Don’t listen to the stories you tell yourself

Don’t listen to the stories you tell yourself

Working in student discipline is incredibly challenging work. Our short-term success rate is never as high as we want it to be (even if we are seeing progress over the long term). We invest an incredible amount of energy and emotion into the work, and by its very nature are often disappointed when we think we’ve “fixed” a student or a problem, only to learn we haven’t (yet).

Perhaps we should be more like baseball players. If a player gets a hit in 35% of his at-bats over the course of the year, he’s had an incredible year. They don’t obsess over the 65% of groundouts, pop-ups, and strikeouts on the drive home. They don’t lose sleep, or perseverate about the one that got away over dinner with their partner.

Now, I’m not saying we should be satisfied if we’re only successful with 35% of our struggling students; but we do need to build in a certain set of realistic expectations with the work we do. (To be clear, I’m not saying we should ever settle for failure with a certain student; I’m saying we should be aware that one meeting may not fix a student’s issues. It may take months or years to see progress for that child while he is in our care.)

But most educators I know are perfectionists.

When something goes wrong, or something isn’t working, there has to be a reason. We rarely tell ourselves, “This is the nature of the work. This is a long process full of setbacks.” Instead we tell ourselves different stories.

And these can be dangerous.

Patterson et al. identified in Crucial Conversations three types of “clever” stories we tell ourselves when we don’t want to face a difficult reality or face our role in a problem. Each has relevance for our work in school discipline.

  1. Victim stories – “It’s not my fault.” “Victim Stories, as you might imagine, make us out to be innocent sufferers. The theme is always the same. The other person is bad, wrong, or dumb, and we are good, right, or brilliant. Other people do bad or stupid things, and we suffer as a result.” When we fail and we are not ready to acknowledge or own our failures, we tell victim stories. For deans or administrators working in school discipline, we might tell ourselves that the fault lies with the parent, or with the teacher who can’t handle the student on their own, maybe even with the culture overall.
  2. Villain stories – “It’s all your fault.” “In Villain Stories we overemphasize the other person’s guilt or stupidity. We automatically assume the worst possible motives or grossest incompetence while ignoring any possible good or neutral intentions or skills a person may have.” The culprit here could again be the teacher, as we think to ourselves “Of course the student can’t behave in this class, the teacher has no control!” Or it could be the student, as in “She’s a bad kid. She doesn’t want to do better.”
  3. Helpless stories – “There’s nothing else I can do.” These might be the most common in our role. “In these fabrications we make ourselves out to be powerless to do anything healthy or helpful. We convince ourselves that there are no healthy alternatives for dealing with our predicament, which justifies the action we’re about to take.” Here we find any number of reasons to declare we’ve done all we can and justify not taking further action – a state policy we can’t change, a school policy we can’t change, an administrator who doesn’t “get it.”

None of us are immune to this kind of “storytelling.” These are the stories that help us get through the challenging work we do without collapsing under the weight of setbacks.

But ultimately, they do more harm than good. Instead of telling victim stories, what if we tried to see things from the point of view of that “bad, dumb, or wrong” person (who might not be any of those three)? Instead of villain stories, we could focus on the good we can still do despite the obstacle in our way. Instead of helpless stories, we can work to change systems or policies, or figure out the best way to work with or around them.

Not easy work, and it may take a lifetime, but even recognizing the simple fact that we do tell stories to ourselves is a step forward.

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Why we shouldn’t follow our instincts when it comes to discipline

Why we shouldn’t follow our instincts when it comes to discipline

In my previous post, I referred to the apparent contradiction of the need to establish safety for student offenders who have jeopardized the safety of others. Of course, I’m referring to two different types of safety. The behavior of students who imperil the safety of other students should never be tolerated and must be met with appropriate action; however, in the course of deciding what that action should be, we must engage in a crucial conversation with that student, and if that conversation is to have any chance of success, we must be vigilant in ensuring that the student feels safe as a participant.

When we’re responding to a serious infraction, it may be challenging to control our own emotions. We’re disturbed by the behavior of the student, protective of other students whose safety may have been threatened, and (possibly unconsciously) anxious about our own ability to rectify the situation. Thus, it becomes even harder for us to monitor what the student we’re about to confront is experiencing. Here’s Patterson et al.:

In truth, most of us do have trouble dual-processing (simultaneously watching for content and conditions)—especially when both stakes and emotions are high. We get so caught up in what we’re saying that it can be nearly impossible to pull ourselves out of the argument in order to see what’s happening to ourselves and to others. Even when we are startled by what’s going on, enough so that we think, “Yipes! This has turned ugly. Now what?” we may not know what to look for in order to turn things around. We may not see enough of what’s happening.

