional stressors beyond those of limited time as well. Some commonly cited external factors are:
Lack of resources
Test score pressure
Changing assessments and expectations
Lack of parental involvement
Ever-increasing paperwork requirements
It’s not a mystery why fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to become teachers. Those who do choose to enter the field of education join dedicated veteran teachers in seeing teaching as more than just a job. For most, teaching is a calling or a purpose.
Anything that is seen not just as a profession, but as a vocation, a mission, a passion, and a purpose requires an internal fire to fuel it. And all fires run the risk of being extinguished.
There is precious little fire-feeding oxygen left in American education, and this is showing up in extraordinarily high rates of burnout and teacher turnover.
So what can we do about it?
When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – “Teacher, heal thyself!”
“5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout”
“6 Signs of, and Solutions for, Teacher Burnout”
“7 Self-Care Strategies”
“10 Steps to Avoiding Teacher Burnout”
And my personal favorite …
“25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout”
Because that’s just what a stressed-out and overwhelmed teacher needs – 25 more things to add to her to-do list. Number 2 on that list, by the way, is “Smile.”
The message that these types of articles are sending is that burnout is a failure of the teacher to properly take care of herself.
I would be remiss if I failed to note that each of the suggestions on all of those lists are good ways to encourage people to take care of themselves, and they place the locus of control with the teacher, which is empowering. My issue, however, is two-fold: these articles attempt to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and they ask the teacher whose internal fire is dying to re-kindle her own flame, when she is likely the person least able to do this.
Let’s start with the problem. I am often told that I “shouldn’t work so hard.” That’s a nice platitude, but I find it profoundly frustrating because when I ask which part of my job requirements I should fail to complete, or complete with marginal quality, in order to save myself some time, I never get an answer.
I often say that the greatest challenge of teaching should be educating the students in our classrooms. That’s a hard job all by itself for a wide-variety of reasons. When it is made harder by policies, inefficiencies, and bureaucracy, we have done everyone involved a grave disservice. I have previously written about the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed on teachers by educational legislation here and here.
A friend of mine who has studied organizational management had this to say regarding teacher burnout, “I think with what we are asking of teachers the question is, ‘How could teachers not be burned out, and how can all of us (administrators, community members, school boards) help to combat this?’”
And that’s just it. If education is important to our society, then teachers must be deemed important as well, and all of us must help to solve the societal problem of teacher burnout. Our children need good teachers, and good teachers work very hard. Keeping them in the profession is a shared responsibility.
Some action steps:
Vote for school levies, even if you don’t have a child in school – resources, especially as related to staffing (the greatest single expense), are key.
Speak out against the school reform madness – especially if you are a parent in an affluent school district.
Don’t participate in teacher or school bashing, or allow others to do the same – the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s teacher and school. The narrative that America has a preponderance of bad teachers and bad schools is simply not upheld by data.
Demand that your local school board set decent wages for teachers, and that they provide appropriate cost of living increases.
Support your child’s teacher – give the benefit of the doubt, encourage your child to develop independence, and nurture his or her self-advocacy skills before getting involved in potential school conflicts (see The Gift of Failure)
Acknowledge teachers for the positive work that they do – better yet share these acknowledgments with administrators. Parents with complaints readily share their concerns with administration; positive comments should be shared as well.
Don’t tell a teacher to “take time for herself – sleep, exercise, meditate, invite a friend for lunch, smile” unless you’re willing to help take something off her plate that allows her to do that.
If you know a teacher, ask how you can help – anyone can cut, collate, staple, hole punch.
Say thank you – again and again and again. This is why we do what we do.
I remain hopeful that those things can make a difference, but I don’t have much faith that the epidemic of teacher burnout will change soon. The anti-education “school reform” movement is powerful. It will take time to weaken its death grip on the throat of public schools.
But in the interim, all is not lost. Who better to support burning out teachers than those who know the industry the best – teachers. We are all on fire, but we burn with different levels of brightness at different times. We can each use our spark to help kindle the dwindling embers of another’s fire. A wise teacher I know said, “When we become a true community of educators in our building and in larger society, I find that I am not the island.”
Catherine McTamaney writes about this same thing in her book, A Delicate Task. “Teaching is hard. [We] are asked to give up so much of ourselves, to make ourselves humble and lowly before the child, to be servants, to be scientists, to be saints … but there are others on the path with us. We can lean on each other. We can walk in each other’s footsteps. Sometimes we’re at the front of the path. Sometimes we’re following another traveler. Sometimes we’re resting … Sometimes we’re so far ahead or behind that we can’t even see each other anymore. But we’re not alone. We are each other’s navigational stars.”
