Being nice will not necessarily address the elephant in the schoolhouse

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Many important conversations in our schools are avoided at the expense of preserving what we may think are harmonious relationships. It is quite amazing how both teachers and leaders will avoid difficult conversations that are a source of frustration for the sake of keeping things amicable.

It seems at times that school leaders are in a catch-22 situation. Address a concern or problem with a teacher or group of teachers, there is a danger that the leader may be resented for doing so. This can happen for many a variety of reasons from teachers feeling that the criticism is baseless or not warranted, through to teachers feeling that they are being picked on when they are working really hard.

Of course, any criticism or raising of a concern can hurt and bruise our fragile egos. Nevertheless, if a leader does not address key issues that may be occurring with their faculty, then they will be criticized for not doing anything.

Over the years, I have seen some great school leaders who are willing to address poor teacher performance or behaviour unfairly criticized, even forced to leave their schools. On the other hand, I have seen some really nice school leaders, who are simply nice to their staff and leave difficult conversations well alone, revered by members of the teaching faculty.

So why does this occur?

For the leader who has the tough conversation, this brings bad news and things that we may not necessarily want to hear. If the conversation does not go particularly well, then the consequences can be significant.

Those leaders who are not bearers of bad news are welcomed by many educators who are not strong performers, or are not particularly collegial. In fact, for some educators, to be left alone to get on with the job, as they see fit, is an ideal situation owing to the autonomy and lack of accountability given to them by the leader.

But we know accountability, responsibility and commitment to each other is the elephant in the room of most, if not all, schools. It is a fact, that to be part of a good school requires these three qualities of its teaching faculty, which is fostered by the school’s leaders.

The truth is that great educational leaders cannot be nice all the time and to move a school and its teachers forward, tough conversations must happen to address the elephant that may be in the schoolhouse. The leader who attempts to be ‘nice’ to everyone is not always the one who is most respected. The best leaders say things that others are not always prepared to say.

3 thoughts on “Being nice will not necessarily address the elephant in the schoolhouse

  1. Well stated Richard! The ability to initiate and conduct a “hard conversation” is a powerful tool in the arsenal of all successful school leaders. It is HOW the tool is applied that really counts! Even a simple “put me down reprimand” needs to be shared in the warmth of a sound collegial relationship where the focus of the discussion remains positively pivoted.

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  2. Having difficult conversations as a school leader is one of the most complicated parts of the job. It’s not just having the conversation. It’s knowing which conversations to have and what to say after the conversation is over because the other party is often having plenty of conversations. Frequently, our hands are tied by HR policies (and probably common sense) and we can’t reveal why we had the difficult conversation.

    In planning to have difficult conversations, I now think about not just how I’m going to share difficult feedback, but also how I will respond to questions from others about the difficult conversation.

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