My question is concerning change… more specifically how to foster change within a teaching staff? We attempted a vertical alignment meeting at the end of the previous school year, it was a tense meeting that produced little to no change. As we begin this school year, we have committed to several more vertical meetings and I would like to find a strategy to implement to help minimize the tension and develop an open forum for ideas and needs to be discussed. I am open to any words of wisdom you may have on this topic.
Tense Staff Meetings
Dear Tense Staff Meetings,
Tense staff meetings are the worst, aren’t they? They’re awful. You can feel the tension build all day, then people show up and someone passes around chocolate with a smile while everyone else waits for the first voice to slice through the thick air. Once it starts this way, it feels nearly impossible to recover because the emotional intensity of so many different personalities has already escalated.
I’ve taken part in countless protocols and strategies designed to make these uncomfortable gatherings more productive and less adversarial, but more often than not, the protocols feel forced and inauthentic. However, there are some practices that I have used or have seen others use that can help.
Do invisible work ahead of time. There’s so much crucial work effective leaders do that few people see. I call it the invisible work of leadership because it’s supposed to be quiet, individual, and seamless. When you know a tense meeting is approaching, find your teachers and talk to them individually first. Ask them if they’re worried, what kind of outcome they’d like to see and what they’d like others to hear or understand about their concerns. As you listen, get out your best paraphrasing skills (think phrases like, “so your real concern is…” or “what you’d really want others to understand is…”) to help teachers think about how to frame their comments. Your listening will create a space for teachers to process ahead of time and give you a clearer sense of the landscape of concern.
Of course, this takes time and sometimes leaders are worried these conversations could create toxic scuttlebutt. However, if your primary goal is to listen and help teachers frame their comments, you’ll be helping everyone separate their fears from their hopes.
Avoid top-down sharing. Whether they are real or imagined, vertical meetings carry hierarchies that must be flattened. The quickest way to keep those hierarchies intact is to have the teachers of the oldest students go first. That practice carries too much potential for figurative or literal “talking down” to peers. In this case, starting with the sixth grade teacher instead of the twelfth grade teacher underpins the importance of growth versus outcome.
Focus on students, not teachers. If there’s one thing that will heighten anxiety, it’s when teachers feel like their craft is being attacked. Instead of talking about what the teachers are or aren’t doing, re-focus the conversation around what students are or aren’t learning. As long as you don’t let the conversation fall into complaining about students (e.g. they never do their homework, they don’t care, they won’t engage in class) it won’t take long and teachers will start to see their role in that learning.
Diffuse defensiveness. Diffusing defensiveness starts with shrinking the elephant and if the invisible work didn’t diminish its size, then being upfront about it yourself relieves a teacher from doing that difficult job. While we certainly know emotion plays a crucial role towards change, it’s emotional buy-in we want, not emotional distractions. Be sure all voices are heard, not just the loudest ones. Whether that means utilizing some small groups or a mechanism for individual sharing (I’m a big fan of sticky note contributions), balancing voices serves the emotional mean.
Encompassing all of this, though, is the question you led with: how do I foster change in a teaching staff? Like most tension-creating scenarios, people in these meetings are worried about not being heard or being misunderstood. They are nervous of being shamed for the way they teach in front of others and they are worried about change. It’s not that they are adverse to change, it’s that they’re afraid they won’t be able to, even though they know they need to.
Remember, change is one small behavior, repeated until it’s habit. This means patience, invisible work and balance. But most importantly, it means you have to live the change you want rather than only talk about or describe it. Leadership is tough work, effective leadership even more arduous, but when you understand your people as clearly as you understand your purpose, change can grow.
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