If you can catch signs that the conversation is starting to turn crucial—before you get sucked so far into the actual argument that you can never withdraw from the content—then you can start dual-processing immediately. And what exactly should you watch for? People who are gifted at dialogue keep a constant vigil on safety. They pay attention to the content—that’s a given—and they watch for signs that people are becoming fearful. When friends, loved ones, or colleagues move away from healthy dialogue (freely adding to the pool of meaning)—either forcing their opinions into the pool or purposefully keeping their ideas out of the pool—they immediately turn their attention to whether or not others feel safe. When it’s safe, you can.

The irony of the situation we find ourselves in is that no matter how upset we may be with a student’s behavior, we need that student to engage in an open dialogue if we want our intervention to be successful. (Of course, if we simply want to impose consequences unilaterally, we don’t need anything from the student at all. He or she can simply and take a tongue-lashing and serve a consequence. But I think we’re shooting for something greater than that.) It is a humbling experience to realize you still need to court the cooperation of a teenager who has just committed an egregious violation. And yet, there is a path forward that allows both sides to maintain dignity.

When it’s safe, you can say anything. Here’s why gifted communicators keep a close eye on safety. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning—period. And nothing kills the flow of meaning like fear. When you fear that people aren’t buying into your ideas, you start pushing too hard. When you fear that you may be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding. Both these reactions—to fight and to take flight—are motivated by the same emotion: fear. On the other hand, if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people will listen. If you don’t fear that you’re being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.

The first step is to become a “vigilant self-monitor.” When we come to understand our own emotional triggers in high-stakes, emotionally loaded conversations, we are better able to recognize when a conversation or confrontation has become “unsafe.” Once we learn to do that, what comes next?

The key is to stop, step out of the conversation, and create safety before continuing. The first condition of safety that you must address is “mutual purpose,” which the authors call the “entrance condition.” If participants don’t believe you have a mutual purpose, they will not feel safe to contribute to the conversation. For example, the student who sits (or sulks) silently because he believes that your purpose is solely to get him “in trouble” or to take the side of a favored student or group.

Mutual Purpose—the Entrance Condition

Why Talk in the First Place?

Remember the last time someone gave you difficult feedback and you didn’t become defensive? Say a friend said some things to you that most people might get upset over. In order for this person to be able to deliver the delicate message, you must have believed he or she cared about you or about your goals and objectives.

That means you trusted his or her purposes so you were willing to listen to some pretty tough feedback. Crucial conversations often go awry not because others dislike the content of the conversation, but because they believe the content (even if it’s delivered in a gentle way) suggests that you have a malicious intent. How can others feel safe when they believe you’re out to harm them? Soon, every word out of your mouth is suspect. You can’t utter a harmless “good morning” without others interpreting it in a negative way.

Consequently, the first condition of safety is Mutual Purpose. Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that you’re working toward a common outcome in the conversation, that you care about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa. You believe they care about yours. Consequently, Mutual Purpose is the entry condition of dialogue. Find a shared goal, and you have both a good reason and a healthy climate for talking.

For example, in meeting with a student after he has been involved in a fight, you might say, “Both of us are upset right now about what happened today. But both of us have the same goal. We want to make sure that what happened today never happens again, and that you find a way to resolve these conflicts before they get violent.” Of course, you have other goals too that might not be mutual yet (e.g., you want to ensure safety for every other student, and you want to figure out how the offending student can restore the broken trust and relationships). Hopefully, you can introduce these other goals during the conversation.

It takes more than a simple statement like this for a student to come to trust your motives. You have to mean it, of course. Just saying it doesn’t make it so, and students are the best lie detectors. And this stance needs to be consistent with the actions and persona that you display daily in your school.

The other condition for safety is mutual respect. Participants can’t engage in authentic dialogue when they feel others don’t respect them (or if they don’t respect the other participants). I won’t delve into how to get students to respect you, that’s a topic for another time. What’s more pressing in this moment (a student in your office who just got into a fight) is whether or not you respect the student. It would be completely natural to lose respect (temporarily) for a student who has just hurt or endangered other students. How can you possibly show that you respect a student at a time like this? Patterson et al. weigh in:

Dialogue truly would be doomed if we had to share every objective or respect every element of another person’s character before we could talk. If this were the case, we’d all be mute.

However, we can stay in dialogue by finding a way to honor and regard another person’s basic humanity. In essence, feelings of disrespect often come when we dwell on how others are different from ourselves. We can counteract these feelings by looking for ways we are similar.