To be “each other’s navigational stars,” we have to be connected to one another, and we have to pay attention to one another. While I believe that all teachers can help each other to combat burnout, my interpretation is that this work should fall most heavily on veteran teachers, mentor teachers, building leadership, and administration.
In supporting each other, we must not simply be content to provide inspiration. We must work to create environments that make teaching easier without sacrificing the best interests of our students. Here are some of the in-building supports that teachers say help them to be more resilient.
Leadership that is supportive and non-punitive
Having someone willing to slow down and listen when they have a concern
The provision of more time to allow for planning and collaboration
Work that is equitably shared by everyone
Meeting time spent to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness in the classroom, not to create additional work
Follow-through: being able to trust that what was agreed upon will occur
Celebration of successes
Acknowledgment of good work
In my role as team leader, I’ve recently initiated a process to try and help with some of this. For each of the last two quarters, I’ve met one-on-one with every member of my team. To prepare for our meetings I’ve asked them to consider their responses to four questions.
What are three things you want to brag about from this quarter?
What is your current burning issue?
How can I help?
What I can do to be more effective in my role as team leader?
We’ve had some rich conversations, and I’ve gotten to know each of them better, but my great hope is that I’ve helped them to see the value in what they do, and to examine how they can keep improving.
The hardest question is always “What are three things you want to brag about?” At just about every conference, I hear, “I can’t think of three.” My response? “Yes, you can. Think harder.” And they do.
Asking them to identify a burning issue is the same thing as saying, “What do you most want to improve?” – except somehow it feels more approachable.
“How can I help?” is my favorite of the four questions. I’ve learned that it is much more powerful than its more common counterpart, “Let me know if I can help.” The latter provides an option to decline by omission; the former does not. If I ask about a burning issue and then don’t seek ways to help, I am essentially saying, “I see you struggling. Best of luck to you!”
The final question is purely selfish. I simply want to know how to get better at what I do.
I have only just begun this process, so I cannot say how effective it will prove to be in the long run, but I’ve gotten short-term positive feedback. Recently, I offered the opportunity to correspond via email if scheduling meetings took too much precious time. In response to this, one of my colleagues said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to give up the deliciousness of that meeting with you.” While I can’t say whether or not our meeting was “delicious,” we did have a powerful dialogue.
No single strategy will suffice to fix the great challenges and stressors in education. Teachers must remember, sometimes through the fog and the haze of exhaustion, that it’s really all about the students. The students are the most powerful motivators and sustainers of all. I, like many teachers, keep a file full of notes like this one.
We must remind ourselves, and each other, every day if necessary, that the work we do matters.
As Carissa said, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”
Imagine a standardized test being used to measure the healing of a patient, and the effectiveness of the doctor.
It would look something like this.
A doctor sees a patient through treatment of a condition, and at the end of a prescribed length of time the patient completes a bubble test to determine progress. It is irrelevant what the patient’s condition was at the start of treatment, what other issues the patient is experiencing, how long the patient received treatment, or how well the patient followed medical advice.
The physician’s perception of the patient’s progress, or any additional insights he or she might have, is also irrelevant. It is the bubble test result that will determine whether the physician is an effective practitioner.
This scenario is readily recognized as absurd, and even potentially dangerous, when applied to medicine. Why do we accept it as appropriate for education?
Yet, high-stakes standardized testing is viewed as not just appropriate for education, it is viewed as essential. So essential, that even in the face of dissent from the majority of parents and educators, our politicians continue to reinforce the myth that standardized tests are a fundamental method for assessing student learning, and therefore, by extrapolation, a credible way to determine the effectiveness of teachers and schools.
This false narrative was initiated with the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 and reinforced and perpetuated through Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, and most recently, The Every Student Succeeds Act.
Ohio’s implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act is how I found myself standing at a podium providing testimony before the Joint Education Oversight Committee at the Ohio Statehouse.
“Ms. Taylor, do you believe that the state legislature can honestly check the required box indicating that stakeholder feedback was included in the Ohio plan?”
This was the final question I was asked during my testimony. I had been invited to the statehouse by the Ohio Federation of Teachers to serve as a voice for educators across the state, and to provide insight to the committee on whether the Ohio draft plan for implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accurately reflects the views of stakeholders and serves as a visionary document.
Being called for this task felt like a huge responsibility.
I walked into the room expecting something fairly familiar and comfortable. In my mind, I was anticipating a group of people sitting around a conference table. Instead there was a podium in front of a raised bench of legislators. This suddenly felt like an overwhelming responsibility. I was near certain that the entire room could hear my heart racing and my knees knocking.
