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.
This letter was originally published in January, 2017 and has been viewed more than 375,000 times worldwide. It was mailed to all parties listed.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202
Governor John Kasich
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6117
Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria Ohio Department of Education
25 South Front Street
Columbus, OH 43215-4183
Dear Secretary DeVos, Governor Kasich, and Superintendent DeMaria:
I write to each of you, in my position as a teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools, to ask for your assistance. I include both federal and state politicians here, as in the past when I had the opportunity to address concerns to a member of the Federal Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under state control, but when, while working as part of a committee examining the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I addressed the same concerns to members of the State Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under federal control.
As a result, I invite all of you to engage in the conversation together in hope that rather than finger pointing, we can begin to seek solutions.
As we implement new education legislation, I ask that teachers be treated as the experts we are. That we are not just included in the conversation, but that we are leading it. The data demands it, and our children deserve it.
An Artificial Crisis
Politicians and the media have had a field day “exposing,” and attempting to address, what has been described as an educational crisis in America. I, too, believe that we are facing a crisis; however, unlike many in the school reform movement, I do not think that teachers and schools are at the root of this crisis. Rather I think it is the very reform efforts themselves – known generally as the “school accountability movement” — that has caused this concern.
I do not blame the Common Core State Standards. Many people conflate the Common Core State Standards with school accountability measures, but, to be clear, while there are some overlaps between these issues, the CCSS are not to blame in isolation for the challenges we are facing in education today. As a teacher, my personal opinion is that the jury is still out on CCSD, and will remain so until we have experienced several cohorts of students whose education has occurred entirely under CCSD. There are some who believe that this set of standards is not developmentally appropriate for students. This may be, but to be clear, the Standards themselves are merely goals to aim for. I am happy to have a high bar set for both my students and myself, as long as I am given time, support, and resources to attempt to meet that bar, and with the understanding that since students all start at different places, success lies in moving them toward the goal.
The standards are not the problem. The problem is the methodology being used to monitor them.
A Look at the Data
There is a body of information indicating that the supposed “crisis” in American Education has been misreported, and that this myth has been supported and sustained by a repeated skewing of the reported data.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national database that has tracked student progress in reading and math since the early 1970s. It is given to students at ages 9, 13, and 17, and the tests have been carefully monitored for consistency over the course of nearly 40 years. The results of this data indicate that reading and math scores have remained fairly static from year to year, with both increasing somewhat over time. For example, the 2012 data indicated that for thirteen year olds, the average reading scores increased by 8 raw points and average math scores increased by 21 raw points, since the first data reported in 1978.
This does not look like a crisis at all. The “educational crisis” hysteria has seemed to predominantly come from information comparing United States’ educational data with that from other countries.
Whenever we compare educational outcomes, we must be careful to monitor for external factors – for example, when comparing data internationally, we must take into account that the United States educates and assesses all students until the age of 18; whereas some other countries place students in various forms of tracked models and do not include all of these groups in their testing.
Additionally, the United States has a very high child poverty rate. The 2012 UNICEF report listed The United States’ child poverty rate as 34th out of 35 “economically advanced” countries, with only Romania scoring lower.
We know that poverty impacts academic achievement, and this must be taken into account when comparing U.S. scores internationally. For example, when the oft-cited data from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) is disaggregated based on economic status, we can see a trend that clearly indicates that the problem is poverty, rather than instruction.
United States’ schools with fewer than 10% of students living in poverty score higher than any country in the world. Schools with student poverty rates that are less than 24.9% rank 3rd in the world, and schools with poverty rates ranging from 25% to 49.9% rank 10th in the world. However, schools with 50% to 74.9% poverty rates rank much lower – fifth from the bottom. Tragically, schools with 75% or higher poverty rates rank lower in reading scores than any country except Mexico.
Couple this with the 2013 data that indicates that a majority (51%) of public school students live in poverty in this country, and we see the true depth of the actual crisis of poverty, and its impact on education.
A Crisis of Poverty
Schools with the lowest rates of student achievement are typically those with the highest number of disadvantaged students and the fewest available resources. The problem runs deeper than just funding, however. Children living in poverty often have a specialized set of social-emotional and academic needs. Schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students cannot be treated in the same manner as more affluent schools.
Education is neither a business nor is it a factory. We do not start with identical raw materials, and act upon them in a systematic way to produce an identical product. In the same vein, we cannot judge instructional efficacy in a single manner, with a single measure, and expect to get a consistent result. Teaching is a service industry, and we work with human capital. There are myriad factors at play that influence what appropriate expectations are for any given student, but poverty is likely the most impactful of these factors.
Children living in poverty are more likely to be coping with what has been labeled “toxic stress”– caused by a high number of identified adverse childhood events. Factors such as death or incarceration of a parent, addiction, mental illness, and abuse, among other things, have been labeled as adverse childhood events. Poverty, itself, is considered to be a type of sustained adverse childhood experience, and it also is a correlate factor, since living in poverty increases the likelihood of experiencing other adverse childhood events.
We know that these types of severe and chronic stress lead to long-term changes in children’s mental and physical development, and that this directly impacts their performance in school. “On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers. On a cognitive level, chronically elevated stress can disrupt the development of what are known as executive functions …, which include working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility.”
We know that children living in poverty face greater academic challenges than their middle and upper class counterparts, and yet, instead of helping this situation, the school accountability movement has chosen to vilify the wrong thing (teachers and schools), and has used standardized test scores as the weapon of choice to add insult to injury.
A Moving Target
In Ohio, there have been so many moving pieces at play that it is impossible to get a statistically valid measure. Over the course of the past three years, schools, teachers, and students have had their performance assessed using a different measurement tool each year. The 2013-2014 school year was the final year for assessment using the old Ohio State Standards and the Ohio Achievement Assessments. In the 2014-2015 school year, we switched to a combination of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and American Institute of Research (AIR) assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. Due to the legislation passed which illegalized PARCC administration in the state of Ohio, in the 2015-2016 school year, we administered AIR tests for the full battery of testing. During those same years, Ohio increased the number of grades and subjects areas tested.
In addition to these changes, the identified percentage of correct responses for proficiency on each test has changed each year, and the percentage of students scoring proficient in order to schools to be considered successful in achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has also increased each year.
So, the standards have changed, the tests have changed, the acceptable percent of correct responses has changed, the required percentage of students achieving proficiency has changed.
It is, therefore, not surprising that scores have remained anything but static. For the 2012-2013 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools was rated as being in “Continuous Improvement,” while the school where I teach was deemed “Excellent.” For the 2015-2016 school year, the Cincinnati Public Schools received four ratings of “F” and 2 ratings of “D,” while the school where I teach received 3 “F” ratings and 2 D ratings. (As a high school program, we are not rated in the area of K-3 Literacy.)
