The Barrow sisters arrived at Gamble as a group three years ago, although they were in separate grades. Bright and engaged and outspoken in class, they were nonetheless a task to manage there, and an absolute disruption when together in the hallway. If one of them got upset about a bad grade or an argument with a friend, the three responded as a unit, storming down the hall, feeding into each other’s anger. When any one of them was angry, I saw them collectively as Pig Pen, only instead of a cloud of dust, they hurricaned down the hall in a frenzy of frustration and anger. One morning they had been brought to the office by Mr. Sinden. Well, he got them near the office, anyway. They kept talking themselves out of actually entering – one would say okay, and then another would initiate another complaint and they would collapse again into angry pacing and threats. After twenty long minutes, we settled that matter and returned them to class. One at a time throughout the morning they each ended up at the office again, having been removed from class for misbehavior.
Something was going on. I pulled Alicia, the oldest, into the hallway. “What’s going on?” She started to talk about how her teacher removed her from class for nothing.
“No, what is going ON?” I emphasized the last word to suggest bigger dealings, and pointed out that she and her sisters had separately and collectively been removed from class multiple times, and we still were not at lunch time. “Nothing,” she started. “It’s just that …” She paused, and I waited until she spoke again. When she stopped talking several minutes later, she had revealed that the sisters had been separated the previous night in an effort to find warm places to sleep, and still one of them had ended up in another sister’s house where the electricity was off. They were cold and tired, and glad to be back in each other’s company, until they learned that a friend had made some disgusting allegations about the youngest sister on Facebook. They were eager to settle the score as a group, in person, but were trying to not get in trouble for doing it at school.
Several among my staff expressed frustration that I had not simply sent the girls home on suspension at the first incident. I had cause to suspend them, in a strict reading of the rules. However, if I had done that, I would not have learned about their collective situation. They would have not gotten any instruction for several days, and school would have remained an adversary rather than an opportunity for these students.
I learned a lot that day, and from similar experiences before that. Over time I have learned to look at unusual misbehavior as a sign of larger concerns, as Krista explained in a post that student behavior really reveals hidden issues. I have learned to ascribe charitable explanations to the misbehavior – not as an excuse for the child, but as a way to understand the child. Besides, it never hurts in a relationship with a student to inquire about her life beyond the walls of the school. Simply asking, “Are you alright? Your actions here do not seem like you,” sends a student a message of caring and concern and tells her that you understand her best self, even if she is not feeling like her best self at the moment.
This is significantly better than asking, “What is wrong with you, don’t you know how to behave?”
In the summer of 2015, Cincinnati Public High School Principals participated in the Harvard program “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership.” http://www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/program/improving-schools-art-leadership
In the program, we explored many different facets of school leadership, taking classes from some of the leading researchers, teachers, and school leaders in education today. At first I believed the common message was the declared theme of the conference: every child can learn. A passionate argument was made time and again about the power of the leader to send this message about every student, and a recognition that education professionals take every lost student as a personal challenge. I found myself already primed by my experience and my beliefs to fully embrace this message. They were preaching to the choir.
Soon though, I realized a subtle but more powerful message had been intentionally woven through our courses: In order for an organization to change, the leader must change. This “change” was not the simplistic one-size-fits-all “fire the principal of the underperforming school.” (That was, actually, one of the three turnaround models provided by the State of Ohio under the School Improvement Grant, as developed under the No Child Left Behind legislation. Seriously. “Replace the principal” was an entire strategy.) No, in order for an organization to change, the leader must be willing to change himself or herself.
The first giveaway was our introduction to the book Immunity to Change, by Harvard School of Education Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Dr. Kegan walked us through the process they developed to identify hidden motivators that undermine our efforts to be our best selves. In the process, you set a particular goal and outline the steps to achieve that goal. Then you examine your behaviors that work against your goal. Finally, you investigate your choices to see what competing commitments you have – what is important to you that prevents you from doing the things that need to be done to reach your goal. Then you take steps to eliminate or disempower those competing commitments. You can see a brief explanation of the process here. This process explained how to take what was hidden in yourself and make it plain. Again, it prepared you to make a change in your organization by making change within yourself.
