The Power of Conversations

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Flight From Conversation” by Sherry Turkle, raised more concerns about the impact that technology is having on our ability to actually converse with each other.  To be honest, the work that Tim Fish and I are doing on professional growth has convinced me that we may never have been very good at having honest conversations and technology has made it even worse.  Robert Evans, the school consultant, says that conversations between educators  “…are almost always congenial—cordial, friendly, caring, supportive—but rarely collegial—willing to talk frankly about their practice and their professional interactions, willing to disagree openly or to risk criticism.” Evans believes that educators are by nature conflict averse and therefore reluctant to be critical to each other.

This is a big problem.  Without honest conversations, we miss the opportunity for self-improvement and growth.  We do not really have a sense of how other people perceive what we are doing and how we are doing it.  We are not taking advantage of the expertise that surrounds us and could enable us to be even better at what we do.

In my files, I have dozens of teacher evaluations that bear this sad truth out.  I am blessed to be surrounded by very talented teachers who demonstrate great skill in the classroom.  These evaluations clearly show this to be true.  But every one of these teachers has areas where they can grow and improve and that is what is missing from almost all of the evaluations.  Sadly, this has been true at every school I have worked at, and I believe it is true at most others.

I believe there are several factors at play.  The first is, as Robert Evans suggests, a real avoidance of conflict that prevents high quality conversations from occurring.  The second is a fundamental lack of trust between teachers and administrators that stifles honesty.  The third is a lack of recognition that there is great power in conversations that can deepen relationships, foster self-discovery, and promote real lasting growth.

As teachers, most of us are very good at giving honest feedback to our students.  Ironically, when it comes to giving constructive feedback to our colleagues we avoid it like the plague.  It takes tremendous courage and trust to have these conversations.  It also takes a willingness to listen to the feedback and reflect on ourselves.

This is not just an issue between teachers, it is endemic to conversations between teachers and their administrative supervisors.  To these relationships we have to add the issues of job security and pay raises.  The fear of losing one’s job makes honest conversations complex and difficult even when there is a high level of trust.

We know through our own experience that conversations can help us grow and develop.  The teachers, coaches and mentors that have taught us along the way prove this to be true.  What we need to figure out is how to develop the skills and emotional readiness to engage in honest conversations and make it part of our school culture.