There are only two ways to interpret this. Either, over the course of three years, the quality of instruction has declined precipitously (across a district of nearly 3,000 teachers), or the data is invalid. The former assumption is nonsensical; the latter is terrifying based on the weight this data carries when making educational decisions.
Teacher performance evaluations are linked to test scores, School and district report cards are based almost exclusively on test scores, and, student graduation is based on test scores. But if the tools keep changing and the target keeps moving, how is it even remotely possible to measure improvement?
This concern is compounded by the subjectivity of the scores determined for proficiency – the cut scores are neither norm-referenced nor consistent from year to year.
For the 2015-2016 testing, in reading and math, across all grade levels, the percentage of students projected to score proficient or above ranged from 52-66%. This means that even on tests where students were “most likely to pass,” it was anticipated that only 66% of students would do so, and for other tests this was as low as 52%. For many tests, the reality was significantly worse. Only 21% of students taking Integrated Mathematics (Math 2) across the state were deemed proficient or above, and only 24% of students taking the Geometry test scored proficient or above. This is an awfully broad-scale problem to make the assumption that the issue of concern lies with students and teachers, rather than with the testing itself and with the structure of the system of accountability.
And once again, we see that poverty plays a role in these outcomes. For the 2015-2016 school year, 94% of urban schools in Ohio received ratings of D or F. Because of school accountability, and the high-stakes nature of the tests, scores like these cause the testing pressure to ratchet up. Low scores necessarily result in greater time and resources being spent solely to improve these scores. Some call this “test preparation;” others call it “teaching to the test.” Testing and school accountability result in too much time spent on testing, and on teaching curriculum that loses much of the flexible, creative, engaging, and in-depth instruction that keeps students engaged in learning and educators engaged in teaching. As one former urban school principal, concerned about the state report card, said during a faculty meeting when a teacher dared question how testing was detracting from her carefully crafted curriculum, “The test IS the curriculum! What are you, STUPID?!?!”
An Unavoidable Outcome
In 2013, the American Federation of Teachers reported that in heavily tested grades, up to fifty hours a year was spent on testing and up to 110 hours a year devoted to test preparation. Schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students bear the greatest weight for this, as they tend to have the greatest required gains in testing outcomes. The Center for American Progress notes that students in urban high schools spend up to 266% more time taking standardized tests than students in suburban schools.
And this is the fundamental problem with school accountability measures. They have caused the American public school system to become overly focused on a single measurement of success, and that measure is most punitive to populations that are already struggling.
Standardized test data is one measure of academic achievement, and as such it is valuable, but it is nothing more than a single data point. However, this data point has become so important that it is driving every other aspect of the educational train.
I want that data point – I want it for each of my students individually, and I want it for my class collectively – because it tells me something. But it doesn’t tell me everything, and we are treating it as if it does. How can the snapshot of a test score – given on a certain day, in a certain amount of time, with a specific type of questioning – tell me more than what I know as a result of working with my students hour after hour, day after day, for 40 weeks? It can’t, of course.
A Teacher’s Plea
Teachers are professionals, and we should be treated as such.
We are required to hold, at minimum, a Bachelor’s degree in teaching one or more subject areas; we also must complete significant amounts of additional training every year, and, at least in Ohio, to submit this to the state for re-licensure every five years. Most importantly, teachers are highly practiced in assessment and interpretation of results through our daily work with students and our careful observation of, and reflection on, student learning .
Education is complicated. Student growth is broad and deep, and sometimes happens in fits and starts and other times grows slowly and consistently. This complex process could never be adequately measured by a series of tests.
I know my students. I know when I am moving too quickly or too slowly, and I know when they are succeeding and when they are struggling. To assume that the state can determine this, and can make judgments on the effectiveness of my instruction based solely on a single measure is folly – especially when we know that students in poverty, the teachers who educate them, and the schools that serve them, will be judged most harshly by these measures. In fact, standardized test scores may tell us very little about a teachers’ impact or a students’ future success.
As Paul Tough writes, “A few years ago, a young economist at Northwestern University named C. Kirabo Jackson began investigating how to measure educators’ effectiveness. In many school systems these days, teachers are assessed based primarily on one data point: the standardized-test scores of their students. Jackson suspected that the true impact teachers had on their students was more complicated than a single test score could reveal… He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability. Jackson’s new index measured how engaged students were in school – Whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this was, remarkably, a better predictor than student’s test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.”
School Accountability measures with their fundamental focus on testing reduces teachers’ ability to focus on nurturing students’ “noncognitive ability,” and this is damaging to students and teachers alike — perhaps irrevocably damaging.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is moving us in the right direction by removing the requirement that teacher evaluations be linked to standardized test outcomes, but it doesn’t go far enough, and it leaves the window open for states to continue this practice.
As a nation, we must move away from our obsession with testing outcomes. The only group that is profiting from this is the testing industry. And with 1.7 billion dollars being spent by states annually on testing, they are, quite literally, profiting, and at the tax payers’ expense.
The most critical solution to this is to untie student, teacher, and school accountability measures from testing outcomes, or to combine these scores with a variety of other measures of success. In addition, we need to dramatically reduce the time spent on testing by requiring tests in fewer grades, or not administering tests every year. No high-performing nation in the world tests all students annually.
An Expert Opinion
We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis.
Politics, not education, got us into this mess, and it is politics that must get us out of it.
We must not go further down this rabbit hole. The future of our educational system, and the future of our children, is at stake. No one who has not worked in the sector of public education should be making decisions about our school system without careful consideration of the insights of those who will be directly impacted by those decisions.
As we move forward with a new federal administration, and as the state of Ohio makes decisions relative to implementation of ESSA, I beg you to not just include teachers and parents in the discussion, but to ensure that we are the loudest voices in the conversation.
I hope that you will consider the issues raised here, and most importantly, that you will listen to the voices of the teachers and parents who are trying so desperately to be heard.
Thank you for your time. I am happy to engage in the conversation further; feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kristina L. Taylor
Intervention Specialist; Team Leader
James N. Gamble Montessori High School
2015 Educator of the Year
 “LTT – Select Criteria.” LTT – Select Criteria. National Center for Education Statistics, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Adamson, Peter. Measuring Child Poverty: New League Tables of Child Poverty in the World’s Rich Countries. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2012. Web.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: Leading Determinants of Health.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2014): 1-5. American Academy of Pediactrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 3.
 Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell The Plain. “Scores on Ohio’s High School Math Tests Much Lower than Expected, Sparking Debate over Graduation Requirements.” Cleveland.com. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 03 June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 9.
 Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 @dianeravitch. “No High-Performing Nation in the World Tests Every Student Every Year.”Diane Ravitch’s Blog. N.p., 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
Despite the zero-tolerance position taken by many educators, smart phones are not the enemy of education. However, incomplete or thoughtless smart phone policies can create tremendous division between teachers, administrators, and students, and even conflict among teachers.
The solution is not
… eliminate cell phones from the school, or
… eliminate phone restrictions entirely.
Smart phones can be windows into the world for our students. They can open new vistas of direct communication with experts from around the corner, or with other students from around the world. But smart phones create problems in schools and in the development of adolescents, and for these reasons educators must be intentional in their approach to setting policies.
In the 2015-16 school year, Gamble Montessori earned a chance to participate in a groundbreaking new theatre program through a competitive application process. The Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), a large national actors’ guild, had initiated a program called JumpStart. Designed to help schools develop drama and theater programs, JumpStart targets schools that have no drama program. They provide training for teachers, access to modified musical scores which are tagged with the label “Jr.” (e.g. Once on This Island, Jr., or Annie, Jr.), and a structure for staging your own middle school musical in the spring.
In order to be selected for JumpStart, the school must first verify their dedication and determination to establishing an ongoing drama program. This is determined through interviews, where our responses to a series of questions were investigated to make sure we had the resources and initiative to accomplish the work. Once a school was selected – Gamble was one of three in this inaugural round – JumpStart provided support throughout the process.
Following the successful staging of Once On This Island, Jr. at Gamble Montessori in the spring of 2016, I was asked to speak at a fundraising breakfast to a group of EdTA donors. Other speakers from EdTA spoke about how the program came about, and between each set of speakers a professionally produced video was shown. Each video featured snippets (like this one) from the training or the performances, and interviews with those involved, myself included. Below are my remarks, edited for clarity.
That was a student’s response when I told my Algebra class about an upcoming test. My first reaction was to be flabbergasted. “What do you mean is it for a grade? It’s a test. Of course it’s for a grade!” But then suddenly I understood.
I was mid-lesson when a knock at the classroom door interrupted my flow. Interruptions were not unusual, but instead of a security assistant asking to take a student to the office, I was surprised to see a man I did not know standing outside my door.
“Is Carlos Junior here?”
“Um, yeah, but I’m sort of in the middle of a lesson here, you are …?” I trailed off looking for some explanation of this visit. Something about the man was unkempt, off-center somehow. There was the oddness of a visitor I didn’t know, and the knock in the middle of a lesson, and yet I had an anxiety which I couldn’t exactly trace.
“I’m his father. I got a call about his grades.” Any apprehension I had at the time was relieved. It made sense. My team of teachers had made some calls to the homes of students who were struggling academically. Here we were, the next day, and a father was standing at my door. Pretty good response time, all things considered. He just didn’t call ahead for an appointment. Still, I wanted to check with Carlos.
I asked the man to wait a second in the hall and I pulled the door shut. I turned, planning to ask Carlos if this really was his father. Carlos was already three strides across the room towards me and the door. He had a look of resignation on his face.
“Hey, um, your dad …” I started.
“Yeah, I got this.” He walked into the hall and shut the door behind him. I resumed class.
A couple of sentences into the lesson, several students’ heads turned toward the door as a heavy thud resounded in the hall, followed by loud profanity from Carlos’ dad.
I quickly opened the door and stepped out. The man had grabbed Carlos’ shirt with both hands and had him pressed up against the wall across from my door. He was mumbling threateningly into Carlos’ face. I made out profanities and school-related words like ‘homework’ and ‘grades.’
“Sir, you can’t do that.” I put my hand on his shoulder, unsure what I was going to do next. He was several inches taller than me, and 40 pounds heavier. Without looking at me, he shrugged my hand away, leaned in, and spat a final threat at his son. He then stepped back and twisted his hands, throwing his son to the floor. Carlos slid on the floor to my right, his left hand on his cheek, then propped himself up with his right hand on the ground. His father was to my left, standing off-balance.
Now, in his struggle to maintain balance, I saw what I had missed earlier. He was drunk. As he took another step toward his son, cursing his poor grades, I stepped in between and the man bumped into me. Behind me, my student said, quietly, “Mr. Jose, you don’t have to…”
At the very moment when I realized I was going to be unable to hold him back, Carlos senior thought better of his actions and stopped leaning into me. He gave me a perfunctory pat on the shoulder that landed more like a shove. “There you go,” he said to me, but not taking his eyes off his son. “You won’t have any more trouble with him not doing homework.”
He spoke past me, “Isn’t that f—ing right, Carlos?”
Not waiting for an answer, he turned and walked down the hall.
Carlos wasn’t going to learn much English that day.
Violence at home rarely is this visible at school. However, incidents of violence are prevalent in American homes. The Centers for Disease Control recorded 683,000 reports of abuse or neglect against children in 2015, with more than 1,600 deaths[i] attributed to neglect or abuse that year. Related studies suggest that as many as 1 in every 4 children experience abuse or neglect at some point in their lifetime, indicating that many cases go unreported.
Abuse and neglect are two of the types of incidents that are collectively referred to as “ACEs”, or adverse childhood events. These experiences contribute to the likelihood of a series of negative outcomes for the individual involved. The negative outcomes can include increased chances of addictive and self-harming behaviors as well as physical conditions including heart and liver disease. Ultimately, an accumulation of ACEs correlates to an increased chance of early death. Needless to say, ACEs can interfere with a child’s learning and academic progress.
Tackling ACEs is the work of communities and schools together, and the focus of many books and blog posts already published and yet to come. There is a lot to learn, and many specific steps to be taken to address this growing body of knowledge.
However, individual teachers in their classrooms need strategies for handling situations that might trigger ACEs.
In that moment, in the hallway, I believed Carlos Senior was the enemy.
Later, it occurred to me that he was an ally – of sorts. With a phone call home, I could get Carlos swift and strong consequences, or more accurately, punishments, for his performance in class. Now even the threat of a phone call home might serve as a sort of motivation for him to improve his behavior in class.
This is the decision that some teachers are comfortable making. Hanging this phone call over a student’s head for misbehavior in class makes the threat of physical force a reality. It puts this tool “back in the belt” of a teacher; she can now wield force indirectly. Some teachers might find this power tempting.
However, teachers should never place a hand on a student to do anything other than to greet, console, or encourage them. Corporal punishment is against the law in Ohio (in public schools) per House Bill 1, passed in November 2009, and in 30 other states[ii], for sound moral and educational reasons. Physical consequences often sever, rather than strengthen, the relationship between child and caregiver. Worse, they muddy the real consequence of an action, leaving a child to guess what the adult might find to be important, rather than to understand the significance of a missed assignment or a single poor grade.