I knew that my physiologic reaction was ridiculous. I have engaged in significant research and reflection on this topic. I know the salient points, and I know how to articulate them in a cohesive and powerful manner. And I am not afraid.
Except I was afraid.
This was more important than fear. To quote Dr. Seuss, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”
I speak for students, and for educators, and for our future society because high-stakes standardized testing is not innocuous. It is not just something we debate about at the dining room table. It is truly damaging.
However, we are up against a mighty foe – the testing industry and a social construct that school accountability measures are effective, necessary, and appropriate – and we must be willing to fight furiously against this.
Which is how I found myself testifying at the Ohio statehouse about ESSA.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed by the federal government in December of 2015. It replaces No Child Left Behind, and it allows states greater flexibility in teacher and school accountability measures.
One of the requirements of ESSA is the engagement of stakeholders in the process of developing state plans. It is this mandate that prompted the question asked by Representative Fedor. She is a state representative from Toledo who serves on this committee, and she is a friend to education.
The Ohio ESSA draft plan notes, “As part of the legislation, each state is required to conduct significant outreach to stakeholders to collect input for their state plan. Ohio takes this mandate very seriously and has already engaged 15,000 Ohioans in the development of this draft.”
In every section of the draft there is evidence of stakeholder feedback. However, startlingly, in several critical areas, this feedback has not been incorporated into the current plan.
Relative to required testing, the plan states, in the section titled Aligned Academic Assessments, that stakeholders emphasized the need to “strategically reduce tests where it makes sense to do so.” It goes on to claim that “while the state has reduced the amount of time students spend taking tests – down by approximately 50% from 2014 to 2016 – stakeholders expressed an interest in continuing to explore a further reduction in testing.”
And here is the statement regarding the testing requirements under the “new” plan. “As part of ESSA, Ohio will reexamine its testing requirements. The department is poised to work closely with the Governor, legislature, and education leaders to examine the pros and cons of adjusting the testing schedule.”
In other words: no change.
Additionally, while it is true that testing has been significantly reduced since the 2014-2015 test administration, this data is a red herring. It seems to imply that, over time, testing requirements have been reduced, and that is simply inaccurate. The 2014-2015 school year included the ill-fated implementation of the PARCC testing. Each of the PARCC tests included two administrations – one in February and one in April, thus doubling testing requirements. Thankfully, this double battery of tests was eliminated with the transition to the AIR tests the following school year. This change did reduce testing by nearly half; however if the 2014-2015 school year is removed from the data set as an outlier, then it becomes clear that over time, the number of mandatory state tests in Ohio has actually increased, not decreased.
The second area in the Ohio ESSA draft plan that I found concerning was the provisions regarding teacher evaluation. Currently, Ohio public educators are evaluated based on a combination of factors, and this varies based on the grade and subject area being taught, and that grade and/or subject area’s testing requirements.
Here is what Ohio’s ESSA draft plan says,
“Strong support for local educators – they understand the critical roles teachers and leaders play in helping students learn and grow”
“Educators do not believe that the current evaluation system is working as it should”
“Concern on the part of educators related to the calculation of student growth and its inclusion in the evaluation system”
“Ohio’s state plan requires a description of our methods for ensuring that students have access to quality teachers and leaders. Our plan will be based on those elements currently in state law and our existing equity plan.”
In other words: no change.
Currently, the Ohio teacher evaluation system is designed on a combination of factors. This is a complex calculation where 50% of a teacher’s evaluation comes from observational data assessed using the rubric of the etpes system, which includes 10 areas of assessment, each of which can be scored as: Accomplished, Skilled, Developing, or Ineffective. The remaining 50% varies based on the grade and subject area being taught, and that grade and/or subject area’s testing requirements.
For some Cincinnati Public School teachers, this remaining 50% comes exclusively from the value-added measure of standardized test results. For other teachers, 26% comes from the teacher’s value-added standardized test results, 10% comes from shared attribution – or the standardized test data for growth across the building as a whole, and 14% comes from “Student Learning Objectives” (SLOs). For teachers in non-tested areas, 40% comes from SLOs and 10% comes from shared attribution.
Clear as mud, right?
To add to the complexity, no one knows how these growth measures – called “value-added scores” are calculated.
Ohio contracts with Battelle, a private company, to generate value-added data from standardized test results. They consider their formula “proprietary information,” and despite evidence that these scores are invalid, they remain in place. The only mathematical approximation I have seen as to what this formula might look like is this.
(Fortunately, because of the transition to new assessment tools, test data from the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years have been under what is known as “safe harbor,” meaning that for the given years, standardized test data has not been included in teacher evaluations.)
