I’m glad to see the fad of likening schools and school systems to for-profit business is trending out. The idea that students were a product, teachers could be evaluated or fired to increase effectiveness (production), and that schools should outcompete their neighbors for students (revenue) doesn’t align well with the moral imperative that pulled most of us into a career in education over business, politics or other sectors. As an organization focused on producing public good rather than profit, we have certain strategic disadvantages the business world doesn't have to confront. However, we have one pivotal advantage – common ground.
The common ground for all stakeholders in all school systems comes to the fact that we work for the kids and our work has to benefit kids. Period.
It’s hard to say there is common ground between competing businesses, competing politicians or competing nations and ideologies that are vying to come out on top in win-lose relationships. In education though, it is possible for everyone to win as long as the kids are at the center of our work benefit. That’s not to say education is devoid of conflict. On the contrary, it may have more passionate conflicts than other organizations. But if we take a step back and let all sides think, talk and listen, we can find that common ground. This doesn’t always seem possible when students or parents are in conflict with teachers or coaches, when teachers and their principals disagree, when principals disagree with central office or when board members’ priorities don’t align with views of individual community members. I’ve had the benefit of working for and with some exemplary teachers and school leaders and have observed many strategies that help get us back to common ground:
Use “wait time”: We often feel pressure to respond immediately to emails, voicemails or social media posts that include accusations and ultimatums; especially when we know enough about the issues that we know the person on the other end isn’t abreast of all of the facts. Outside of eminent issues of student safety, a slower roll may benefit all parties. Collect a little information and give some time and space before responding. Don’t commit to any final resolutions when you do finally make the time to take a second lap with everyone involved before wrapping things up to make sure things are resolved.
Mode of communication matters: Modern communication tools make it far too easy to go digital only. When tensions escalate, it is rare that emails, texts and social media posts are able to bring us back together. Great leaders know, and help their staff know, that picking up the phone (yes, an actual “voice call”), or scheduling a face-to-face meeting are imperative if things are going sideways after one or two digital interchanges.
Acknowledge all possible solutions: Possibly the greatest barrier to getting parties back to common ground is the unnecessary belief that every problem has a right or wrong answer. Often, multiple solutions will work and there’s room to compromise or reset expectations if we are all open to it.
Say it out loud: Some potential conflicts actually evaporate if we allow some wait time (see above), but when they don’t, we have to remember to say the obvious things out loud, “I want every kid to feel safe at school”, “I don’t want you to feel undervalued at work”, “I want our program to be the best it can be and have our students recognized for the great work they do in that area”. Keep in mind that today’s culture drives stakeholders towards more of an absolute mindset (i.e. “you have something I’m entitled to that you won’t give me”, or “you disagree with me, there for you aren’t telling the truth”). Stating your case aloud helps everyone assume positive intent and get back to solutions.Be the person that resets the conversation and reminds everyone that we have the same goal in mind.
Create multiple proactive systems for input: Possibly the best way to stay on common ground with our stakeholders is to proactively address concerns before they escalate. While we don’t have a crystal ball, we do have simple communication tools that we can use to see storms coming. A number of years ago we implemented a “Staff Morale Survey” that we administer anonymously three times per year within our high school. We let staff come up with the questions (some are agree/disagree, some are open ended). In the wake of every survey, we review the feedback with our administrative team and teacher leadership team to identify action items. It helps us separate minority concerns that we are hearing loudly, from more significant underlying concerns that haven’t risen to the surface yet. This system has worked so well, we’ve mimicked it with a “Student Culture” survey three times a year to our student body with a similar follow up loop. This has helped us confront issues and perceptions within the student body. Despite our best efforts as a staff, the student feedback tells us we need to do more to help students feel connected with adults in our school and to see how what we are asking them to do in the classroom is preparing them for our future. Our athletic director now makes a routine of sending out an anonymous parent survey following each sports season. This has helped identify areas for growth for certain programs, but has already provided lots of positive data for our AD that has helped inform conversations when he hears, “all of the parents are frustrated with this coach”, etc. Using this type of system isn’t easy or pretty for administrators though, be ready for some harsh, unfiltered criticism. When we started these systems in 2015, I leaned back on a quote from John Baldoni to remind me this was worth it, “A leader who invites dissent is one who is secure within his or her own self to be the person others embrace as their leader.”
This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, just some things I have seen work for us and leaders I have learned from. Being realistic that in education, there is common ground in every conversation with every stakeholder is the key. As well as acknowledging that we are not a business and while our schools will always have room to get better, we will never be perfect.
Written by Joe Esper, Principal at Traverse City West Senior High School and MASSP Board of Directors Representative