Teachers should not cause harm to students, even if they do it indirectly.
The question teachers have to answer is this: if you are reasonably certain that your phone call will lead to a child being hit, should you call? That is, what do you do when a phone call home will hurt, rather than help?
This question places a teacher in an almost impossible place. Parents are, of course, the most important figure in the life of a child. Decisions made by the parent are legally and unquestionably binding on the child, from a quick swat on the rear to the edge of what might be rightly considered physical and emotional abuse.
The relationship between a parent and a school is crucial to the success of the student. A parent who feels the school is supporting their child and providing a safe and rigorous learning environment, matched to the needs of their child, will go to great lengths to reinforce the schoolwork and schedule, and will be a crucial ally in the formal education of their child. Also, the parent needs the teacher as a partner in the growth, development, and socialization of the child. This is an important bond that must be strengthened by the teacher and administration.
So we must avoid the temptation as teachers to call the parent and use the parent’s disciplinary consequences as an extension of our own.
Outsourcing the consequence to the parent is similar to asking another teacher to provide the discipline in your classroom. This abdication of your authority sends an important message to the student that is the opposite of the intended message. It doesn’t say that you are strong, it says you are weak. Over-reliance on this tool will also send a message to the parent that you can’t manage your classroom or their child, and will make the parent more likely to believe their child when they blame the problems on the teacher instead of themselves.
On the other hand, we must also avoid the simplified response of refusing to call at all. This prevents the physical harm, of course, but it remains our professional obligation to communicate with parents. Balancing our obligation to call with the needs of the child is a challenge we must master.
Here are steps you can take in this situation to reduce the likelihood of a child being hit, emotionally abused, or neglected, while still reinforcing the parent/teacher/student triangle.
Establish clear and consistent classroom procedures
First, the teacher must work to develop a strong bond of communication and trust with the student. Clear and consistent processes in the classroom, communicated and reinforced multiple ways, will help a student feel comfortable with the routines. Setting a single way to hand in work, and a specific day and time to have the work completed, will increase chances of the work being completed and turned in on time and in the right way.
Additionally, the teacher must provide a way for students to make up work or catch up independently. This allows students to take ownership when the inevitable happens. Students will miss an assignment. A busy morning will leave a student at school without the work they already completed. This, in fact, happens to human beings. Having a fair and consistent way to address common human mistakes helps a student be confident in their ability to make up the missing work, and less likely to need parental intervention.
Establish clear and consistent communication with parents
It is easy to fall into the trap of only calling home when there is a specific behavioral or academic concern in the classroom. Phone calls home can be time-consuming and quite a chore, especially when everyone involved knows that the phone call is bad news.
A common solution suggested to teachers is to also make positive phone calls home.
That is the life of the educator. Doing more work didn’t fix the problem? Double the work! That should do it!
Sure, positive phone calls home are helpful in strengthening the triangle of parent, teacher, and student, but more work is not always the solution. Working smarter is the answer. Chances are, your school already offers lots of indirect ways to engage with families. Open house nights, ice cream socials, sporting events, and conference nights are part of the life of a typical school. Teachers are often required to be at these. Use these opportunities to ask questions of parents, just as you would a student who was new in your class. What do they do for a living? What do they like to do in their free time? What was their favorite class in school? Making a personal connection will come in handy when you need to leverage the relationship to deliver helpful information about their child.
Before involving the parent, talk with the child
Most often, big problems in the classroom start as small problems in the classroom. A failing grade is not caused by one missing assignment but several over time. The teacher’s patience is worn thin not by one misbehavior but by days of repeated disruptions or disobedience. It is wisest to first address this individually with the student.
Asking a student to identify the source of the problem is almost always the quickest way to a solution. Responses can range from an admission of wrongdoing, “I just didn’t finish my work last night,” to awareness of an emergency at home, “We were at the ER with my little brother until really late, and I didn’t get any homework done.” Sometimes these conversations reveal a student who is struggling to complete work independently and who needs advice on setting up a schedule, study area, and self-discipline.
Sometimes, as in the case of a student like Carlos, a parent has demonstrated a frustratingly limited approach to motivating their child. The teacher must, in this situation, develop a connection with the student in order to create an internal sense of motivation. Building a caring relationship, and smoothing the pathway to academic and personal success does not mean eliminating expectations. It means helping the child prioritize challenges in their life, put school as part of the solution, and take the necessary steps to navigate their precarious position.
When making a call home to address misbehavior, be very precise
Despite our work as a school to provide a positive vision for a child to grow into, I still have teachers approach me and say about a child, “He never …” Regardless of how that sentence ends, it is not true. This is the kind of sentence that drives a wedge between student, teacher, and parent. Rarely is the phone call home intended to fix a mortal flaw in a child’s character. The call that includes this sentence reinforces the idea that the teacher sees the child in a sort of irreparable state of unsuccessfulness. It can only go two ways from there, and both are counterproductive.
If the parent agrees that “He never…”, then the parent and teacher have formed a sort of belief system aligned against the growth and learning potential of the child. An adolescent is already predisposed to feeling attacked and to severing bonds from their parents, so this alliance will only reinforce ill feelings within the child, rather than fostering a sense of problem-solving and improvement.
If the parent disagrees with the statement, then the teacher finds herself on the wrong side of the growth equation, seemingly resolved to the idea that the child cannot learn. Being perceived by a parent as believing their child is unteachable or inherently problematic undermines the teacher-student relationship completely. The adolescent, so eager to prove her independence, will nonetheless cling tightly to a parent who is allied against a teacher and a bad grade. This develops in a child a skill set to avoid consequences and externalize control over grades and other life outcomes. This is completely counter-productive to the goal of education.
Instead, the home contact addressing poor performance should be very precise. This means that the observed behavior, be it failure to complete work, poor work quality, or disruptive or disobedient behavior, should be described within specific guidelines. The teacher should include a description of the observed behavior, when and where it occurred, and how many times. Then the effect of that misbehavior should be explained. Suppose that there have been seven homework assignments, and the student has not turned any of them in. Instead of saying, “he never does his homework,” it is more accurate to say, “we have had seven homework assignments, and he has turned none of them in. As a result, he currently has an ‘F’ in class.”
When making a negative call home, offer a specific solution
The call is not over when you have described the misbehavior. A parent might not know exactly what to do with this information, leaving them frustrated in their desire to help their child be successful. Leaving a solution fully in the hands of someone who does not understand the workings of your classroom and gradebook does not make sense. This is equivalent to your doctor saying, “Looks like you have a stone there, on your kidney. That’s going to be uncomfortable.” As the educator, it is important to tell the parent a specific solution to the misbehavior.