An additional piece to consider is that when the state counts the required number of tests, they fail to mention the requirements of Student Learning Objective assessments (SLOs). SLOs are another type of growth-measure assessment. Depending on the district, these may be vendor-purchased or teacher-created tests. The majority of teachers must give two SLOs as a required component of their annual evaluation. Each SLO requires a pre-test and a post-test. So for every teacher, this is a minimum of 4 more mandated assessments. To be fair, these tests are far less burdensome than the state tests, but think about a high school student who may take seven classes. This student could take up to 28 SLO tests – two pre tests and two post tests for each of seven teachers. Add the state tests, and final exams, and, at some grade levels, the ACT, PSAT, or SAT as well.
Are you getting the picture yet?
Nevertheless, there remains more to the story. Currently, each of the state tests has 2 sections. Students with identified disabilities often receive an extended time testing accommodation; this allows them to have up to an entire school day to complete each portion of the test. I want to be very clear that I think this is an important provision.
As a special educator, I teach my students best-practice testing strategies. I teach them to read the questions before reading the passage. I teach them to read and annotate the text of the passage before beginning to answer the questions. I teach them to look back at the text. I teach them to use elimination. I teach them not to rush. I teach them to go back and check over all their answers – more than once. All of these things take time, and I have had several students who literally take the entire day to complete a section of the test. I do not want to restrict them in this.
However, many schools have high percentages of special education students. At Gamble, 36% of our students have identified disabilities. When this many students have the right to use the entire day for a section of the test, this provision drives the testing schedule. It is not fair, nor feasible, to give two sections of a test in a day to the general education population, while only scheduling one a day (as legally required) for the special education population. Doing so would mean that special education students would test for twice as many days as general education students, and would therefore miss the instruction being provided on the extra days of testing. This slower-paced scheduling increases the number of days relegated to testing.
At the high school level, there is yet another issue to consider. Passage of the high school state tests is required for graduation (unless a student is on the newly created vocational “pathway,” which has a whole different set of testing requirements.) Therefore, students who have not passed sections of the test are expected to retake these tests three times a year (one is a summer testing) until they achieve proficiency.
Let me provide you with a real-world, worst-case scenario. I taught Bryce in junior high. He is a student with an identified learning disability. He struggles academically, but performs especially poorly in a testing situation.
Bryce is now a junior in high school, and he has not yet passed any of the required tests – ELA I, ELA II, Algebra I, Geometry (or Integrated Math I), Biology, or American History, and he is currently enrolled in American Government, which also has a required test. Each test has two sections. Extended time testing is written into Bryce’s IEP, so he must be provided with the option of using the entire day to complete each section of each test. He is a student who needs this extra time.
Were you counting? That’s 14 school days (or nearly three weeks) of testing.
These tests are scheduled by the state and district at the end of April and the beginning of May, as they should be since they are intended to assess the entire curriculum, and an earlier testing session would further truncate instructional time. However, in high school, students must also take final exams. In every class. Because of the timing of the school year, these final exams are administered immediately following the conclusion of the state testing. That is now 17 nearly-consecutive days of testing.
I have not yet mentioned that Bryce also had to take 6 of these state tests during the first round of retakes in December (Don’t forget – 2 sections for each test, so 12 days) and the ACT in April. Before SLOs are factored into the equation, Bryce will have spent 30 days – or nearly 6 weeks of the school year – taking tests.
This is not just a nightmare; this is Bryce’s current reality.
And it is madness. Ultimately, it’s not even about student learning. It’s about assessment of public teachers and of public schools.
The test results that we put so much stake in and spend so much time thinking about and preparing for, are of little use in instructing students.
Does this come as a surprise? Let me explain.
The preliminary test results are generally released over the summer, and final data is usually provided at some point in the fall. At this point, the students who took these tests have moved on – to a new grade, a new teacher, and a new curriculum. The tests they will take next will be focused on the expectations of the new curriculum, not the old one, so knowing a student’s scores from the prior year is only marginally beneficial for a teacher.
In addition, what does this data show? It may seem as if this question should have an obvious answer. They show what a student knows, and therefore, by extrapolation, they show how well a student has been taught. Right?
I question this assumption.
Any teacher will tell you that his or her test scores vary from year to year – often wildly. Are we really that erratic in our teaching practices?
The value-added measures can indicate huge gains – more than two years of academic growth in a year’s time. That sounds great, but, as an educator who has received scores like this, I am not convinced that this is realistic. In the same vein, value-added measures can indicate huge losses – more than 2 years of academic decline in a year’s time. How is this even remotely possible? How is it possible for a teacher to be so bad that she or he causes a student to LOSE two years of academic instruction, while simultaneously providing instruction for the entirety of a year?
