Monday, March 16, 2015

Discussing the Nondiscussables

Last week I was on a Cognitive Coaching workshop in Europe.  It was absolutely wonderful to be back in a place that I called home for 3 years, with beautiful views, fresh air and with people I had worked with who, in the dark days of being lied to and lied about, were supportive and generous with their ideas.  Next week I'm going to be facilitating a PYP collaborative planning workshop for the IB, and as always before such workshops, I prepare by going through the course materials and readings.  So today I read a article that was published 9 years ago in Educational Leadership entitled Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse by Roland S. Barth.  Barth maintains that the quality of a school and of student accomplishment is influenced above all else by the relationships of adults within the school.  If the relations between admin and teachers are helpful, trusting and cooperative then relations between teachers, students and parents are likely to be similar.  If, however, relationships between admin and teachers are fearful, competitive, suspicious and corrosive, then these same attitudes will hang over the entire school community.

Barth writes about what he called the nondiscussables - such factors as the leadership of the principal, or personal visions of excellence.  In fact he writes that these factors are indeed discussed - but in the car park or over a cup of coffee or glass of wine after school and never at faculty or PTA meetings - and that improvement in school culture is impossible when these nondiscussables have such power over us.  He characterises relationships at school into 4 categories:
  1. Parallel play - seen in many schools where teachers work in self-contained classrooms with the doors shut.  It's also characterised by school principles who see each other's schools as "competition" and who don't communicate or share, even though they are only a short distance away.
  2. Adversarial relationships - either overt or in subtle ways by withholding information or support.  In these schools teachers may summon up the courage to share important learning at faculty meetings, for example, only to be faced with the "tall poppy syndrome" where they are cut down and put back into their place.  Some schools also covertly encourage competition for resources, promotional opportunities and other recognition.  This reinforces the culture of parallel play, where teachers keep their heads down and shut their classroom doors to escape the conflicts outside.
  3. Congenial relationships - these are interactive and positive, personal and friendly.  For many teachers in schools with a poor culture, it is these relationships that get them into school each day.
  4. Collegial relationships - these are the hardest to establish, but flourish in schools where teachers are part of a professional learning community.
How can school leaders move their schools from parallel play with adversarial relationships to places with congenial and collegial relationships?  Barth sees this happening in the following ways:
  • encouraging educators to talk together about practice
  • encouraging educators to share their craft knowledge
  • educators observing one another 
  • educators rooting for one another's success
Stepping away from my school and being immersed in the culture of another is always a great opportunity to reflect.  This week, back at ASB, I'm feeling blessed to be in such a dynamic, supportive and collegial school, where we know that together we can make things happen.

Photo Credit: Bill Gracey via Compfight cc

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