Saturday, February 5, 2011

Moving from congeniality to collegiality

One of the more anxiety inducing issues educational leaders face is having to engage in potentially difficult conversations. At a recent conference, Dr. Robert Evans suggested that, as educators, we are very good at congeniality, but not so good at collegiality. When I heard this at a recent conference, I was not so sure I agreed with this idea. My initial response was to immediately want to defend the “collegiality” I see in schools, but after the explanation, it made plenty of sense and had tremendous implications for leadership.

Dr. Evans provided a distinction between congeniality and collegiality based on the work of Roland Barth. Barth describes congeniality as being receptive, warm, supportive, giving nice responses, being helpful, etc. On the other hand, collegiality concerns talking about working with kids, how to do it, how to improve it, and how to disagree constructively about delivering lessons. It is this conversation, the disagreeing, that is often missing and thus minimizes the collegiality among teachers. If you examine the evidence about schools offered by Dr. Evans, it is easy to see why this lack of collegiality exists.
Schools have seen a steady increase in complexity over the past 30 years. Since then, teachers in K-12 settings have been asked to cover twice as much material. Now, raising the standards are not, in and of itself, a bad thing to do. What does happen, though, is that when we raise the ceiling, we also raise the floor. Thus, we are also experiencing an unprecedented amount of students with “documented” learning challenges. We want better, broader, and deeper educations, but are often doing so with students who are, by and large, programmed to learn the same as students from 30 years ago. Add to that mix, the outstanding research and new understandings of how the brain works. With every new discovery, the job of the teacher becomes more and more complex.
In addition, the challenges faced by schools as a result of outside of school factors are only increasing. Today, we are dealing with the decline of the developmental function of families as a child rearing unit. For example, Dr. Evans points to the numbers of parents who ask their doctors about decisions as simple as when to put their child to bed at night. These are issues families just didn’t need to ask about 30 years ago. Also in this outside of school arena is the increasing challenges of being a successful country. Dr. Evans points out that as opportunities go up, predictability goes down. Schools, therefore, have responded by acting in a more conservancy role. Because we cannot know what is to be, we are left to teach with what we know – the past, what has already been done.
Under these assumptions, Dr. Evans contends that collegiality requires extra work. It is hard. The difficulty arises from our general distaste for and open avoidance of conflict with other adults. Basically, we need to become more tolerant of the conflict, but that is easier said than done. Teachers, at least very good ones, typically invest a great deal of themselves in their work. For these teachers, it is personal – not business. On the other hand, tolerance for conflict requires a re-thinking along the lines of it is NOT personal, but business. Doing so allows us to disagree CONSTRUCTIVELY about what we do and where we are going. Ultimately, we need to talk more TO one another than ABOUT one another.
Dr. Evans continued to point out a number of interesting ideas. Here are a few of the ones that I captured in notes:
  • It is harder to assume that if it happened in school, than it must be good.
  • We are having new conversations around skewed enrollment (more students in High School than in Lower School at K-12 private/independent schools) as a result of the economy.
  • A dilemma is a part of life that has no solution. A problem has a solution. What are your school’s dilemmas? What are the problems?
  • Independent school leaders rarely use the leverage at their disposal.
A collegial conversation may be difficult to have. Difficult conversations cause us to question our points of view, our feelings, and our identities. I have found a wonderful resource about having difficult conversations in the book, Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. In the book, the authors take you through all three types of difficult conversations and how to approach these events as learning opportunities or learning conversations. Though this new outlook does not eliminate anxiety, it can serve to minimize it and allow for productive discourse.

Dr. Evans’ presentation did also make implications about leadership given the above items. Those implications will be the subject of my next post.

Of course, you are free to disagree or discuss these matters, "collegially", by commenting or emailing me. I always welcome reader feedback.


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