Tuesday, April 17, 2012
"I told our staff that there were times in the past that I dreaded staff meetings. I dreaded them because there were times that I didn't feel safe. When people spoke in disrespectfully to each other, and harshly to me. When people's non-verbal communication was negative. When I was tired of hearing complaints. When I was tired of feeling like a pseudo-lawyer, negotiating on behalf of students. When I felt as though I alone was expected to solve a problem that I felt could only be solved by the collective. When I didn't know the answer. When there was no real communication even though were supposed to be communicating. I used to fret through sleepless nights before staff meetings, and stew through evenings after them. "
If so, I encourage you to read on.
Today, our outstanding Professional Development Committee put together a tremendous PD session for our staff. For the past several months, our staff has been working collectively to brainstorm ideas and strategies to improve social responsibility in our school. A number of staff members volunteered for a committee and met numerous times over the course of the year, and a part of their work was the creation of our PD day today.
The day began by the committee discussing its' work to this point. They had struggled with defining social responsibility, and realized through this definition process that they were missing a critical voice--the voice of our students. As a result, members of the committee did a number of focus groups to get a sense of what students perceptions were about our school and the people within it. The committee told us that they had collated the findings, but wanted us to really hear the voice of the students. And so, they invited four students from four very different groups in our school to come and speak to our staff--and that was today.
With the help of one of our teachers as the moderator, our large staff were captivated for more than an hour, listening to what students had to say about US and the way we do business. They told us so many things, like how they want us to get to know them, to say hi to them, and treat them with respect. Or how they want structure and rigor, but flexibility that respects them and what they do in and out of school. It was riveting, and I was so proud of each of them and the level of mutual respect that we had for these students and that they had for us. One thing that was very special for me was each student on the panel and the student focus groups were in agreement on one point--our students feel like they go to a good school, and are proud to tell this to their peers and friends from other schools. Neat!
In the afternoon, our staff and I went into our Socratic Circle exercise, something that we have been doing over the last 18 months. In this model, our staff gets divided into an inner and an outer 'circle' (or in multiple circles with inner and outer circles, depending on the topic). The inner circle begins having an open dialogue about a particular topic (today was social responsibility and digesting the information that had been given to us by our students) while the outer circle watches. What is interesting is that the outer circle is not focusing on the topic, they are focusing on the INTERACTIONS between the members of the inner circle. The outer circle has a rubric that they refer to while the inner circle is discussing the topic, and once the inner circle has completed their discussion, the outer group gives them feedback on how they interacted with the other members of the group. The outer and the inner groups then switch, the roles are reversed, the conversation continues, and the feedback is given to the second group once they are done. Ultimately, the goal of the Socratic Circle is to learn how to respectfully communicate with and listen to a group of peers in a safe manner within an authentic discussion that is meaningful to the participants.
When we first started using the Socratic Circle, many of our staff admitted that it seemed a bit like a contrived mechanism that felt more than a little bit weird. But after doing this on a number of occasions, our staff re-affirmed today that this mechanism has made our large staff a better group of communicators, a better group of listeners, and a more cohesive unit in discussing and solving problems. Awesome.
On a personal level... I revealed to our staff that there were times in the past that I dreaded staff meetings. I dreaded them because there were times that I didn't feel safe. When people spoke in disrespectfully to each other, and harshly to me. When people's non-verbal communication was negative. When I was tired of hearing complaints. When I was tired of feeling like a pseudo-lawyer, negotiating on behalf of students. When I felt as though I alone was expected to solve a problem that I felt could only be solved by the collective. When I didn't know the answer. When there was no real communication even though were supposed to be communicating. I used to fret through sleepless nights before staff meetings, and stew through evenings after them.
Yes, of course. That was me.
But as this day unfolded, I realized that we were authentically communicating all day long. With our kids. With each other. And through the Socratic Circle exercise, the level of communication has moved to such a high level: from 'talking' and 'hearing' to seeking to understand and respecting the opinions of others, even when we disagree with each other. It has made me realize that we are moving forward.