This makes no sense.
Early this year, I learned that my teaching partner and I had the highest test scores in the building related to student comprehension of informational text. I was asked what we did to have such success – how could this be replicated throughout the building?
I had to laugh. What did we do? We heavily taught literary text. We focused less on informational text last year than we ever had before.
It wasn’t really intentional. We just didn’t have time for everything, and we had generally chosen literary text standards over informational ones that year. And yet our test scores for informational text standards were much higher than they were for literary text standards. Go figure.
So, I don’t have the greatest confidence in the reliability of testing data as an indicator of much of anything at all. Besides, if standardized tests tell us such important information, why aren’t private and parochial schools demanding these tests? Why aren’t our politicians demanding that the schools that many of their children attend be implementing these tools that measure student learning and teacher effectiveness? Don’t they want the best for their children? Don’t they want to be reassured that their child is learning? Don’t they want to know the quality of their children’s teachers?
No, they don’t. They don’t because standardized tests are not an effective tool for assessing these important things.
We put students in public schools through this wringer of testing for what? If it doesn’t tell us about kids, and it doesn’t tell us about instruction, and it doesn’t tell us about teachers, then why are we doing it? That remains unclear.
It seems as if nearly everyone has one or more teachers who had a profound influence on their growth and development. Who was yours? Think about this person – or these people. Try to identify what it was that made them so influential, so impactful on your life. What were the qualities they possessed that inspired or guided you?
So to answer Representative Fedor’s question: Has the state effectively included stakeholder feedback in the development of Ohio’s ESSA draft plan?
In a word, No.
Stakeholders clearly said, “Fewer tests.” The draft plan indicates no change in the number of tests.
Stakeholders clearly said, “Amend the teacher evaluation system.” The draft plan indicates no change to the teacher evaluation system.
Despite more than a year to develop it, the draft plan doesn’t look much different from what Ohio’s educational legislation looked like under No Child Left Behind. To be fair, in both of the sections of the draft plan that I have critiqued, there is indication that changes could come in the future. However, Ohio has had more than a year to develop this plan, why isn’t change evidenced there already?
As I stated to Representative Fedor, and to the Committee as a whole, I was shocked to see the stakeholder feedback so blatantly ignored in the draft document. As an educator I feel devalued, disheartened, and unsupported by the state of Ohio.
The system is backwards. We have politicians telling educators what to do to prove themselves, rather than educators informing politicians about what it is we need in order to teach children.
What we don’t need are standardized tests. Politicians believe that these tests tell us important things about education. Teachers know that they do not.
Education is a service industry. Unlike manufacturing, service industries work with human capital. Our students are our raw material, and they are each unique individuals. They each come to us at a different place, they each have different external factors at play, and they each approach instruction in a different way.
Their growth and development is as complex as they each are as individuals. To try and measure this in a standardized manner is folly.
The Ohio state legislature wanted to know if the Draft Plan was visionary. Oxford defines the word visionary as, “Thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.”
Is the Ohio draft plan visionary? No. But then neither is ESSA. To be visionary, we must walk away from the folly of this testing madness.
There is precedent for this.
Just twenty years ago, we had a different system. There was no such thing as high-stakes testing.
Many schools gave standardized tests as a means to compare their students to students around the country. But not in every grade and not every year. It was one piece of the educational puzzle. It provided teachers and schools with some small amount of insight into student learning. But that is all. There was no school report card. There were no punitive measures for teachers.
We must walk back from the precipice on which we are standing. In just two decades, politicians and the testing industry have whipped us into a testing frenzy driven by the notion that these tests provide an accurate measure of school success, and that this is an appropriate way to hold schools and teachers accountable.
It is not.
To be truly visionary, it is not enough to simply demand fewer tests. We must change the paradigm. We must create a new narrative.
How to do this is, of course, the ultimate question. Teachers and parents must band together. We must arm ourselves with data and evidence. We must keep speaking truth to power. We must speak up again and again and again. We must have courage.
Sometimes the right thing comes along at just the right time. Other times, you have to wait for it. My search for the right leadership tool was one of those “wait for it” times.
In the fall of 2012, I took on my first real leadership role – special education department chair. I was nervous about it, unsure if I was really ready. But, I reasoned, perhaps like parenting, it’s the kind of thing that you can’t ever really be ready for until you are in the midst of it.
