Vital Dissonance (Periodic Fire In the Underbrush…)


Image by gnmills (source: stock.xchng)

Life is full of paradoxes (life is paradoxical…).  Our unique strengths (She is so driven!) can also present challenges to our own growth and stunt our relationships with others (She is so bull-headed!).   It is not surprising that the educational landscape is full of deep paradoxes – we can take the recent Vergara case as a good example.  Tenure is an important protection to ensure that teachers can’t be fired for having unpopular views; it is also a guarantee that some people who have no business working with children will do so for decades.  The Truth doesn’t rest with one “side” or the other – the truth is both (and more), and gains further depth and dimension the more we accept that things are complicated and multi-faceted.

We would never divest ourselves of our strengths just to banish the more unsavory aspects of our personalities (we all have them); our goal as educators can never be to establish emotional and operational uniformity (in teachers, in children) for the sake of appearances.  So how do we maintain a dynamic tension in our organizations – and within ourselves – to ensure that rather than defaulting to a singular view of things, we continue to embrace discomfort and ambiguity as the necessary byproducts of complexity?  How do we nurture a spirit of vital dissonance as a foundation for ongoing learning, growth, and fuel for the creative fire within?

Boswell middle-wayImage courtesy of Sam Boswell-Hyde

One particularly sharp paradox in these days of accountability-based educational culture is how we determine quality.  The archetype set last century was of the teacher as expert, distributor of knowledge, lone arbiter of quality of work and student – and often the lone audience.  This model is shifting, and we are beginning to see environments where students are implicit in the evaluation of their own learning and that of their peers.  Yet by what means do we determine teacher quality?  For the most part, via an evaluation process conducted by a single administrator (cue paradox).

Many forward-thinking administrators lament that more teachers don’t throw open their classroom doors to their peers, yet are stuck in the role of being the person who writes the evaluation of that teacher.  Culturally we want a staff that practices the #showyourwork ethos, working collaboratively to develop a cohesive culture of practices around student learning.  But structurally we still keep the “quality” conversation between two people.  I ask us to consider how effective this model is if the goal of the evaluation process for teachers (especially veteran teachers) is truly one of fostering growth and learning.

The challenge of each school campus being its own island, its own eddy recirculating the same water, is that over time there can emerge a cultural primacy on good relationships over good practice.  Working alongside friends makes us feel good, and may in fact be a vehicle for sharing, growing, and improving as individuals and as an organization.  Friendships between colleagues can have a deep and lasting impact on a school’s sense of mutual purpose, commitment, and trust.

Friendships can also give rise to a professional artificial harmony; we’re too polite, and we don’t want to upset our good friend with any critique of what we see in their classroom – after all, we’ll be having dinner with them later in the week, and going on a camping trip with them this summer.  Polite company doesn’t discuss money or politics – or instructional practice.

Curt Rees says this well in episode 61 of the outstanding Techlandia podcast when he describes “polite push-back” amongst teachers.  This is key: rather than resorting to administrators dealing with “infractions” as the primary methodology for cultivating healthy professionalism, teachers must engage each other in honest, frank dialogue when they have questions, concerns and misunderstandings.

I have even heard a few people express the idea that the ultimate sign of professional respect is to “trust” that teachers are doing the right thing by leaving them alone.  Here lies one of the most precipitous contradictions in education – people that rightly expect their leaders to communicate openly, work transparently, and create multiple avenues of involvement before making important decisions, yet who themselves operate individualistically and avoid (or undermine) any effort to foster collaboration, sharing, and openness.

One thing vital dissonance isn’t is a culture of anger and evasion.  If I were to do a “cultural health assessment” at a school site (or any organization) I would ask two very simple questions:

1) What is the life cycle of angerImMadHere’s a little sketch I did – just a quick meditation on how we sometimes deal with MAD feelings.  I like the frame that shows how when we’re mad we often take the round-about pathway to “address” the issue, a tendency that can fuel the angry fire rather than helping to bring about a mutually empowering resolution – or at least a professional, respectful conversation.  We want to avoid “confrontation,” but by doing so we can unknowingly, unintentionally contribute to an unhealthy, unsafe climate.

Anger is normal, to be expected, and often healthy when expressed (better than suppressed). David Theriault moderated a terrific #SlowchatED on this topic – “How getting in touch with your anger can transform the world around you.”

Well-communicated anger is the periodic forest fire that clears out the underbrush – at first it can appear scary and destructive, but in fact it prevents the massive buildup of fuel that can create the catastrophic fires that wipe out forests.  With practice – and mindful facilitation – people in an organization develop a willingness to hear out their peers’ frustrations; over time, this becomes normal, expected behavior.  We embrace conflict rather than avoid it.

(BTW – my little Anger Avatar is not specific to any particular role: from parent to superintendent, this could be you.)

2) Is celebration formal and periodic or ubiquitous and ongoing? 

For a school culture to be driven by a constant, pervasive interest in ideas and their applications – rather than the provenance of those ideas (“If my friends think it’s a good idea…”) – it must practice celebration, recognition, and mutual regard (professional, personal) as frequently as it practices role-taking.  Maybe it’s a picture a colleague tweets out of your students doing something awesome; maybe it’s an administrator that, rather than waiting for the monthly staff meeting, leaves a little hand-written note of appreciation for something she saw in your class; maybe it’s a teacher inviting an administrator to come judge student performances, or to come simply sit in the circle and be a part of the conversation.

The surprise and deep elation we feel from those little acknowledgements rival any trophy handed over during an official ceremony of recognition.  They might even feel better.  I think the most compelling evidence of a dynamic culture of adult learning is one in which people publicly celebrate the ideas of others – especially when that recognition crosses “friendship” lines.

I’ve talked about the key role the Hype Man plays in education – if your school doesn’t have one, then why couldn’t it be you, dancing along the razor’s edge, aglow in the joy of it?

3 thoughts on “Vital Dissonance (Periodic Fire In the Underbrush…)

  1. Eric,
    I welcome this invitation to set aside conventional wisdom/ safety/ old patterns.
    As to the riff on something I thought was singular and simple (as depicted in my visual attempt to snapshot the disruptive shift underway) – applause for getting a wrestling hold on complexity!
    Thanks for your elaboration.

    1. Sam, I always enjoy your replies more than most posts out there! I am struggling to commit to shorter-form posts, but they don’t feel quite right until they hit about 1,000 words (it truly feels like wrestling!). Time to disrupt that comfort zone and aim for clear brevity – one of the many qualities I love in your work in the blog medium. Cheers (and happy summer to us!), Eric

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