In the homework example, the teacher might continue, “as a result, I have assigned your child a detention with me Tuesday after school. He can make the assignment up there, and maybe finish Tuesday’s homework too.”
By providing a specific solution, the teacher makes sure the parent does not feel responsible for providing the consequence. No additional stress or responsibility, just information. It helps in this situation to be able to add information from the conversation with the student. “In fact, when I spoke with your son, he said he couldn’t stay after school on Wednesday because you work late that day, so he and I thought maybe he could stay Thursday with a different teacher.” The effective teacher prefers to accomplish this consequence in person with the student, to address the misbehavior and repair the relationship. However, this teacher makes exceptions and accommodations to allow the child to experience control and personal efficacy.
Help frame the student in a positive light in the parent’s eyes
Parents react so strongly to their child’s struggles because we identify closely with our children. We get angry when they struggle just as we celebrate when they succeed. School is a place where “winning” and “losing” is often framed – and perhaps accurately – as a metaphor for future success in life. No parent, not even a teacher or a principal, is above this identification with their own child. The stakes are breathtakingly high.
Calling a parent to indicate that their child is exhibiting signs of academic failure can trigger a strong reaction in the calmest parent. How much more so if the parent displays passionate reactions? This passion is not a weakness or a failing of the parent, and should not be regarded as such. This is an area to capitalize on.
Use each conversation to explain the strengths of their child. Seeing their child in a positive light prompts a reaction of pride and cooperation within the parent. They can see the good there too. Creating a shared vision for what is possible with their child is a powerful groundwork for a conversation.
Doing this over a series of conversations sets up the opportunity to walk a parent down from the edge of an intemperate response. If the parent accuses the child of being irresponsible or worse, the teacher can provide a different perspective. “Well, I agree that he should have done the work at home. His willingness to make up the work after school shows that he is growing in responsibility.” Without minimizing the concern about the misbehavior, a teacher can re-frame the frustration.
If violence is proposed as a solution, speak out against it.
Finally, the strongest step a teacher can take in this situation is to speak out against violence. If they offer, or threaten, to strike their child to create a change in their behavior, you have to advocate against this. In fact, teachers are mandated reporters of physical abuse; it is our legal obligation to protect students. Informing the parent that striking their child is unacceptable to you, and counterproductive to your shared goals, can possibly change their actions, and serve to make a child’s life remarkably better.
This is challenging. Sample phrases can lead you in a direction that is comfortable for you. One approach would be to state your preference that the punishment not be related to your call. “Mr. Wilson, I really wish you would not do that. I would hate to think that my call home got Carlos hit.” Or you can provide information, such as informing the parent, “You know, the reason they outlawed striking students in school is that they found that being hit actually harmed their academic performance.” Or simply repeat the solution you arrived at earlier. “Mr. Wilson, you know, we have already scheduled a make-up time. I know you are frustrated, but let’s see if that works.”
On occasion, it is necessary to make a stronger statement to the parent. In a personal conference, rather than a phone call, we can assert our position and our shared values. Life is precious. The child is precious. Hitting a child, or using profanity and psychological abuse as a motivator, devalues that child. It undermines our work as educators, and it uses fear as a motivator, which, as Kohlberg demonstrated is the least advanced reason to do a given action.
Ultimately, a parent will do the best they can do in a given situation. Giving them, and their children, the tools to find their way to success without resorting to abuse will lead to better results. And the evidence shows that making this change can lead to a longer and more successful life.
As teachers we are obligated to work in the best interests of our students. Tackling these sorts of problems makes the difference between teaching only the students who arrive ready, and making every student ready. When we persevere and solve these problems we distinguish ourselves, and send a message of faith in the students who most need to hear that message.
“I just really want my Team Leaders to decide and tell me what to do.”
Evan’s statement hit me like a ton of bricks. He had just asked me a question about fee payment and student participation in field experiences. Instead of answering, I had turned his question back on him, asking for his opinion on the issue.
His response felt so familiar, except this time I was on the other end of the exchange. His words reminded me eerily of my own statement to Jack many years ago in a similar situation, “Please just tell me what to do, and I will go do it.”
Evan didn’t want to give input. He wanted to be provided with a clear directive. I had hesitated in my response, thinking that I needed to gather information and take peoples’ opinions into account.
No, I didn’t. This wasn’t a complex issue. It was a bit tricky because our past practice didn’t match our stated policy, but we had a policy. I could issue a directive, and, as Evan had gently noted, that was my job.
So, I did what he asked. I made a decision aligned with our policy and shared it with all members of the team. Done. Handled.
But when it rains, it pours, and within a week of this exchange I found myself in a second, very similar decision-making situation.
This time, I was separately approached by both the art teacher and the agricultural education teacher asking for assistance with management of my students during their classes. I readily provided suggestions, but with their large class sizes, I knew that what they really needed was a second set of hands. Because I lead a team that includes a paraprofessional, I was in a position to offer this help.
The quickest and easiest solution was to respond to these requests for help by offering the use of Minet, our paraprofessional, during these two classes; however, I was concerned. There are a lot of other specialist teachers in our building who also work with my students. Were they having similar challenges? Should I solve the problem that was right in front of me, or should I dig deeper to see what else might be out there? I was worried that there were teachers who were similarly frustrated, but who had not thought to ask for support.
In addition, while I serve as the team leader, there are seven teachers who are impacted by the use of our paraprofessional. To assign her to work in another classroom meant a loss of her support for these teachers during their planning time. Should I involve these teachers in the decision? Did I need to gather their input before moving forward?
A brief conversation with Jack helped me to conceptualize what I needed to do.
Really this issue involved two decisions:
Assigning Minet to support elective classes during our team planning time
Building a schedule to best support these elective classes
For the first, I decided that, like in the fees and field experiences situation, I did not need input from my team before offering up the assistance of our paraprofessional in elective classes. The primary function of any school staff person is to support students.
I felt confident that assigning our paraprofessional to help support behavioral stabilization of our students was the right decision, even though it would result in the teachers on my team losing some assistance. In addition, it was aligned with building policy and past practice. While gathering input from the team could serve to reinforce and garner support for my thinking, it also could lead to unnecessary debate, and it would certainly cost everyone precious time. This seemed like a needless muddying of the waters, so I made this decision unilaterally.
