Yesterday, I saw one our new students (new arrival from Latin America) hidden under his desk. This student came to us with limited schooling and a slew of trauma related behaviors.
Lonely. Hurting. Confused.
Yesterday, I heard a teacher giving this student pointed directives aloud, for the whole class to hear. Directions were shot like an arrows towards this student cowering under the desk. Words moved fast. The tone was biting. Lacking basic English skills, our student must have heard, “Blanca, blah blah, blah –tah-jah- tah” <then more sternly> “gada gada yadda!”
Yesterday, I gave some unsolicited advice. I suggested the directions be given 1:1, calmly and in a voice level that wasn’t directed at the whole class. That suggestion was met with reflexive defensiveness and raw emotion. The teacher didn’t want to hear any of it. A nerve had been hit. And the ensuing in-the-moment conversation wasn’t going to be productive during the instructional hour.
So we tabled the conversation.
Everything in me wanted to retreat from it all together.
But I knew that wouldn’t help the teacher, our professional relationship, or the student’s current reality.
So I asked for a follow up conversation. I am not looking forward to it. But I know it is the right thing to do.
Today, while serving jury duty, I was gifted space and time to breath and prepare for an upcoming conversation with this teacher. In between the jury orientation and rambling of tongue-twisting names over the loud speaker, I was able to dive into Brene Brown’s new book “Dare to Lead.” She is a vulnerability Jedi. And two things she asserted remind me that “the Force is Strong” in me.
Hard conversations come with the territory in leadership, in principal-ing specifically. There really isn’t any way around it. In the words of Dr. Sanee Bell, “…there is no way to address the academic disparities…without leaning into tough conversations on an ongoing basis.” More and more, I believe that a ciritcal difference between transformative leaders and generic leaders, is that the former head towards conversations that need to be had, while the latter shrink away.
Nobody wants to have the hard conversations. And it’s helpful to think deeply about some of the reasons we shrink away from them. Some of them require conflict. Some of them are upsetting. At times, folks feel hurt and misunderstood. At times, leaders are verbally attacked. Other times, the conversations get re-told in the public square. Leaders who want to be well liked fear that popular opinion may shift against them. Other times, we think think that we (the leaders) need to have the answers. But we don’t have them. That reality makes us feel weak.
In this instance, I knew a conversation was necessary. I believed that this student deserved an advocate to help staff consider his challenges and to soften our approach with him. But I also believed a direct conversation would spark emotion, defensiveness, and potential erosion of a strong professional relationship. So I avoided the direct conversation. Until I couldn’t.
Daring leaders work from the assumption that people are doing the best they can.At our school, we are committed to assuming positive intent. Brown admits that this skill is super easy to talk about, yet super-duper challenging to practice.
What is more startling, is that (empirically) those of us who are more prone to believe that others are not doing their best, struggle with our own self-perfectionism. We are less forgiving of ourselves. And we end up being harder on those we lead. Leading out of our own insecurities precludes us from building strong and healthy teams.
Given time, space, and a dose of self awareness, we will do better to realize that folks are doing their best. They are striving under challenging conditions and working with their own limitations and triggers.
Assuming positive intent does not mean that we stop coaching our team members. But it might mean we rethink our approach.
Just thinking about the upcoming conversation made me want to crawl under a desk myself. But that’s not what daring leaders do. So I won’t.
Instead, I want to celebrate that I am not shrinking from it. Additionally, I want to recognize that this teacher is doing the best he can. And I want to be courageous enough to push both of us to act in a way that aligns with our deep belief that this kid, is our kid.
***This post was first drafted over a year ago, in the context of in-person teaching and learning.