Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Communication Isn't Everything

As a school leader, have you ever felt this way about your staff meetings?

"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.

5 comments:

  1. All I can say, Cale, is that I want to work at your school!

    What I'm proudest of is the fact that your faculty has embraced the notion that learning to interact with one another matters.

    It's also INCREDIBLY cool that your staff is using Socratic Circles to practice their communication simply because that's the practice that works the best for teaching kids how to engage in collaborative dialogue.

    If your teachers get comfortable with Socratic Circles in your faculty meetings, they're BOUND to start using the same practices with their kids -- and that will leave your students better prepared to use conversations as learning tools.

    #sweet

    BTW: If you haven't seen it, Matt Copeland's book titled Socratic Circles is the BEST tool for learning how to conduct the same kinds of conversations with kids.

    http://www.amazon.com/Socratic-Circles-Fostering-Critical-Creative/dp/1571103945

    It literally changed my teaching.

    Hope this helps -- and thanks for leaving me inspired tonight.

    Bill

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  2. So glad to have come across this blog. Our school is beginning the process of learning how to improve social responsibility also. So far it has been a messy endeavor. Socratic Circles could be a path toward respectful, meaning communication within our staff that could then translate into meaningful communication with our students! I can't wait to suggest this to my principal.

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