However, in looking at how to build a schedule to allow Minet to best support elective classrooms I felt like I made a nearly opposite decision. Rather than cleanly deciding, I sent the issue back to the specialist team, and I asked them to guide me in how to best assign the use of this support. In this case, I explicitly asked for input and debate when I had intentionally chosen not to do this exact thing with my team just moments before.
In a single situation, I was implying that team input both mattered and didn’t matter. On the one hand, with my team, I was operating in alignment with my frequently stated concern, “Don’t make us debate it among ourselves,” while, simultaneously, I was asking the specialist team to do exactly that, to debate it among themselves.
I felt strongly that in each circumstance the decision I made was the correct one. But why? What made the difference?
I was certain that is all made sense somehow, and yet it also seemed to make no sense at all.
I was reminded of a conversation on social media in response to my recent post exploring leadership. The discussion was really between Jack and his former principal and mentor, Bob Suess, but since it was conducted on my Facebook page, I was privy to it.
Bob, in his wisdom, said this, “A leadership model that informs leaders of the correct approach to every possible issue in every possible situation … doesn’t and never will exist.” While I know the inherent truth in this statement, I found it to be both frustrating and relieving, in equal measure.
If the leadership answer key doesn’t exist, then I can stop spending so much energy searching for it; however if it doesn’t exist then I will also remain eternally unsure relative to what to do when.
But Bob didn’t leave me hanging, he also said this, “With all the variables, one might recommend that, given a+b+c+ . . +h, one should most likely choose approach or strategy m, r, or z, but leadership cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. Leaders must always draw upon their own professional and personal knowledge, observations, and understanding to select the approach the best fits that particular situation.”
I know that what he wanted me to take away from this statement is that every situation is unique and there is never a singular right answer that fits every instance. But he also threw me a lifeline in referencing that while there may not be a formula, there may be patterns, and a series of most-likely, best-fit options.
So I went back and examined the leadership decisions I had recently made and explored my own thinking relative to each.
I was able to make a unilateral decision regarding the fee payment-field experience issue because we had a policy. I found my written record of this policy in our minutes, and I acted in accordance with it. It wasn’t the warmest, fuzziest feel-good response to the issue, but it was clear and clean. Why would I waste people’s time gathering input, when we had already established policy?
Similarly, I was able to offer the use of our paraprofessional without collecting input from the team because the decision had a clear answer that aligned with our building value of putting the needs of students first, and we had implemented a similar procedure in the past.
I asked myself why I didn’t feel the same level of clarity about simply assigning our paraprofessional to the teachers who had asked for assistance. I realized that it was because I felt like I didn’t have all the information. There were potential missing pieces related to what may have been unspoken needs from other teachers in the building. This is why I sent it back to the specialist team for further review.
Based on this self-reflection, I began constructing a series of questions to ask myself when working toward a decision.
Do I have all the necessary information?
Do I have the authority to make the decision?
Is my proposed solution aligned with institutional values and practices?
Is my proposed solution a clear, best solution?
I threaded this mental exploration together with information from Conversational Capacity and A Failure of Nerve, (which Jack and I have written about previously here and here) and ultimately, I developed this flowchart, which I have dubbed a Decision-Making Tree.
Decision making is hard. There are often many variables and a variety of solutions, each with a separate set of pros and cons.
While, I am aware that any tool like this runs the risk of making the complex task of decision-making seem like a simplistic process, I also am a strong believer in clear processes. The more frequently we can use process and procedure to guide us, the more efficient we will be in our work and the less often we will be caught up in personalized conflict.
In addition, a clear process can help propel us to action. It can take courage to pull the trigger on making a decision. It’s always easier to have someone else do this for us – after all, then we cannot be held solely accountable for the outcome of the decision. It often feels better to decide by majority vote or by consensus because that creates shared responsibility, but this does not always yield a better result. In light of this, leaders are charged with making clear, executive decisions when appropriate.
On the flowchart, if the answers to all the questions in the left-column are “yes,” then the leader is in a position to unilaterally go ahead and make a decision. Doing so may feel uncomfortable, or even downright scary, but ultimately this saves everyone in the institution both time and potential discord.
These types of unilateral decisions also create a kind of psychological safety in an institution, as they lend clarity to responsibilities and expectations, and indicate what the non-negotiables are. In education, we often talk about the importance of establishing boundaries for children. This is no less true for adults. We all need to clearly understand what is expected of us and what the procedures and values of the organization are.
Similarly, it is important to share expectations around how a decision will be made. Will it be made unilaterally by a leader informed by input from others? Will it be made by a vote from a decision-making body? Does it require consensus from an entire group? In Conversational Capacity, Craig Weber discusses the importance of knowing this prior to beginning discussion on an issue.
Regardless of how the decision will ultimately be made, it is often, although not always, necessary to gather input from a variety of sources. Weber reinforces the importance of engaging in challenging conversations through the implementation of both curiosity (actively asking questions about potential opposing views) and candor (clearly and directly stating thoughts and concerns).
I, like many others, am prone to focus exclusively on the merits of my own proposed solutions and neglect to intentionally seek out the thoughts of those in opposition. Having a piece built into the flowchart that focuses on requesting feedback from those likely to be opposed, as well as those likely to be in agreement, serves as an important reminder for me to take this step when necessary, even if it yields discomfort in the discussion.
If Weber’s contribution to the flowchart is the importance of hearing all relevant arguments. Friedman’s is in the potential perils of consensus. In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman expresses concerns about consensus weakening the value systems of institutions by requiring compromise. His argument is that the process of seeking consensus requires the finding of a middle ground. This necessarily pulls people away from the more powerful higher ground, and allows those misaligned with institutional values to control the conversation. Friedman calls this “sandbagging.”
Consensus can certainly be a powerful decision-making tool; however, in light of Friedman’s arguments, I suggest that consensus be used infrequently and only for issues that address cultural shifts for the institution as a whole. If a leader is seeking consensus because it feels good and avoids a conflictual outcome, this is likely not a powerful enough reason to implement this strategy.
Weber expresses concerns about the potential perils of consensus-seeking as well: “Remember, balanced dialogue is not about talking until everyone on the team reaches agreement; it’s about helping the person making the decision make the most informed and effective choice possible. … Once you have enough information on the table to help the decision maker make an informed choice, move on to the next issue.” (172-173)
Regardless of how a decision is made, once it is determined, it needs to be implemented. But be prepared. It is nearly guaranteed that a decision, once made, will be questioned by those it impacts. Perhaps this questioning and challenge is part of the human condition. While it is true that not all decisions are good ones, this cannot be determined until a period of implementation has occurred.
For this reason, Jack asked me to embed a stop sign in the flowchart. (He won’t admit it, but I think it’s there for me. I have a propensity to question every decision, and to actively seek flaws in any plan. I’m certain that I challenge him far more than he appreciates.) Jack wanted this symbol to serve as a reminder of firmness of intent – a resistance to wavering under challenge.
