I refer back to the article, Improving Relationships in the Schoolhouse, quite often when considering the work we need to do as school leaders. The article, by Roland Barth, serves a constant reminder that the our biggest challenge as school leaders is to bring out the “nondiscussables” if we wish to see healthy collaborative cultures in our schools.
Barth refers to nondiscussables as “important matters that, as a profession, we seldom openly discuss.” Thinking about this further, nondiscussables include matters that are not openly discussed in 1-to-1, small group or large group conversation. A result of not addressing them is that frustration, cynicism and distrust builds within a school’s culture. As Anthony Muhammad puts it so well in his book, Transforming School Culture, schools are filled with too much “Adult Drama”: “Dysfunctional social interactions between adult professionals within a school environment that interfere with the proper implementation of important policies, practices, and procedures that support the proper education of students.”
School leaders are challenged with the task of both addressing the key issues in our schools but also the behaviours surrounding those issues. Furthermore, as school leaders, we need to look first and foremost at our own behaviour as to whether we are contributing further to the issue and its associated drama.
I received a great reply to a blog post on ‘Leading with Empathy’ from Tamra Wilcox who said “Sometimes a principal addresses the whole staff about the inappropriate actions of a few. Like bringing up an over-extended budget for substitute teachers when only a few teachers have multiple or prolonged absences. Or sending an email about tardiness for recess supervision, when one or two are chronic offenders.” It’s actions like these that our own behaviour, as school leaders, does not help us in trying to ameliorate the culture in our schools. Wilcox concludes their point with the following request: “Please don’t ask those of us who are fulfilling our responsibilities to be accountable for those who are not.”
So, how do we address the above problem as leaders in our schools?
It is about being courageous and bringing the issue out into the open but, more importantly, making sure that the matter is addressed in the correct forum with the right people in the room. A group staff email is no good when there are only one or two people that need to be spoken to individually. Of course, it’s far easier to send out the group email, as it avoids the face-to-face conversation, which is essentially at the heart of all nondiscussables.
It is, however, the role of the leader to take the first bold steps in commencing discussion about any nondiscussable, as hard as it may be. As Barth, so aptly, refers to a bumper sticker: “You can’t lead where you won’t go!”