It didn’t take long before I made my first giant mistake. I was leading a department meeting that had already extended beyond the provided time, and I was explaining, for what felt like the umpteenth time, the administrative directive concerning how to prepare test administrators for giving accommodated tests. It was an unpopular initiative, as it required additional work. As I spoke, a few people were off-task, and others had already begun packing up their materials. I felt frustrated and angry. In the midst of all this, one of my colleagues commented, “I think what we have been doing is just fine. I think we should just continue doing that.” Instead of listening and responding appropriately, I snapped back, and I quote, “It actually doesn’t really matter what you think.”
Ouch. The meeting came to a screeching halt, and we adjourned in discomfort.
I immediately knew I was wrong, and I did the only two things I knew to do to try and fix things. I called Caroline to apologize, (She didn’t answer, so I had to leave a voice message) and I also sought out Jack to tell him exactly what I had done and to acknowledge my error.
Things moved on. We had more meetings, but I never was able to correct things with Caroline. Our relationship remained haunted by this conflict.
After this incident, I began actively seeking leadership mentoring. What I discovered was that there is a dearth of people who feel comfortable with this. Jack often says that the entirety of his induction and training into the principal-ship was a handshake and a hearty, “Welcome Aboard.” When I off-handedly asked him for leadership support, he just looked at me as if I was speaking some foreign tongue.
I next asked one of the academic coaches assigned to our building, who also happened to be a friend of mine. Her response shocked me. She laughed and said, “Krista, you are a natural leader. There is nothing that I can teach you.”
What?! How was I supposed to learn if no one would teach me?!
I settled on a teacher nearing retirement, who had been in a Team Leader role for a number of years. She didn’t actually know that she was serving as my mentor because I had lost the courage to keep asking for help, but I intentionally watched her and tried to learn from her.
So I watched, and I learned, and I stumbled, and I grew along the way.
I knew I was improving, but I also felt like there was something missing – my mistakes always seemed to be made in the same vein, but I couldn’t quite articulate what it was that was happening. I just knew I wasn’t satisfied.
Then early in this school year, (a mere five years after my initial foray into leadership), Jack saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity,
He said this about it:
Craig’s work related to much of what is explored in Kegan’s Immunity to Change. This is challenging work, where the individual reader or participant seeks to reveal the hidden motivators and obstacles that prevents one from making changes in oneself. It aligns with a key leadership theory in the Harvard Urban School Leaders program: to change a school or other organization you must first change yourself. You must become the leader it needs. Similarly, Craig argues that if you want to have productive conversations, you must read the dynamics of the conversation and change your actions. Doing this creates the most insightful dialogue that exposes the most important information and encourages the right set of possible next steps.
Jack was so impacted by this presentation that he asked if I would like to read the book with him.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Not only did the title promise to help me improve team functionality during high-stress situations, but I also figured that if Jack and I were reading this together, I could trick him into serving as my leadership mentor without him realizing it. As enthusiastic as I was, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.
Turns out that Conversational Capacity was both the challenge and the answer that I had been seeking for so long. Craig cites Robert Kegan in defining the role of leaders. “Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.” (29)
“Shaping the nature of the discourse” – this was what I needed to learn to do better.
Craig’s premise is that the critical factor for teams is not the much touted establishment of trust and respect, rather it is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15) He goes on to describe moments in which this is happening as the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that while this sounds deceptively simple, our human nature tends to get in the way of our ability to remain in this balanced place when under pressure or when discussing challenging issues. “While it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.” (15)
After having read only the first chapter, I understood several things about this work:
It was serendipitous that Jack and I were reading this together because we represent both ends of Craig’s spectrum. When things get challenging, Jack tends to “shut down” while I “heat up.”
This serves neither of us well.
Getting pulled out of the conversational sweet spot was exactly what I had been struggling with as a leader, and what I hadn’t had words to describe.
This was going to be hard. As Craig says, the development of conversational capacity is not “a simple gimmick or quick fix … if we want to improve our teams and organizations, we have to improve ourselves.” (3)
Jack experienced a similarly immediate and powerful response to the concepts in this book.
Craig’s work immediately resonated with me. Perhaps this was because Craig admits that he, too, is a “minimizer” – one who works to keep everyone’s feelings intact, and seek out solutions that felt like an emotional middle ground.
It was a relief to hear someone else admit that. Years before, I was in a leadership training program at Ohio State University, and everyone in the group completed a leadership style inventory. We were then directed to stand in the part of the room that corresponded to our results. I found myself essentially alone in one corner of the room. Diagonal from me were a group of administrators whose answers revealed them to be decisive winners of conflict. Decision-makers. Men and women of confidence, and apparently full of correct answers. In my corner, almost entirely alone, a consensus-builder who believed in empowering professional educators to make key decisions.