Without excusing others’ behavior, we try to sympathize, even empathize, with them. A rather clever person once hinted how to do this in the form of a prayer—“Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently than I.” When we recognize that we all have weaknesses, it’s easier to find a way to respect others.

When we do this, we feel a kinship or mutuality between ourselves and even the thorniest of people. This sense of kinship and connection to others helps create Mutual Respect and eventually enables us to stay in dialogue with virtually anyone.

Every disciplinary conversation or confrontation is unique. For most of us, following some of the steps I’ve written about here prior to or during these conversations (e.g., replacing frustration with curiosity, focusing on the future rather than the past, establishing mutual purpose and respect) run contrary to our basic (and perhaps base) instincts, which sometimes tell us that he who has made others suffer must suffer himself. Our work then, lies in breaking some of the mental models we’ve established through observation and prior practice. No easy task, but worth doing.

How fear of conflict kills teams

How fear of conflict kills teams

Author’s note: I’ve decided to occasionally veer away from school discipline to write about organizational behavior, as that’s been the bulk of my reading lately. When I do, I’ll tag those posts with this note. 

(Part 2 on Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team)

I used to think that conflict was the enemy of a high-functioning team.

When I thought of conflict, I thought of arguments, disagreements, discord, and resentment.

None of those things sounded good to me.

Over the years, I came to realize how mistaken I was.

Lencioni’s second dysfunction of a team–fear of conflict–stems directly from the first (absence of trust). If one trusts his team members, he knows that he can raise new ideas, express criticism of others’ ideas, and divulge unpopular opinions in their presence. He can do so because he knows that

  • they will not perceive his criticism as a personal attack
  • they will engage with him on the merits of the idea, not on a personal level
  • they will not harbor resentment at being challenged
  • they will be honest in their response

A good team will have a variety of ideas on any given topic. Sometimes, the whole team will feel the same way on an issue, but that would be rare, and that topic then would probably not necessitate even convening the team.

That divergence of ideas naturally produces conflict. The free sharing of ideas and honest engagement with those ideas means that the best ideas will generally come to the surface (if team members are engaging in good faith). But if a team that fears conflict (perhaps new team members are fearful of disagreeing with veterans, or all team members are fearful of disagreeing with the boss), the best ideas remain unearthed.

What do we gain by remaining fearful of conflict? Well, on a team without trust, a lot, actually. If team members view criticism of ideas as a personal attack, the “offender” might lose status, opportunities, or even membership on the team altogether. When people don’t know whether or not sharing our ideas will cost them, it’s hard to blame them for not engaging.

The truth is there is always conflict on a team, because there will always be differences of opinion. The difference is that on teams that lack trust, the conflict remains submerged. But it doesn’t stay there forever; it bubbles up in lingering resentments and dissatisfaction, taking a toll on relationships.

Lencioni calls the result of a fear of conflict “artificial harmony.” Team members pretend they’re on board. In reality, they’re hesitant or holding back. Bringing back the example of the teacher team in a planning meeting:

Teacher planning meeting, members don’t trust each other: 

Teacher 1: We have to finalize the plan for the poetry unit. 

Teacher 2: Last year we had students write their final essay on “The Road Not Taken,” that seemed to work fine. I really don’t see a reason to change that, especially when we already have so many other things on our plates. 

Teacher 3, thinking: It really didn’t go fine. The kids were so bored and there was no choice. I know it sounds crazy, but I was really hoping kids could write their own poems and then analyze their own poems in their essay. I know it’s different, but I think engagement would be so much higher. I know we have a lot on our plates, but shouldn’t planning a great unit be our first priority?

Teacher 3, speaking: Okay … I guess we could do that. 

Teacher 2, thinking: What does she mean, I guess? I hate it when she is passive aggressive like that. 

A casual observer might think the team had come to an agreement. Technically, they did. But the harmony was, as Lencioni says, “artificial,” and those types of agreements lead directly to the third dysfunction–lack of commitment…

The first dysfunction of a team

The first dysfunction of a team

Author’s note: I’ve decided to occasionally veer away from school discipline to write about organizational behavior, as that’s been the bulk of my reading lately. When I do, I’ll tag those posts with this note. 

If you were a business major, you probably read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team in freshman year. I studied American literature, so I’m just getting to it in my thirties! But I’m glad I did, as there’s a lot for school leaders and teachers alike to learn.

Lencioni devotes the first 80% of the book to a leadership “fable” that exhibits his major concepts. Then in the last 20% he explains them.

I personally like this style. The “fable” is cheesy and certainly not compelling as literature, but it serves its purpose, and the actual concepts are boiled down concisely at the end, unlike many leadership books that take 20 pages of great content and intersperse them among 200 pages of filler.