In thinking about my own tendencies, I considered what message I need to hear that would be resolute against weakening resolve, but would also honor my voice. I identified three important components to an effective response to challenge:
A clear articulation of the decision
A summary of the most important rationales leading to the decision
An indication that the decision could be revisited after a given time if it proved to be problematic
Decision making is often both difficult and complicated. And yet leaders are required to make myriad decisions every day. While I know that Bob is correct in saying that there is no answer key and there is no singular right way, having tools to guide us can make things simpler.
In some ways, perhaps Bob and I are saying much the same thing. In his closing remarks, he noted that ultimately a leader must, “move the institution and its members in the right direction, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. Only by looking back over a longer period of time does one ever fully appreciate the distance travelled. I always liked the analogy of the organizational leader as the individual walking next to an elephant and guiding its direction by gently tapping it with a stick.”
This sounds very much like what Jack calls, “playing The Long Game” – gradually getting that institutional elephant to move in the direction one wants it to go. I, too, am invested in shepherding the elephant, but I’m near certain that it will move more quickly, and with less duress, if there is a well-defined path, and if the guiding prods are clear and consistent.
There may be no answer key, but there are some answers, and there are strategies to support these responses. Examining how to make decisions under what type of conditions can make the monumental task of decision making easier.
The other day you asked me an important question, and I gave you a bad half-answer (or no answer at all, really.) Please accept my apology, and allow me to fully answer your question.
You asked me, essentially: “More than half of my students failed my test, what should I do?” You also gave me some additional information. It seemed important in the moment, and it sounded persuasive, or perhaps it was meant to bias me in one direction. You said, “they had enough time to study, “and you added that “they did not complete their work,” etc. I think I knew what you wanted me to say. And I choked.
Perhaps you offered that additional information about their lack of preparation as prevention against the scariest possible answer, which meant undoing tomorrow’s lesson plan, and starting from scratch.
More likely, you were speaking as you have heard your own teachers speak in the past. You wanted to send the same message you received as a student: hard work is important; the grade you got is the grade you earned.
And maybe your question was, “Am I teaching poorly? Am I doing a bad job?”
There is a right answer, actually several, and I did not give it, or any of them.
At many schools, the last day of the school year tends to be kind of a wasted day – a day spent packing up boxes, watching a video, or talking about summer plans. Attendance is often sparse as many students chose to begin their summer vacation a day early.
In Gamble’s middle school classrooms, however, the last day of school serves as both our fourth quarter cycle wrap-ups and our wrap-up for the year as a whole. Rarely are students absent.
Last year, on the last day of school, my students wrapped up our “Change” cycle with a school-wide carnival fundraiser. You can read about it here. While the carnival was truly an amazing experience, holding it on the last day of school made me a bit worried.
Would we be able to clean up everything in time to hold our traditional end of the year ceremony? Would we be able to capture students’ attention after such a high-energy experience? Would we, as teachers, be able to shift the tone and focus of the day after the exhaustion of managing a carnival for several hours? After all the fun and excitement, would students even be interested in sitting down for a closing circle?
As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.
Many students approached me throughout the day and asked questions like, “Are we going to have time for a closing?” “We are going to end in circle, right?” and “We’re not just going to dismiss from the carnival, are we?”
When I first became a parent, I had so many questions and so much self-doubt. Every decision seemed so important and so fraught with risk. What exactly should I be doing when, and why? So like any good student, I went looking for the definitive text book on parenting.
There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there. Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to parent.
“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”
It did not take long to discover that while there were what some would call “answers” to be found in these books, these often directly conflicted with one another.
“Feed your baby on demand” vs. “Acclimate your baby to a feeding schedule.”
“Sleep with your baby” vs. “Never, ever sleep with your baby.”
“Practice ‘baby-wearing’” vs. “Put your baby down, so he gets used to entertaining himself.”
“Pick up a crying baby” vs. “Let your baby ‘cry it out.’”
The list goes on and on. My quest for the “Baby Care Answer Key” proved to be both endlessly frustrating and futile. It took me ten months to finally give up on finding it. By then I was exhausted, but I settled on the following advice.
Listen to your baby
Trust your judgement
You know more than you think you do
Not a very precise set of guidelines, but my children are currently ages 17 and 13, and so far, it doesn’t appear that I have ruined them for life. Can we agree that counts as some semblance of success?
Thankfully, I no longer have the raising of babies to worry about. However, throughout my career as an educator, I have found myself consistently drawn toward leadership. And when I reflect on my development as a leader, and how I have approached this growth, it eerily resembles what becoming a parent felt like.
As a team leader, I feel responsible for the success and health of my team in much the same way that I felt about raising my children. And I feel the weight and worry of potential mistakes in much the same way as well.
Every decision seems so important and so fraught with risk. What exactly should I be doing when, and why? So like any good student, I have been looking for the definitive text book on leadership.
There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there. Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to lead.
“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”
But, of course, just like books on parenting, books on leadership all seem to have different, and sometimes conflicting, advice.
Should leaders strive to hear all voices and work toward consensus, or identify clear goals and push others to achieve them?
Does effective team building happen through activities that help people like and trust one another, or through the struggle and conflict of putting challenging ideas on the table?
Do institutions function best when they are run as top-down or bottom-up?
The answer to all of these questions appears to be, “yes,” … depending on who you ask.
I have read many books about leadership, and each one seems to have its own take on the subject, leaving me with no clear answers. However, these three books stand out as being the most influential for me.
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber
A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman
They are presented here in the order in which I read them. This is notable, as this mirrors the level of personal challenge that I found within them.
Brené Brown’s work was the most accessible for me, as in many ways she “speaks my language.” Craig Weber pushed me to deeper self-reflection and to identifying my growth edge. Edwin Friedman challenged seemingly everything that I thought I knew to be true about good leadership, and in some ways turned it upside down.
It is not possible to fully explore the depth of each of these author’s work here; however, I have attempted to capture some of the most salient points.
In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines a leader as, “anyone who holds him- or her- self accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” (185) She indicates that this potential should be channeled into cultivating positive change, or what she dubs, “Minding the Gap.” She defines this as working toward reducing the difference between the Aspirational Values of an institution – those values that we espouse and that represent our best intentions – and the Practiced Values of an institution – how we actually think, behave, and feel.