Although Jack has a tendency to shut down, and I have a tendency to heat up, this is often a non-issue for both of us. Craig notes that it is easy to stay in the sweet spot when discussing routine problems – challenges that we know how to work through. However, we can readily get pulled out of the sweet spot when we are facing situations for which we don’t have easy answers.
Craig argues that these stressors trigger our fight or flight reflexes, or in his language, our urge to “win” (heat up) or to “minimize,” (shut down) and that both of these responses pull teams out of the sweet spot and lead to unproductive conversations. It is important to note that the goal here is productive conversations, not non-conflictual ones. In fact, being in the sweet spot is likely to involve what Craig describes as productive conflict – “productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously, need to be an integral part of a board’s operating culture.” (19)
Of course, not all conflict is productive. The conflict that occurred in the meeting where I was explaining testing protocol was conflictual, but it was far from productive. When I perceived that my authority was being threatened, I went straight to “win” behaviors, and I went there hard and fast. In doing so, I damaged my relationships, but more importantly, that testing initiative never did get enacted. As a team, we never were able to explore how to make our practice in this area more functional.
Minimizing behaviors can be equally unproductive. Jack’s explanation demonstrates what can happen when minimization of issues occurs.
The simplest way to phrase it misses the point. Some say that I just “want to be liked”, and that drives me to be unwilling to make decisions, especially substantive ones. But it is more complex than that. If people are invested in opposing viewpoints, say about placing teachers in certain classrooms, or a response to a certain misbehavior, I believe that they are using their best judgment. I believe they have put together the best argument that they can. I worry: if they “lose,” will they be less invested in the whole project? What else will be lost in terms of their morale and self-confidence? Whether they like me or not is secondary to my concern as to whether they will still be invested in the school.
However, I know that my “minimize” behavior is based on an oversimplification all its own. Making an argument and having a stronger or more persuasive case prevail is not likely to cause someone to choose a new career. That does not make sense in a rational mind.
Minimization emphasizes caution over candor and runs the risk of having important issues not discussed in order to maintain comfort. “When our need to play it safe overwhelms our clear and noble intentions, we sacrifice progress and effectiveness for comfort and safety.” (39) Jack’s visceral response to this quotation:
So. Many. Examples. And they all hurt someone. Ugh.
Conversely, when, as Craig describes it, “we are hijacked by our need to win, … our mind shuts and our mouth opens, and we grow increasingly arrogant and argumentative.” (45)
Yuck. That felt so uncomfortably familiar to me.
It is said that “knowing is half the battle,” but I’m not convinced. I think knowing might only be about one-fourth of the battle.
After reading chapters one and two of Conversational Capacity, I knew what my battle was, but I didn’t yet know how to win it. And, of course, for me, the answer was quite the opposite of “winning.”
Jack was similarly drawn in.
Conversational Capacity became a page-turner for me. I wanted to figure out how to improve the conversations in the building. I was committed to creating a culture in the school that matched the one we were trying to create in the classroom. I wanted to make it okay for teachers to help each other get better at what they do. The fact that Krista texted me two days later and announced that “all the answers to everything” were in the book, of course, prompted me to continue.
Both Jack and I were eager to engage in the work of finding the sweet spot. To this end, Craig notes that no one universally operates on one side of the spectrum.
Everyone demonstrates both “win” and “minimize” tendencies; however it is helpful to determine where one generally falls along this continuum and what is one’s default mode when things become challenging. Recognizing this helps us understand what behaviors to watch out for and what strategies to implement to help us move away from the ends of the spectrum and toward the central sweet spot – that place where an equilibrium exists between candor and curiosity and the “dialogue is open, balanced, and nondefensive.” (15)
Craig notes that in order to increase conversational capacity and be able to stay in the sweet spot more consistently, we must balance the strengths of our natural tendencies with the intentional cultivation of checks on this tendency. I have mentally relived that terrible moment from that department meeting over and over again. I know I could have done it better, but what was the right way?
How could I move myself away from “win” and toward the discipline of conversational capacity? How could Jack move away from “minimize” and toward that same discipline? I was grateful that he was going through this process with me, and that he too, was taking a critical look at his foibles.
Together, we explored the list of identified “win” and “minimize” behaviors that Craig describes, and noted those that we each typically engage in. We were both surprised to find that we demonstrate many behaviors from our “non-default” side of the spectrum. While it was important to be aware of these as well as our natural tendencies, the focus of our change efforts would revolve around the behaviors to which we were most habituated. For me that was those in the win column, and for Jack it was the behaviors that fell in the minimize column.