I won’t recap the fable here, but I will explore what the five dysfunctions are and the implications I see for teachers and school leaders, starting with Dysfunction 1 in this post.

Dysfunction 1: Absence of Trust

The first thing you notice about the five dysfunctions is that they’re simple to the point of  being almost trite or cliche. Yes, we all know that trust is preferable to the absence of trust. The hard part is the implications and application.

Trust in this context is not about being able to give sensitive information without it being repeated. Trusting an individual means knowing that individual will act with your best interests in mind. That doesn’t mean he will act exclusively with your exclusive interests in mind; that would be unreasonable. But that he will make a good-faith effort.

The presence of trust allows for something equally important: vulnerability. When we trust others, we can be vulnerable around them. We are willing to share ideas that might be out of the mainstream, or to divulge unpopular opinions. Fresh new ideas and unpopular opinions are, of course, crucial to the health and output of a team.

When individuals aren’t willing to share new ideas, the team does what it’s always done.

When individuals aren’t willing to divulge unpopular opinions, the team does something its members know isn’t ideal because they feared the repercussions of speaking out.

What might this look like on teacher teams? Here’s a brief illustration:

Teacher planning meeting, members don’t trust each other: 

Teacher 1: We have to finalize the plan for the poetry unit. 

Teacher 2: Last year we had students write their final essay on “The Road Not Taken,” that seemed to work fine. I really don’t see a reason to change that, especially when we already have so many other things on our plates. 

Teacher 3, thinking: It really didn’t go fine. The kids were so bored and there was no choice. I know it sounds crazy, but I was really hoping kids could write their own poems and then analyze their own poems in their essay. I know it’s different, but I think engagement would be so much higher. I know we have a lot on our plates, but shouldn’t planning a great unit be our first priority?

Teacher 3, speaking: Okay … I guess we could do that. 

Teacher 2, thinking: What does she mean, I guess? I hate it when she is passive aggressive like that. 

Here, the absence of trust manifested itself in a number of ways. First, teacher 3 was afraid to share her idea. Her idea was new and different, and the other team members might have reacted negatively. Because she didn’t trust that they had her best interest in mind, she withheld it.

But not only was teacher 3 afraid to share her idea, she was also afraid to criticize teacher 2’s idea, fearful of how teacher 2 might respond to the criticism (probably both because she doesn’t trust teacher 2 and because eacher 2 doesn’t trust her, and each has good reason for it).

It’s a pretty direct line between a team’s lack of trust among its members and a bad outcome for kids (in this case, a boring assignment). And it ties directly into the second dysfunction (fear of conflict), which I’ll write about in the next post I do on this book.

The question that lingers for me is how to restore trust to a team that’s lost it, and how to build it for a new team or a team that’s never had it.

 

The counterintuitive step you must take in all school discipline conversations

The counterintuitive step you must take in all school discipline conversations

I started reading Crucial Conversations to get better at communicating with colleagues. But the applications to school discipline soon became blindingly obvious.

The authors define a “crucial conversation” as one in which: (1) opinions vary, (2) emotions run strong, and (3) stakes are high. Almost every disciplinary intervention I’ve been a part of meets these criteria. For some, school discipline conjures images of Morgan Freeman policing groups of rowdy teenagers in a cafeteria or auditorium in Stand by Me; in reality, most of the critical work in school discipline takes place behind closed (figuratively if not literally) doors, one-on-one between student and adult.

Crucial conversations fail when one party comes to believe, consciously or not, that the interaction is no longer “safe.”

When it’s safe, you can say anything.

Here’s why gifted communicators keep a close eye on safety. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning—period. And nothing kills the flow of meaning like fear. When you fear that people aren’t buying into your ideas, you start pushing too hard. When you fear that you may be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding. Both those reactions—to fight and to take flight—are motivated by the same emotion: fear. On the other hand, if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people will listen. If you don’t fear you’re being attacked and humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.

The two most common responses to a lack of safety are “silence and violence.” Silence consists of “any act to purposefully withhold meaning from the pool of information,” and includes masking (covering up one’s true feelings), avoiding (steering away from sensitive subjects), and withdrawing (refusing to engage entirely). “Violence” is any “verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view”, including controlling (coercing others to your way of thinking), labeling (dismissing), and attacking (making the other person suffer through belittling and threatening).

In all crucial conversations, we must be able to spot when others move to silence or violence and recognize those as indicators of a lack of safety. But we also have to recognize when we ourselves go “silent or violent.” In disciplinary situations, after an incident has occurred, the most common scenario is we (the adults) go to “violence” while the student goes to “silence.”

