“Mark’s mother keeps harassing me about his academics,” said third-grade-teacher Dara. “I keep telling her that he is doing very well, but she doesn’t believe it. She thinks I don’t have high enough standards. Yesterday, she said, ‘I am so worried about how he will do in 7th grade.’ I gave her the rundown, yet again, of how well he is doing academically: two years above grade level in both reading and math—and so on, but she left the room saying, “That’s not good enough.”
Dara broke into tears.
I asked, “In terms of being ready for 7th grade, is there anything you are worried about?”
“Yes,” she said, “his dependence. He is always looking to me for the answer or for approval. He doesn’t try things on his own. He’s afraid to take risks.”
“Why didn’t you say, ‘Yes, I’m worried about how he will do in 7th grade too.’?”
“I didn’t want to say anything negative. I wanted to build the relationship.”
Dara’s approach is normal. We think a relationship is built upon positive interactions. Don’t be negative. But if we actually look at the data, we would see that’s not true. When I rank my relationships from best to worst, I notice that the best ones are the ones where we can say anything to each other, and the worst are the ones where we can’t talk about certain things, or don’t know how.
The quality of a relationship is a function of the quality of the conversation and the quality of the conversation is a function of our ability to tell each other the truth. And telling the truth usually involves opening yourself up to learning.
Spend a few minutes in the Baker Demonstration School in Evanston and you know you are in a truly educational environment. The children are all going about their business lit from within, doing things that have meaning for them and value to others. The natural way they interact with each other, with adults and with visitors, makes it obvious how comfortable they are in their own skins. Creativity abounds, and you see kids wrestling with college level concepts in fifth grade.
In an hour you begin to understand some of the active ingredients in a great educational environment great.
When Dan (the principal) and I walk into a room with two teachers and no kids, they are at Art, Kathy (the head teacher) and I strike up a far ranging conversation that drifts into the fact that Dan has just had a very busy month. It seems the day of my visit marks the end of the frantic admission season (and Dan has been without a Director of Admission), the end of their ISACS accreditation, and Dan’s evaluation by the Board of Trustees.
Kathy comments that the board uses a “360 degree feedback” process to evaluate the principal. So, right in front of Dan, I look at Kathy and ask: “So what is the thing you most hope the board told Dan that he needed to change?”
As she was thinking, I looked at Dan and said “I am giving you a test, you know, a test on 4 levels.”
“I know,” he said.
Dear reader, I know that many of you at this point in my narrative will find my behavior insensitive, impolite, or maybe even downright rude. It’s not nice to put people “on the spot.”
But Dan, Kathy and I are educators, and our ability to have learning conversations is the measure of the quality of our relationships. Besides, I could tell by the freedom, self-possession and self-confidence of the students in the school, that my challenge would be no trouble for these adults.
Kathy told Dan, “I want you to visit my classes more often.” But Kathy’s answer is not the point. The point is I was able to ask that question and she was able to answer it right in front of Dan. Even more important is the fact that asking that question built and strengthened our relationships rather than hurting them.
The four things I was testing were:
1) “How comfortable is an employee giving her boss negative feedback?
2) “Does she use descriptive language in doing it?
3) “How receptive is Dan to negative criticism?”
4) “Are questions of ‘how I could get better’ public and discussable?
It is natural for all of us to have trouble telling the truth to each other, but to be happy learners, we have to do it.