Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Insights from Jennifer Abrams

Every month I look forward to getting Jennifer Abrams newsletter. I'm passing along this month's. She talks about a recent learning opportunity with George Lakoff. I was there too and look forward to sharing some of my learning from that in future posts. Hope you enjoy this. Cassandra Jennifer's website is linked at the bottom.

Hello! My book,(Jennifer's book) Having Hard Conversations, is coming out in January of 2009. I have been giving the workshop on which the book is based for several years and I often hear murmurs of resistance during the session. I was giving the workshop to a group of new teacher coaches last week and I overheard the comment, “I can’t believe she’s telling coaches to have these types of conversations.” This comment has come up before so I am taking time here to address it in more detail. Why would someone need to study this topic? Isn’t a hard conversation the superintendent’s job or the principal’s job? Yes, I believe that it is their job to speak up when they see something they feel doesn’t align with the vision of their district or when they witness something they don’t feel is good for students, and I believe we all lead from whatever position we have in our organization. This month’s newsletter is a first attempt to articulate my ‘why’; why I feel it is everyone’s responsibility to learn how to have hard conversations and learn to do them with clarity and compassion.

“Getting into Necessary Trouble”

Collective Responsibility

This summer I watched a video of Congressman John Lewis being interviewed by students at Mount Madonna School. They asked Congressman Lewis about his values and how they informed his work as a legislator. At the end of the talk, he looked at the students and said, “Get into trouble, necessary trouble.” Given his history in the Civil Rights Movement, what was in the ‘white space’ around his comments spoke to me through that video just as loudly as what he said. It is our responsibility to speak out and have hard conversations when we feel the collective isn’t being served. There are times when we are the ones who witness something academically unsound, physically unsafe or emotionally damaging. It could be a comment that wasn’t supportive of a fellow colleague or an action that wasn’t helpful to a student. In those situations, it is our responsibility to speak out and create a safe and supportive climate for the growth of adults and children alike. We should all feel the responsibility to learn how to have hard conversations and increase our capacity to do so for the social good.

Creating Cultures of Excellence

Last year, Palo Alto USD had a statement at the top of their home page on their web site that said, “Excellence by Design.” There is a certain sense of confidence in that statement. It said to those who were looking at it, “We are deliberate and self-assured.” Yet while design is necessary and critical, one can’t believe design is an end goal in itself. In education, we need to also be excellent in our communication, delivery and follow through. Do we truly provide the excellence we are aiming for? And if we don’t, do we have a hard conversation with ourselves and acknowledge it? I aspire to be excellent and I want to work in an organization that also aspires to do so. When we aren’t at our best, we need to recognize the gap between our existing state and our desired state. We need to skillfully articulate that difference and speak honestly to the potential we have to become our best selves.

Having Humane and Growth-Producing Conversations

One of the core beliefs foundational to my work on hard conversations is that we have them with one another so we can all become our best selves. We aren ’t having hard conversations to be cruel or shaming. We aren’t having hard conversations to blame or gain power. We have them so we can begin a dialogue that centers around all of us learning and becoming more human human beings. We are all in a process of ‘becoming’ - growing in our personal and professional identities. At times, we don’t see our impact and how it might not align with what we intended. If I am off the mark, I want someone to help me see how I could do an even better job as a teacher, trainer, facilitator and leader and tell me so in a humane and growth producing way.

We might have terrible memories of hard conversations that were hurtful. There is a better way to do them. No matter the roles we have, learning how to speak up in a way that is respectful of ourselves, respectful of others and holds a bigger vision of respect for our schools is at the core of what we need to be doing.

On the topic of the conscious use of language in positively shaping our conversations, take a look at these books...

* I spent this past weekend studying with George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC-Berkeley – his work on reframing concepts and being conscious of our use of language is stimulating and mind-bending in the best sense. Check out Metaphors We Live By or Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind.

* Connected to education, check out Judy Yero, author of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education writes about how your beliefs about teaching, learning, and students influence your perceptions and behaviors—indeed, all of your teaching decisions. Worth looking at…

Feel free to forward this newsletter to friends and colleague. You may reprint this newsletter in whole or quote with attribution to Jennifer Abrams and a link to

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