Saturday, November 1, 2014

Principals: Intentions and Questions at Staff Meetings

Principals: Intentions and Questions at Staff Meetings

Here’s an all too common scenario: a principal floats an idea at a staff meeting, unleashing a barrage of questions and critical comments. It’s an exhausting ritual. The principal may anticipate the usual critics, and on any day be surprised by the other teachers who join in this public gauntlet of analysis. Some principals shy away from sharing ideas, retreating into silence. Some develop a small and trusted inner-circle of supporters, and they hatch all the plans, further alienating the staff. Others listen with increasing dismay to the staff’s reactions and stubbornly say, “I’m doing it anyway.”

The problem is that the principal does not know if a comment or question is because the teacher hates the idea and has every intention of sabotaging it, likes the idea with some reservations, or has some very thoughtful advice to offer.  Without knowing the intention behind the speaker, it can all sound like intransigence and obstruction.  A wise principal will also understand that in any hierarchical system, one way to slow down the person with power is to raise questions and concerns. In schools, so highly dependent on language and intellectual discourse, questioning is a tool, one made sharper when it is unsheathed in the public forum of a staff meeting.

Here is one protocol to raise staff reactions to a higher level of communication. When you open the floor up for commentary and questions after airing a proposal, ask people to preface their remarks with one of these 4 options:

1)      I love this idea, and…” This opening gives permission to those who may think silence is agreement. You might as well garner the good feelings from those who appreciate your idea. As well, even your most enthusiastic supporters may see a way to improve the proposal.

2)      I am in favor of the idea, and I have a concern about a detail.” Many teachers have an attention to detail that is astounding. Once they identify a small concern, they feel a responsibility to pass it along—not as a criticism, but as a form of support. They want you to get this right. By identifying their intention, these teachers will no longer be swirled up in an undifferentiated wave of questioning. Their contributions will be clear, and now welcome.

3)      “I like the idea, but I have a significant concern, and if it is not addressed, I can’t back the proposal.” What might look like a great idea in the principal’s office can seem daunting to the teachers in their daily labors. They truly may see a fatal flaw, perhaps an implementation landmine, that needs to be attended to. These teachers too are not asking you to abandon your idea, and by identifying their intention in raising concerns, they are acting responsibly. The difficulty here is that you may not be able to address their concern in the moment. You may need to say, “Got it. I will look again at the plan to see what we can do about that. Thanks.” Always thank teachers who able to identify their intentions in the interest of a better plan.

4)      “I do not like this plan at all.” In a diverse and complex school culture, there are few plans that will meet everyone’s expectations and demands. If you find a large portion of the staff prefacing their remarks with this perspective, it is likely that you have indeed presented a deeply problematic proposal. More likely, most of the questions and comments belong to the three other categories above, and now the truly small fraction of stubborn and resistant teachers will no longer look as if they are leading the charge. They are outliers. Politically, you may still need to address their concerns and fears, but not at the larger meeting.

All protocols take a little practice and adjustment to become a norm in a given environment. Find the phrasing that works best for you and your team. More importantly, use the power of your position as principal to model, and remind staff to identify their intentions as they begin to speak. When someone fails to do so, you can honestly say, “Wait a moment.  I don’t know if you like this idea a lot, or if you are identifying a small concern, or a potential fatal flaw, or whether you truly just don’t like this plan at all. I’ll hear you better when I know where you are coming from.” And be sure to give teachers the same level of transparent intention when they come to you with proposals. The principal’s power to shape a culture of clear intentions is a small key to unlocking a culture of robust initiation.