Nearly every day, we have crucial conversations in and out of the classroom. They take place with varying degrees of success or failure. Sometimes, these crucial conversations go horribly wrong because you don't have the right strategies to get your point across. That happened to me during an English language arts professional learning group (PLG) meeting.
The Right Idea, the Wrong Approach
Administrators had just introduced a new teacher evaluation system and were explaining that sophomore teachers' evaluations would be partially based on their students' test scores. When my director asked if there were any questions, I raised my hand. I'd just spent a portion of the summer at a teacher leadership program, where we'd discussed teacher evaluations, and I felt like I had a lot to share with my colleagues.
"Do you think it's fair that sophomore teachers are held solely accountable for the success of these students when they only have them for nine months?" I asked. In response to this, Lacy, a freshman teacher, said, "You're trying to blame your scores on freshmen teachers!" I spun around to face her. "I don't even teach sophomores," I said angrily. "I have no scores to blame on anyone."
I continued my appeal. "Do you think it's fair that only 11 percent of the teachers are being evaluated this way?" A dark cloud crossed my director's face. I then realized that I was speaking very loudly and that people were getting angry. But I couldn't stop! "There are many factors that go into a student's test score—even the student's own motivation." I looked at my friend, Stella, who was nodding in encouragement. She was a sophomore teacher and had expressed dismay over the evaluation system, but because she was young and new, she was too afraid to speak up.
Further reading: Dealing with Conflicts in School
The bell rang and we started to file out of the room. The freshman teachers stood in an angry knot, gesticulating. Darcy, a veteran teacher, shook her head at me. "Learn to shut up and do your time until retirement," she warned. "Oh boy," I thought. "What have I done? My points were valid, but now everyone is mad at me!" I even had an e-mail from my director waiting for me when I returned to my classroom; she wanted to talk about my "professionalism in today's meeting." Whoops!
6 Tips for a Successful Conversation
It's too bad I didn't have the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High back then! Authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler list several principles, skills, and questions to ask during a conversation like the one I had. These are insights I believe all teachers and administrators could benefit from.
1. Start with Heart
Ask yourself what you really want—for both yourself and others. I've thought deeply about what I wanted when I raised questions in the PLG meeting, and I believe my heart was in the right place. I often advocate for teachers, and I truly felt this type of evaluation system was wrong. It is important to speak up rather than avoid difficult conversations.
2. Learn to Look
Note when a conversation becomes crucial. Patterson et al. in Crucial Conversations sees violence as "any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view." Lacy was obviously upset, but rather than hear her concerns, I became defensive and angry, effectively shutting down discourse. The conversation became crucial then.
3. Make It Safe
If an important conversation has gone to silence or violence, it's necessary to make it safe again. Step out of the conversation and ask yourself if you're maintaining mutual respect. Apologize when appropriate and decide how you can rebuild safety. Once safety is restored, the dialogue can continue. I could have said to Lacy, "I don't want to suggest the problem is yours. Truthfully, I think it's a problem for all teachers."
It's important in this type of conversation to thoroughly explain what you mean until safety is restored. You should also create a mutual purpose—in my case, it was the success of 10th grade students and the fair treatment of their teachers.
4. See the Real Story
It's essential to stay engaged in what's happening, even when you're hurt, angry, or scared. It would have been easy to paint myself as the victim: "I was only trying to help and look at how everyone attacked me!" Instead, the book says I should ask myself, "Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?"
5. Share Facts and Stories Calmly
When having these conversations, remember to speak persuasively not abrasively. That means sharing persuasive elements, asking others for their facts and stories, and acknowledging your story as a story, not a fact. This should make it easier for anyone to express differing views. In those moments, it's essential to listen when others blow up or clam up, and then talk and compare opinions to move forward.
6. Move to Action
Finally, turning your conversations into decisions and actions is key. You can do this by consulting, voting, and coming to a consensus.
Further reading: 5 Ways to Deal with Negative Teachers
I learned a great deal from reading Crucial Conversations, and I think it should definitely be required reading for all teachers and administrators. Start with these tips, but consider picking up the book and benefiting from its valuable lessons.