This feels “right” in some way, perhaps because it’s the mental model most of us grew up with. Surely the offender has “earned” this tongue-lashing; how else will we communicate to the student that they’ve seriously transgressed?

In reality, although these kinds of conversations may provide us a short-term sense of accomplishment, they accomplish little in terms of (1) restoring the harm done to relationships and/or property (2) ensuring the student does not engage in the same behavior again. Long-term progress can only be made if both parties move away from silence and violence and toward productive dialogue, and that requires that both adult and student feel safe in the conversation.

“Safe??” you say. “But it is the student who has committed the offense! He has put the safety of others in danger, and now we have to worry about making him feel safe??” 

In my next post, I’ll explain why this counterintuitive move is in fact necessary, and what steps we can take to make it happen successfully.

When a field trip becomes a lesson in Constitutional rights…

When a field trip becomes a lesson in Constitutional rights…

Readers of the blog know that I’m interested in the intersection between students’ Constitutional rights and school discipline. A recent story about a group of 8th graders who refused to take a photo with House speaker Paul Ryan, while ultimately relatively harmless, presents some fun questions for fellow Constitutional nerds out there.

It’s long been established that students “don’t shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door,” but several high-profile court cases have established limits on the free-speech rights of students at school. Most notably, Tinker v. Des Moines established the “Tinker standard,” which requires schools to determine whether student speech  “materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” In other words, if the speech does not constitute a substantial disruption to school operations, it is protected.

Choosing whether or not to have one’s picture taken with a prominent politician certainly represents symbolic political speech. These students’ choice is protected under the First Amendment, but did this choice represent a substantial disruption? Managing 150 students on a busy public street in a major metropolitan area is extremely challenging; was it not disruptive and potentially dangerous for students to choose to separate from the group to avoid this picture? (I’m playing devil’s advocate for a second here…)

On the other hand, if engaging in symbolic speech by taking photos with politicians is part of the trip, does the school not have a responsibility to the students to provide a safe alternative for those who choose not to engage in said speech? In that sense, the students can hardly be blamed for creating the disruption; the disruption only exists because the school failed to provide accommodations for students who did not wish to engage in political speech.

What other aspects of a trip to Washington DC could be considered forced political speech? Would a tour of the White House represent a de facto endorsement of a sitting president? Would a tour of the halls of Congress violate the free speech rights of a group of student anarchists? In that case, how would the school provide an equivalent educational experience for students who opt out? And to what extent would they be obligated to do so?

Ultimately, the students from New Jersey–whether they took the photo or not–walk away with a valuable civics lesson, and none of the thorny questions posed above will probably ever come to pass. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun though.

Two assumptions underlying restorative discipline that would benefit from being challenged

Two assumptions underlying restorative discipline that would benefit from being challenged

In a restorative approach to discipline, offenders are made to see how their actions have negatively impacted others. They work to restore the harm done to those involved, and are less likely to re-offend because of a new understanding of the effect of their actions on others.

For this process to be effective, students must come to empathize with those their actions have harmed. But the assumptions underlying this process merit further examination.

The first assumption is that students are capable of empathizing with those their actions have harmed. I believe that they are. But what if this is not universally true? Just as there is a normal variance in academic outcomes amongst a student body, we should acknowledge that there is most likely a normal distribution of the ability to empathize. In other words, some students are capable of extreme empathy, while others might struggle to show even a little bit at this stage of their lives (they may develop it later). Yet, the restorative process treats all students as if they are equally capable of empathy right now. Those who engage in restorative practices should acknowledge that due to natural variations in empathy, some students may not come to fully understand the damage done by their actions until later in life. Practitioners should be prepared with alternative practices, and should understand that just because it doesn’t work with everyone doesn’t mean it’s not a valid practice.

The second assumption is that coming to empathize with those one has harmed after committing an offense will make it less likely for one to offend again. The problem with this assumption is that we may be comparing apples and oranges. Take the case of a student who destroyed school property after being involved in a verbal confrontation with a teacher. Sitting in a restorative circle one week later, after the smoke has cleared, with the teacher, principal, and head custodian, that student may be able to clearly see the harm that was done and empathize with the three adults who were affected. But the teenage brain is a fickle organ–when faced with a similar situation two weeks later, there is simply not a lot of evidence to suggest that student may be able to call up the empathy he felt back in that restorative circle and think twice about his actions.

My stance on restorative discipline continues to be one of support. But proponents of the restorative approach need to reckon with some of the big question marks still surrounding the approach if they want to be able to withstand the inevitable backlash coming as restorative discipline sees wider implementation in cities and districts across the country.