It did not feel at all good to admit that I regularly exhibit the following “win” behaviors:
State positions as fact
Dismiss alternate views and perspectives
Fail to inquire into alternate points of view
Use dismissive body language
Jack experienced similar humility when identifying the “minimize” behaviors to which he is most prone:
Cover up your views, ideas, information, or concerns
Ease in – water down your concerns to make them more palatable
Make excuses to let people off the hook
Use email or voicemail to express concerns
Feign agreement or support
So, what next? How could we both do better?
Craig addresses the method for improvement in a brilliantly simple manner. He says that people demonstrating a minimizing perspective exhibit low candor — or the willingness to speak forthrightly in the face of challenge. Those demonstrating a winning perspective exhibit low curiosity – or the willingness to actively seek out views that are different from one’s own.
To combat a minimizing perspective, one needs to exhibit greater candor, and to combat a winning perspective, one needs to exhibit greater curiosity. Craig delineates just two critical skills to cultivate in each area.
1. State a clear position
1. Test an existing view
2. Explain the thinking behind a position
2. Intentionally inquire about differing perspectives
Well, not exactly.
As soon as I read this, I knew the answer to my concerns about my leadership. I had to demonstrate greater curiosity, and I had to reign in some of my candor to provide space for that. And, of course, for Jack the opposite was true. He had to fight against his tendency to minimize and push himself to exhibit greater candor.
For about a month, I reminded myself of this before every meeting I walked into.
I invariably found that after the first few minutes, I lost sight of my goal and promptly returned to my old patterns of behavior. I was so frustrated with myself that I designed this visual to help me remember. I even went so far as to embed scripted language prompts into my chart.
I’ll be honest. It didn’t help much. I was successful with dialing back my usual level of candor, but I really continued to struggle with increasing the curiosity that would allow me to truly shift.
I had the opposite problem. I often withheld my opinion or position on a matter. I did this for a variety of reasons, mostly hinging on the idea that I had positional authority over the teachers engaged in the conversation. I worried that stating a position early on would bias the discussion, and cause dissent to remain unexpressed. My goal was noble: I wanted to hear dissenting views. The result was not noble. Too often, I exerted my opinion near the end of a conversation or discussion, and this had the effect of summarizing or “deciding” the matter.
We found reassurance in Craig’s words at the end of the book, “If we’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. When we fall back into our old habits, we should say yes to the mess, see what we can learn, and move on. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our minimize and win tendencies. Recognize that they’re a part of us, that they often conflict with other intentions, and that we have to keep an eye on them. It’s also important to adopt a constructive learning-oriented mindset by taking note of our strengths and not just bemoaning our weaknesses. A conversation I had with an executive in Seattle provides a case in point, ‘My win tendency is too strong,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be overly hard on yourself,’ I suggested. ‘Try reframing it this way: you’re exceptionally good with the candor skills. Your goal now is to put in enough practice so you’re just as proficient with the curiosity skills.’” (179)
Okay, so I’m “exceptionally good with the candor skills.” However, I need to keep working at building curiosity.
In a meeting just last week, I think I did it. I think I found balance and stayed in the conversational sweet spot. Jack was proposing that we significantly move up a deadline for the completion of a huge, school-wide task. In typical fashion, I responded with candor, stating my clear position that it was too much, too fast, and then explaining the reasoning behind my thinking.
But then I heard myself say, “Now tell me what your thoughts are.” There it was — an expression of inquiry!
Jack shared his position, and then, taking both perspectives into consideration, the committee was able to develop a plan for moving forward that embedded some extra time and seemed feasible.
Craig notes that the whole group benefits when any member improves his or her conversational capacity. I suspect that exhibiting the skills of inquiry is easier for me in the face of Jack’s increased candor.
Here are his thoughts about his transformation in progress:
Recently I have adopted Craig’s advice, stating my position clearly at the beginning, but inviting dissenting views. By putting my ideas out early in the conversation, I cannot serve as the final decider. Also, by inviting dissent, I clearly make it okay to provide counter arguments. It turns out that the teachers are more than willing to disagree with me!
Even these small shifts feel great. Now let’s see if we can keep doing it the next time. Or maybe the time after that.
Personal change is hard. It’s so much easier to keep doing what we’ve always done. Conversational Capacity is a powerful book that pushes us beyond our comfort zones into a higher level of functioning. I cannot say it better than Craig does himself, “Be warned, this book will present you with a choice … will we let our experience reinforce the primal, self-centered aspects of our nature, or the nobler, more purpose-driven aspects of our humanity? Will we grow more candid or more cautious? More courageous or more timid? More curious or more critical? More humble or more arrogant? Far too many people opt for the lower, easier, less rigorous route. This book will encourage you to take the higher, more adventurous road – the road less traveled.” (9)