I was content to see this as a way for working through my habitual procrastination, but nothing more than that. A salve for a problem familiar to many. I stubbornly clung to my belief that I did not really need to change so much as I needed to learn a few good systems. (And I believe a few good systems can truly help!)
Other readings and experiences grew out of the Harvard experience. Soon thereafter I had the pleasure of listening to and then meeting Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity. His suggestions for creating teams that could function at a high level – teams that could learn from each other and speak about uncomfortable ideas and resolve problems effectively – involved the same sort of work. The team was not expected to work on a new set of procedures or go through a particular set of stages (that will happen anyway, as you can see here), but instead it was expected that the leader would conduct himself in a way to bring about new conversations. Through his or her efforts guiding the conversation, the team would remain in the conversational sweet spot between what he Weber described as “minimizing” and “winning”. That is, in the zone between wanting to avoid the conversation at all costs, and wanting to get your way and appear right at all costs. He explains that we all lean toward one of those conversational mistakes, and those tendencies work to prevent a team from solving problems.
<—– minimize —————(sweet spot)——————–win—–>
Fortunately, through the individual’s vigilance and self-discipline, there is a way to intentionally keep the group in the sweet spot, where they are discussing key issues, raising problems, proposing solutions, and working together toward the same goal. It is not a system or a checklist, as much as some would hope for that. There is a time to back off and let a solution happen, and there is a time to push an idea forward. But these are not “minimizing” or “winning”. These skills can be learned. It is a discipline.
Once again, the message is that as a leader, I must learn how to do this in order to be what the team needs. I recognize in myself the tendencies to minimize. My same skills that help me to be a careful observer of my students also can prevent me from addressing concerns I have with actions taken by a student or a staff member. I often fail to take immediate action on important items. I most likely do this because I want to avoid conflict. As a minimizer, this means I must learn to push myself to be more assertive and to embrace the possibility of conflict in order to accomplish what needs to be done.
Once again, I am being pushed to change the organization by changing myself.
In Conversational Capacity, Craig made reference to something called the “ladder of inference”. I encountered the ladder again in Peter Senge’s Schools That Learn. Peter Senge is the author of the bestselling systems-thinking book The Fifth Discipline. It is a staple in management courses at universities around the world. Schools That Learn is a version of the book specifically geared towards educators and schools.
The ladder of inference, pictured below, is a helpful way to envision any person’s mental processing mistakes about a situation.
Unlike most mental models provided in trainings, this is not a set of steps to take to reach a desired conclusion. It is, more accurately, a guide on how people get things wrong in a personal interaction. It’s an anti-instruction chart. It’s a map of what your mind does whether you want it to or not.
Weber gives this example:
Consider the experience of two men visiting Chicago for the first time. Traveling together to attend a meeting, they land at O’Hare airport and share a taxi into town. Arriving early, they decide to wander the streets together and explore the downtown area. An hour later, as they walk into their meeting, the woman who summoned them to Chicago knowing it’s their first visit, asks them a question, “What did you think of the city?”
“It’s a dump,” exclaims one.
“It’s beautiful,” raves the other.
One question we might ask is, “Who is right?” But that’s not the most interesting line of inquiry.
In any given situation, such as a visit to a new city, there is a lot of directly observable data. Focusing on restaurants means perhaps overlooking the parks, and people-watching could mean attempting to figure out their profession by focusing on their clothing, or noting the cultural and racial diversity, or looking for people who otherwise stand out to you. There is a lot to see. You cannot possibly see it all. So the men in the example started selecting right from the minute they entered the taxi, and continued during their walk. So they moved from “reality and facts” to “selected reality.”
From the limited observable data they collected, their unique background experiences – their cultural, educational, and experiential backgrounds – filtered what they saw without their knowledge. So they moved from “selected reality” to “interpreted reality.” Without their knowing it, the men had taken the same tour at the same time, and had reached completely different conclusions based on their personal interpretations.
In this case, it was their vocations that helped create their interpretations of what they saw. The first man was a police officer, the second an architect. The first saw a dump, with evidence of crime all over the place based largely on his training and experience. The second saw beautiful architecture in many different styles and eras, and neighborhoods that reflected the eras in which they were built, again based largely on his training and experience.