So if you have ever felt the way I did from time to time about our staff meetings, I strongly recommend you try Socratic Circling. Not once, but a few times. I will predict that you will see a dramatic change in the way that you and your staff interact. Even if you already are having high level conversations about student achievement and your school, I believe that this exercise will elevate your discussions even further.
Because I am realizing that communication isn't everything. When you are dealing with people like we all do every day, I realize communication is the ONLY thing.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Driving home after the Welcome Night, I began to reflect on parent involvement in schools. Earlier this Spring, I was privileged enough to see Larry Rosenstock (from High Tech High) speak to a group of district and school based administrators in British Columbia. During his address, he alluded to something that surprised (and then later resonated with) me: he talked about how he felt that parent involvement promoted inequity in education. At the time, I was a bit shocked and stunned, and there was a strange and tangible ripple that flowed through the room of more than 400 people. It seemed to be such a bold statement. But as Rosenstock explained, if you were to take his context in San Diego as an example, he would predict that the majority of parents that would choose to be significantly involved would be parents from areas such as La Jolla (one of the most expensive zip codes to live in the United States), and less (if any) from the impoverished areas of the city. And as a result, he felt that the values that would be promoted at PAC meetings or forums for parent involvement would be those from a small and select group of people that was not representative of his school community. He felt that the parent involvement that was most important was to have parents come to the showcase evenings that take place at his schools so they can see the work of their children.
And tonight, I read a thought-provoking post by Will Richardson called "Getting Bold with Parents" in which he details the efforts by a particular Superintendent to involve parents in conversations about education. Within this post, Mr. Richardson states:
"Parents are the most important constituency to engage in conversations around the shifts we are experiencing. We have to be willing to provoke and engage in those conversations on an ongoing basis."
From where I sit, in some small way, this flies in the face of what Larry Rosenstock was saying at HTH. Wow. Two 'educational heavyweights' on different sides of the coin. What to do?
Just to be sure, I want to clearly articulate a few things about parent involvement in schools. Firstly, I think that parents (and students) are our clients, and we need to be insatiably curious about their perceptions and feelings about education and the service that we provide in our schools. This might put me more on the end of the continuum that Will Richardson describes. Conversely, having been in education for sixteen years in three different school districts, and having read dozens and dozens of blog posts and articles about the subject, I am still struggling to find a model that gets authentic parental involvement from a truly representative group in a school community. This puts me more on the other end of the continuum where Larry Rosenstock was coming from.
Yet there is another piece to this. What is the parent involvement that we want? Have we really qualified this? I believe that if you asked District staff, school-based administrators, teachers, students and parents what effective parental involvement in schools and school reform looks like, you would likely get a wide range of answers that each have an equal amount of validity. Do parents need to be involved in administrative things such as budgeting and staffing? In pedagogical issues such as teaching methodologies and assessment? In policy discussions that govern our schools and school personnel? In the macro-issues of educational reform? In all of these, some of these, none of these? What is the right amount? A lot? A little? And perhaps the most important question of all--do parents WANT to be involved in these things? In schools and education, where the pace of change can be oft-regarded as two paces slower than glacial, do parents want to commit the time and effort to helping us do our jobs when they have jobs of their own?
I ask these questions without presuming to know the answers. But one thing that I am sure of is this: I want the support of our parents in our school community. To this end, I need to be insatiably curious about their perceptions of our school and the education that their child is receiving from us. I want parents to support our teachers, and our teachers to over-communicate with them about their student's progress. I want them to support our programs, to come to games, performances, assemblies and art exhibits so they are part of our tribe. And I want parents to support their child so they feel loved and happy each day when they come to school.
Of course these supports are not as far-reaching as what Will Richardson describes in his post with respect to engaging parents in the quest to make sweeping changes in education. However, until each of us is able to clarify the purpose and process of authentic parent involvement by answering some of the questions above, I fear that this parent involvement we are striving for will remain hit and miss at best, and at worst, perpetuate some of the inequities described by Larry Rosenstock.