Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.
Teachers overwhelming cite time (76% of those surveyed) as the thing they wish they had more of each day. (Primary Sources). Teachers want additional time to assess student work, plan lessons, and meet with colleagues. On the flipside, staff meetings, professional development, and logistical tasks are listed as inefficient uses of time.
And, while I agree these responsibilities could be streamlined, I also believe there are additional contributors, which collectively kill as much or more time than staff meetings or paperwork, are under our (teachers) direct control, and yet little is done to address or change these practices. What I am referring to are our conversations: in the hallway, in the lounge, in meetings.
Conversations and Better Conversations
Last week marked the end of a year-long, intensive instructional coaching workshop led by Jim Knight which I attended (you can read my previous reflections here or here).
While the workshop focused on instructional coaching, much of the content applies to life in general; my learning from the workshop has positively impacted both my professional and personal life.
Case in point, the lessons I learned on how to communicate more effectively with others. In Knight’s session on better conversations (based off the book by the same name) Knight outlines the steps we should take to improve as conversation partners. These criteria ultimately lead to increased productivity and camaraderie. Knight includes an entire chapter on the importance of finding common ground with those whom we converse.
Knight suggests using the acronym ICARE (interests, convictions, activities, roles, experiences) to help us identify safe categories we can explore with our conversation partners to find similarities.
What if we find common ground, but the bonds are destructive?
Since the workshop on Better Conversations, I have keenly observed others engaged in conversation to see how they find common ground with their colleagues.
I have seen many positive examples of people connecting through ICARE conversations about favorite sports teams, graduate school classes, and weekend plans.
Conversely, I have also seen people finding common ground in non-ICARE ways (including me). Whether conversation partners are aware of this or not, many people find common ground rooted in judgment, gossip, or negativity. These likenesses certainly do not garner positive outcomes, and frankly they are an unwise use of our most coveted commodity- time.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of structure at home.”
“I know. Johnny came to school without his homework log signed for the third week in a row.”
Judgment is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. People often engage in this type of talk and feel as if they have found solid common ground. After all, this is a discussion between two people who share a common belief (it is important for students to comply with teacher orders) which appears to be rooted in the best interest of children.
However, there is an underlying judgment of the students’ parents here (they aren’t doing what they need to do). Additionally, there is a judgment of the student (he should still comply even though he may not have the same opportunities to do so). And, frankly, this type of conversation is not productive. Yet, week after week, year after year, some teachers will continue to engage in conversations which are founded in judgment without consideration of what can be done to alleviate the problem.
“Did you hear that teacher is being reassigned?”
“Yes, I heard that. But, I am not surprised. She really struggled this year, and I heard there were a lot of parent complaints about her.”
As Jane Austen once said, “Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.” These “spies” are quick to share their observations in an effort to preserve their own status. Gossip does not help the subject (what could have been done to help this struggling teacher earlier in the year) and gossiping immediately extinguishes trust. If you gossip about one person, everyone knows there is a chance you will one day gossip about them, too. Without trust, productivity is compromised, and again time is wasted.
“Students have no accountability anymore. They are in for a rude awakening in the real world when there are no retakes.”
“I know. Every year we keep lowering our standards for students.”
Negativity may be the most pervasive conversation killer and it is also highly contagious. Negativity places blame and focuses on problems rather than promoting ownership and a focus on solutions. Simply, negativity brings everyone down, including our students.
In the end
Judgment, gossip, and negativity are a part of life. From time to time we all engage in conversations which allow us to vent. And, this is ok. The key is, recognizing when these practices are habitual and destructive. At this point, a change must occur. And, that change starts with us.
Few people volunteer to step up and redirect toxic conversations. Many of us try to avoid conflict and fear repercussions. Plus, it can be uncomfortable to be the voice of dissent, even though the dissenting voice is positive.
Yet, my question is, how do you feel when you mitigate your feelings and allow toxic conversations to continue? For me, I wind up feeling safe in the moment, but terrible after the fact. To find a happy medium, I employ the three suggestions below to safely redirect judgment, gossip, and negativity.
Be Proactive: Bring up your concerns, but make them about yourself (even if it is really about someone else). “I was wondering if you could help me. I noticed that I pass judgment on the families and students who don’t complete homework and I don’t like this feeling. I can imagine you feel the same way. How can we work together to better address our students’ needs?”
Excuse yourself: When gossip rears it’s ugly head; our tendencies are to either join in or to listen, but not participate. However, silence can indicate consent and give gossipers an unspoken thumbs up. To stop gossip, we need to remove outlets. Therefore, create a mental bank of excuses which you can use to remove yourself from gossipy conversations, “Oh, I left something in the teacher workroom...Sorry to cut you off, I need to use the washroom before my students get back from specials....I am about to go meet with so-so, can we talk later?”
Kindly state an alternate point of view: I recognize this can be hard to do. As stated, negativity is contagious. If someone sneezed, you would offer them a kleenex or move away from them to protect yourself. We need to treat negativity the same way. Acknowledge your colleague’s point of view and kindly share another perspective, “I understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating when students take longer to learn, and we need to reteach. But, since our job is to ensure all students succeed, what is the alternative? If all else fails, go back to suggestion number two and excuse yourself.
How else do you seek to find common ground with your colleagues? What successful strategies have you used and what other obstacles have you encountered and how have you worked to overcome these barriers?
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.