Our vocational training is one of many powerful filters that comprise our ladders of inference.
Or, as Weber phrases it, the ladder forces us to ask, all the time, “what else is your mind doing without your permission?” This is an important question for educators to ask themselves all the time as we deal with students, parents, and each other.
With the Barrow sisters, it would have been easy to conclude, “Those girls are out of control.” It would have required no work on my part. There would have been general support for the decision. I could see the misbehavior and assume they do not know how to behave, or that they meant ill will toward Mr. Sinden or me. That ladder is an easy one to climb when we see a student not following clear directions from an adult.
Frustratingly, in a school, there is often a perverse sort of pressure on teachers to view students in just this way: as intentional disruptors who do not want to do well in school. This may be my greatest frustration as a principal. In a vocation where we should be trained to support and nurture students, the urge to punish and suspend a student is oddly fostered and encouraged among some teachers. I ask this question: shouldn’t the vocational training of educators take us in the opposite direction? Shouldn’t we always be giving students the benefit of the doubt? The answer is simple.
Yes we should.
And it is intensely frustrating to know that I am at times criticized for doing just that.
A couple of years ago, Cincinnati experienced a particularly cold winter and a stretch of single digit (Fahrenheit) morning temperatures. One of these mornings I was standing next to another adult in the hallway outside the cafeteria when Donte arrived, late, and headed into the cafeteria for breakfast. School had started 15 minutes earlier, and Donte lived within walking distance. He was chronically tardy. He was wearing a zip-up windbreaker over a hoodie which, I saw as I got closer, was pulled on over a second hoodie. My colleague commented aloud on Donte’s tardiness, and implied a conclusion that he was not really trying to get to school. I’ve made similar comments to and about students as well, but today I approached focused on a second set of observations. “Donte, it is super cold out there, are you warm enough?” He shivered his response, “I’m okay Mr. Jose.”
“You must sure love school to get here on a day like this.”
“I do, Mr. Jose.” He reconsidered, “Well, most of it anyway.”
As educators, we must be aware of how we move up the ladder of inference. It is very easy to misjudge another person’s actions, especially as we have more and more interactions with them over time. It is easy to get it wrong, as I did one particular day, when my student suddenly left my class without permission. I was certain that she was intent on skipping, and I rather publicly wrote her a Saturday school discipline form in front of my class. I soon learned that she had run out to help a teacher who had spilled something in the hallway.
Our classrooms have 28 or more students in them, we see 5 classes over the course of the day, we interact with more students and teachers in the hall … how do we possibly manage everyone in a world rife with opportunities to misunderstand? The answer is, we manage ourselves. We have to manage how we collect information, and how we process it, and what we do with it.
In interpersonal interactions, you must guard against climbing your own ladder of inference. One way to do this by always offering the benefit of the doubt. (We even build this last piece of advice into our Staff Agreement.)
How does that work? Practice. You can do it by yourself, and you can do it with a partner. When a student breaks a rule for the umpteenth time, imagine a variety of possible reasons why that just happened. At Gamble, students sometimes come into the office and shout a request to the office staff as soon as they get through the door. I could suggest, as some have, that this reflects “poor home training.” One could just as easily attribute this to an eagerness to return to class, or a lack of experience interacting with adults, or just above-average adolescent ebullience. Practicing the act of imagining charitable explanations for misbehavior opens the door to new understandings for all student behavior.
With the Barrow sisters, my choice helped set them up for success. Each of them has made the honor roll at least once in the intervening two years, and this year, when circumstances turned difficult for their family, they appropriately sought out the school’s support.
So how can you avoid climbing the ladder of inference?
- Observe the scene as fully as you can – look at the child or adult and gather facts
- Ask questions to get the other person’s perspective, take notes if necessary
- Ask what it is the other person was hoping to accomplish with their actions
- Fully explain your own perspective, then intentionally ask, “What am I missing?”
- Be willing to abandon your first interpretation of the situation
This is not to say that every action has a charitable explanation. It is wrong, however, to start from the assumption that the person you are dealing with intended to do harm.