Brown recognizes that working toward this alignment is a challenging, and potentially uncomfortable, task. She notes that true leadership is scarce because being uncomfortable is a job requirement of the role. She writes, “If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.” (211)
Fortunately, although the work may be uncomfortable, Brown provides some insights into how to support teams in the challenges of growth and learning. She describes this as an inherently vulnerable process, as to learn and grow, one must be willing to risk failure. She also examines the critical role of constructive feedback, noting that people are “desperate” for feedback that inspires growth and engagement. (198)
Accepting feedback, growing, learning, and changing are all risky business. In order for people to be willing to take on these risks, they must be supported by healthy organizations.
Brown describes healthy organizational cultures as places where:
Empathy is a valued asset
Accountability is an expectation rather than an exception
The need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control
In the absence of this type of safe space, people will disengage in order to protect themselves – they will stop showing up, stop contributing, and stop caring. This disengagement is a form of institutional crisis. To support leaders in avoiding this scenario, Brown provides this “Leadership Manifesto” for guidance.
In Conversational Capacity, (which I’ve written about previously here) Craig Weber agrees with Brown’s assertion that leadership requires discomfort. He, too, focuses on the importance of managing the human side of teams, but he defines the most critical aspect of this as the development of what he calls conversational capacity. He defines this as “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15)
From his perspective, a healthy institutional culture “embraces productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously,” and is “strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints and challenging questions.” (19) Weber asserts that it is only through the intentional cultivation of conversational capacity that this can occur, and it is the leader’s responsibility to develop this within the team.
Weber identifies a continuum of responses to challenges, such that minimizing (or low candor) behaviors exist at one end of this spectrum while winning (or low curiosity) behaviors exist at the other. He indicates that the way to develop conversational capacity, or work toward the “sweet spot” found in the center of the continuum, is to work against one’s natural tendency to “minimize” or to “win” in the face of challenging issues.
He notes that when conversational capacity is not well-developed:
We remain silent when we should speak up
We argue when we should cooperate
We downplay our concerns when we should blurt them out (27)
Like Brown, Weber notes that in the absence of conversational capacity, we are risking institutional crisis.
To examine the various ways this crisis can appear, Jack synthesized Weber’s “sweet spot” continuum with the related Heat-Light balance described in Meeting Wise by Boudett and City (which Jack has previously written about here).
Jack created this graphic which examines the ways in which being unbalanced relative to minimizing, winning, heat, and chill can lead to passive-aggression, direct aggression, sabotage, and shut down – each of which are damaging to institutions and pull teams out of the “sweet spot” or the “light” in which effective and positive change can occur.
A Failure of Nerve
Although both Brown and Weber note the importance of leadership for the health of an institution, neither writes in as strong language about this as Friedman does in A Failure of Nerve (which Jack has previously written about here.)
Friedman asserts that when institutions are not functioning well, it is always due to a failure of nerve among its leaders.(2) He describes this “nerve” as self-differentiation – or having clarity about one’s own goals, as demonstrated through a focus on strength rather than pathology, challenge rather than comfort, and taking definitive stands rather than seeking consensus.
He boldly claims that leaders must not be “peace-mongers,” who attempt to “regulate their institutions through love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.”(12) He states that working toward consensus leads to sandbagging and sabotage by team members who are not aligned with the leader’s identified goals.
In accordance with this, he suggests that the way to change institutions is to work with the motivated members of that institution rather than focusing on the recalcitrant members. He indicates that by orienting one’s focus toward those who are not in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals, and attempting to get them on board through seeking compromise and consensus, the institution itself becomes weaker.
Friedman suggests that the way to strength is to consistently engage members of an institutional community who operate in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals. By shifting to a focus on strength, rather than weakness, recalcitrant members who want to remain a part of the institution have to adapt to the established community, rather than requiring the institution to adjust to the expectations of the recalcitrant members.
Friedman believes that a lack of self-differentiation among leadership, or in other words confusion around the goals, culture, and expectations of an institution, leads to systemic anxiety. And that this anxiety causes reactivity – both in terms of intense emotionality and dogged passivity – among its members.
Counter to the common understanding of job stress, Friedman believes that it is not unrelieved hard work that is the root cause of burnout, but rather it is chronic, systemic anxiety that is to blame.
Once again, he identifies self-differentiation of leadership as the antidote for chronic anxiety. He calls on leaders to be both present and non-anxious relative to the challenges of their institutions. Noting that while it is easy to be non-present and non-anxious, or conversely, present and anxious, in the face of difficulty, he instead prescribes that leaders become “transformers,” who allow the current of adversity to run through them without getting zapped. They reduce the anxiety of the institution by the nature of their own presence, by their self-differentiation, as defined above.
Friedman explores leadership through a lens that at first glance seems different from anyone else. However, like Weber, he identifies continuums and the need to find the center between the extremes, and like Brown, he focuses on the importance of establishing a safe, institutional space, which he defines as one that is resistant to anxiety.
Friedman prescribes perhaps the most difficult solution, indicating that self-differentiation is demonstrated through finding the balance between these ten indicators or “tensions” during times of institutional crisis.
Each of the above texts focuses on the inherent challenges of leadership and the difficulty of leading well. Each delineates the risks to an institution in the absence of effective leadership. Each indicates that the difference between success and failure lies in the hands of an institution’s leaders. That is a heavy responsibility to bear.
Brown charges leaders with gently guiding others to “dare greatly.” Weber challenges leaders to work to build “conversational capacity” in themselves and others. And Friedman insists that leaders tackle the difficulty of “self-differentiation.”
While none of these books provided me with the clear, definitive, and, dare I say, easy, answers that I have been seeking, each elucidates pitfalls of leadership and provides suggested remedies. Each has informed the way in which I lead.
Like in parenting, I have come to the devastating conclusion that there are no simple solutions, and that there’s no singular right way.
Like in parenting, I’ve come to believe that the following is true:
Listen to your team (Weber)
Trust your judgement (Friedman)
You know more than you think you do (Brown)
So based on that, this summer I spent some time constructing my own model of what I believe to be the fundamental components of good leadership. In my model, each of the bottom layers serves as the foundation for the ones above it, and each is a prerequisite for the success of the subsequent layers.
I’d like to assert that if these six components are implemented with fidelity, leadership will be easy and all will be well within an institution. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.
As Jack frequently reminds me, “We work with people, and people are messy.” Every team has its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and needs. Every situation is different, and requires a unique response. Although I desperately long for the formula that says, “If x happens, then do y,” and to have that formula elicit a successful outcome every time, this is a utopian ideal that is not rooted in reality.
Leadership is hard, and I have become convinced that it is more about process than it is about product. So I will continue reading books, asking question, mulling things over, and muddling through the messy morass of team development and institutional health. Currently, I have more questions than answers; perhaps someday, the angel of experience will bless me with more answers than questions.