One of the most powerful parts of our role as leaders in Christian education lies in the area of initiating difficult conversations. These are the conversations that involve confronting a staff or faculty member regarding a questionable comment or action they have demonstrated.
They are the conversations wherein the question of whether someone is a good fit for ABC Christian School is broached. They are the conversations that require us to, as tactfully as possible, directly address an issue or problem that is affecting student learning/mission fulfillment in our schools. And I think they are one of the most important actions we take, because they get to the heart of why we exist and whether we are going to faithfully pursue our vision and mission.
I was years into my vocation in Christian educational leadership before I realized the importance of this work and the reality of its regularity in my practice. I came to realize that if I wasn’t having ANY of these conversations, I probably was neglecting my responsibilities as a leader.
But I am not sure these conversations should be as difficult as they often seem to be.
I can think of many conversations I have had with a staff or faculty member that would have been much less difficult had the conversations happened earlier. Many of my experiences involve engaging a colleague regarding a behavior or habit—let’s call it a poor practice—that has been a part of his or her professional story for years. The behavior has been known to previous administrators, and yet it was ignored. The colleague became comfortable in that poor practice and the school (leadership) was complicit in enabling the colleague to feel comfortable.
Had the conversations been ongoing and formative in the colleague’s career, the difficult conversation would either be unnecessary or more of a reminder to guard against letting poor habits resurface. For example, the whole staff knows that Mr. X can be moody with his students. But Mr. X coaches two teams and has three kids and is a busy person so… nobody engages in a dialogue about those moods and Mr. X’s responsibility to self-regulate. Or, Ms. Y struggles to show kindness to students, and every year a handful of students feel anxious about being in her classroom. But Ms. Y has great results on the state exams and has worked at the school for over 20 years so…nobody engages in a conversation about creating a positive classroom community. The positive contributions of both these teachers do not absolve them of the responsibility of addressing areas of their practice that are poor. Both teachers deserve honest feedback regarding their practices and supportive strategies to improve.
Tying this to my last blog regarding restorative practices as a model for leadership, these necessary conversations fit fully within the domain of working “with” colleagues. Avoiding these conversations sits somewhere between working “for” colleagues and simple leadership negligence. Avoiding necessary conversations runs counter to the biblical narrative that challenges us to develop a kind of community where truth and love co-exist. This is radically different from some form of contrived collegiality where everyone only presents their shiny self and only comments on the shiny selves of others.
Biblical communities known by their love for one another are only created when vulnerability and honesty are fostered.
If we are working to create these communities of shalom in which students and adults alike thrive and continue to grow, then we need to move past the happy-clappy kind of communities that make for fun youth nights. We also need to move past the stage of community building where we share each other’s burdens but fail to confront the brokenness and challenge each other to grow. In short, we need to continue to work toward becoming communities in which authenticity (truth) and love preside.
As leaders, we are called to mix care with candor.
Often these conversations can be limited by what German philosopher Juergen Habermas calls “the limitations of the norms of civility” (Theory of Communicative Action: volume 1). Habermas argues that the norms of civility limit our ability to have true ethical discourse that allows both parties to flourish. At times, we can be so worried about following a socially acceptable pattern of discourse we end up neglecting our professional duties. Let me submit that we need to distinguish between professional discourse and social discourse. Professional discourse is marked by candor and specificity. Even the positive comments contain content because we grow from receiving specific, positive, and immediate feedback. When a principal says, “I see my role as an encourager,” my response is, “Great! Now tell me about your role as a principal.” I am not saying encouragement is not part of our roles. What I am saying is that our roles require much more. Our roles require encouraging specific kinds of actions that align with our vision and mission, and discouraging (see “difficult conversations”) specific kinds of actions that derail our vision and mission.
If we move toward a community of care and candor, hopefully these “difficult” conversations can become relabeled as “important conversations” or “growth mindset conversations.”
Or maybe our relationships with our colleagues become caring and candid (loving and truthful) enough that the “difficult” conversations come to be interpreted as care. Engagement in these conversations is essential to ensure an increasing faithfulness to fulfilling your school’s vision and mission.
– David Loewen