Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Leaders are hungry to surround themselves with people they can trust. That statement sounds simple, direct, and predictable enough, doesn’t it? Even as I typed those words, I found myself thinking, “No kidding,” but I think there’s something to unpack here if we create the space for it.
I’ve spent the past two months joining district and school leadership teams as they work to align their goals and practice around professional learning communities (PLCs). Work around PLCs is happening (and has happened) across our country for the past 20+ years, so it most definitely is not a new endeavor. What I share with my teams, however, are insider trading secrets on what works and what hurts our people through the process. Creating a clear structure around your PLC is one thing; creating a nurturing, safe environment for professional relationships to development is another.
I often share with teams the belief that this process is difficult because PLCs are made up of, well, people. And people, we are messy. We are unique and opinionated and emotional and easily offended and quick to speak and slow to listen. We often choose fear and control over trust, and we find it very difficult to forgive.
Especially in professional settings. Especially in schools.
I am finding, at a rather quick pace, that leadership teams need a person and/or permission to facilitate conversations that challenge their status quo. On several occasions now, I’ve gotten feedback that sounds something like, “You know how to ask us really tough questions, but in a really kind way” and “You kinda...put us in our place, but we don’t even realize it.” For people who know me or have worked with me, these statements are totally true. Unsurprisingly, I interpret this feedback as compliments, and it makes me smile.
Here’s what else I hear: teams need a person who they can trust to ask the questions they’ve stopped asking themselves. I hear teams who are masking personal pain from previous attempts to collaborate. I hear school leaders who no longer feel empowered to influence decisions within their district. I hear district leaders who are afraid they’ve not led with the clarity needed from their team. I hear insecurity, fear, and honestly--a need to be heard.
Sometimes school leaders share their hurt and disenchantment with me directly. Sometimes they say it through body language. Sometimes the team says it for them.
When I’m working with a team, I’m quick to listen for underlying dynamics between the leaders. Are there members who start a statement, but then back out, opting to “Not go there again” or “Take up the team’s time”? Are there alliances among principals or buildings, leaving one person or one team on an island? Is there an obvious distrust between the team and the superintendent, shared in silent eye conversations? I’m listening for all of these pieces and more. Just as I listened in to my teacher PLCs, I listen in to these admin teams, too.
As the coach, I walk a very delicate line between guiding the team and empowering the team to guide themselves. As much as possible, I try to listen, ask the right questions at the right time, and then get out of the way. Seriously, I will literally back out of a group conversation or jump out of it (physically) to make myself be quiet. If you’ve been with me in a session before--I’ve probably done this to you! And to our previous teacher teams and PLCs--you know exactly what I’m talking about!
Sometimes, leaders will ask me direct, point-blank questions about strategies, decisions, or expectations--and I will give direct, point-blank answers. But not often. More than getting an exact answer, I am noticing that what leaders really need is the space to ask the questions again.
Somewhere along the line in many teams, whether it’s a transition in with a new superintendent, or lack of clarity among priorities with the team--trust begins to disintegrate. And what I’m finding is the less trust there is, the harder it is to eat the elephant. District admin teams are their own professional learning communities, and as such, they have predictable dynamics, habits, and hurts that can occur over time. Hurt can stop a team from moving forward, together.
School leaders often carry the weight of loneliness on their shoulders because they no longer trust their collective team to have their backs. When the entire district team agrees to implement a policy or system, but one leader fails to do so---the rest of the team gets upset. They might make assumptions about why the elementary principal did not roll out PLCs or why the high school has a structure that looks so different. Because we are busy people who are all trying to do our best, even principals reach a breaking point in collaboration and will revert back to a building-first mentality instead of a district-centered approach.
Why do we withdraw and distrust the collaboration process at times? Because we get hurt! And who, in addition to our teachers, experiences pain in collaboration? Our school leaders!
When hurt, disappointment, distrust, disrespect, and critical assumptions are built up over time, a leadership team is in need of support. Good people get upset with one another, so that piece is not unique nor is it threatening. But, if the good people leading our schools choose to not forgive one another--learning is at risk.
Professional forgiveness is tough. Really, really tough. Like, honestly it’s terrible. When someone we work with--whether a colleague, direct report, or authority--hurts us in our profession, our work can suffer. When our work suffers, our confidence suffers. Once the shame spiral starts, it’s hard to stop unless faced head-on. In schools, we experience this pain between our buildings and with our central office. Hurt builds over time, trust wanes, and eventually it feels easier to all do whatever we want than to come together, hold each other accountable, and align our practice.
As the coach in the room, or in the email, or on the phone, or on the Zoom call--I am here to listen and help you process. My role is to support the team by creating a safe space where questions, clarification, forgiveness and vulnerability can appear. I am here to listen, to give the safe space to process and vent, and to encourage you to dive back in to your team.
If you’re a leader, and you realize you’re carrying hurt, distrust, and frustration around towards another member of your admin team, would you consider the possibility of letting that pain...go? If you’re a leader, and you admit that you’re making assumptions about your colleagues based, not on their current actions, but on their past ones, would you consider...not doing that? If you’re a leader, and you think you might have caused friction, disappointment, or distrust by not following-through, not listening, and not being a member of the team, would you...apologize?
We ask our teachers to come together to collaborate because we know that it is through their collective approaches that our students’ thrive. I am asking you to come together, forgive one another, and move forward together as a team. It is your collective leadership that allows teachers to thrive--don’t allow your pain to control the game.