“Feed the teachers so they don’t eat the students.” So read a sign I remember seeing at a conference many years ago. This humorous truism has stayed with me all these years later. In fact, the dark and humorous truth of this statement echoes in my head these days as I travel and converse with educators across the country. One thing is clear: educators today feel stressed out and maxed out, pressured by time and expectations, with too much to cover, too little time to do it, and all the while budgets continue to tighten. When you feel like you’re doing everything you can, and it’s still not enough, resentful demoralization often sets in. Whether you’re an administrator, a team or department leader, I recommend that you heed this wise advice and “feed the teachers, so they don’t eat the students.”
There is really no bad time to invest in the culture and competencies of your professional team—but there are often times when it seems counterintuitive to do so. And I think we are in one of those time periods now: How, you might ask, how in these difficult economic and educational circumstances can you “afford” to spend time establishing or reestablishing your organizational habits? How can you “afford” to establish or reestablish collegiality, trust, respect, and the overall professional and ethical learning community? Because, we would argue, precisely amid these challenging economic and educational circumstances, if you do not invest in intentionally developing the staff character and culture, the result will be a faculty and staff who are resentful and demoralized; they will turn on each other, the administrators, students and staff. In the very time when you need to band together, to work smarter and harder, to try new ideas and strategies for reaching and teaching students, they will instead begin shutting down, tuning out, turning against the organizational leaders and turning on each other, their students and parents—and eventually the profession as a whole.
So what can you do? In our Culture of Excellence Ethics Professional Development Toolkits we offer to educators knowledge and tools they can use for building the culture and competencies NEEDED FOR teaching learning. I am going to offer several that we use in our Professional Development Toolkits for educators that can be used to develop more intentional organizational habits for working together. The more tense and volatile the circumstances, the more stressed and maxed out the individuals, the more important it is to get intentional about your norms for working together. So, here’s what I would recommend:
1. Develop a Touchstone to reestablish your shared vision and values.
This isn’t a mission statement; it’s not meant to be a prolonged or painful organizational visioning process. It’s meant to provide a rough and ready recalibration of current and desired state. It’s meant rally the group, to help clarify in an otherwise crazy world, your shared values. It is a simple, “good enough” process to recapture some sense of shared organizational mission and vision, to remind us we’re in this together, and that while we may have profound disagreements about many things, we can find a set of shared values from which to work together. (Contact me directly and I’ll send you the process; here’s an abbreviated description).
Using the streamlined process we have developed developing a touchstone simply requires you taking the group back to you foundational documents (review your mission statement, review your strategic goals, etc.), drawing out from these the core moral and performance character values that drive your work together. Be sure to highlight in particular the spoken (or unspoken) operative values that will be NEEDED FOR your work together now, in this economic and education climate, with the particular individuals on your team. I don’t have to know your mission statement to know that you’ll need collaboration, communication, trust, collegiality, hard work, perseverance and positive attitude.
Take those values and then turn them into a set of “we statements” that describe how you will carry out your work together. For example, “We support and challenge each other in our quest for excellence. We are honest but respectful. We are fair to everyone—including those not present. We learn from our mistakes and keep moving forward.” 4 to 8 powerful statements that provide a set of operative values to guide us and to strive for, reminding us of who we are and how we want to do our business. Those same values that were on the wall or in those core documents before are still relevant; but, we must make sure that they speak to us today. HOW we work together towards our shared goals is essential; it ensures that we pursue our goals with personal and collective responsibility and integrity. As a group we need some sense of here’s what we’re up against, and here are the values that have sustained us in the past that we must draw upon in earnest to succeed against the challenges we face.
How long will it takes? It depends, of course. But I lead a retreat this summer where we did a touchstone in about 25 minutes. I’ve done them over the course of a few weeks in steps that may have totaled about 2-3 hours, but where the overall task was done through 20-30 minute increments. (I would also suggest as part of the process, that each member of the staff write out their own personal touchstone that describes the values behind why and how they teach.) Remember, the process is the intervention. This is the chance for discussions, for debate, for challenging ourselves. Okay, we may not have always lived up to this statement, but we still believe in it, right? Okay, then let’s get it down in writing and let’s recommit to live this out.
2. Develop a Compact for Excellence.
If the Touchstone gives you your desired state (who do we want to be and how will we accomplish our vision?), your operational statement of espoused values, then a Compact for Excellence is your tool for guiding lived behavior. Okay, if we say we learn from our mistakes and are honest but respectful what will do and not do—specifically, behaviorally, in the real contexts, situations, and interactions of our life. We take a simple prompt, “In order to do our best work and treat each other with respect and care, we agree to do…. (or not do)….”: “Begin and end on time. Attack the problem not the person. Listen actively to all ideas. Do what we say we’re going to do. Speak with one voice once we have a decision.” We often create a number of Portable Compacts to guide behavior in particular situations. Before we begin discussing students of need let’s create a compact (stay on task, keep the information in confidence, be positive, seek solutions); before meeting with an angry parent or frustrated student (let’s agree to keep our voices down, listen to each other, seek positive solutions, etc.). The Touchstone provides big the values-based vision; a Compact (and really a series of portable Compacts) ensures that in our daily interactions we put into action in our lived behaviors our espoused values. (Again, glad to share this particular tool with any who are interested).
3. Develop norms for brainstorming.
Especially when you’re short on time and resources you need creative thinking, you need collaboration, you need the collective talents, abilities, and insights of your entire team. And yet, precisely when we need to work together the most, we are often most likely to not listen, not value each other’s perspective and experiences. Whether we’re figuring out what to teach, how to make the most of resources, what to cut, what to keep, or any other important decision, setting norms for brainstorming will ensure efficient and effective deliberations. Simple, right? Yes. And yet how often do we begin without these norms only to watch the mayhem ensue? I propose an idea, you shoot it down; one person dominates the conversation; several people offer nothing; all the while the group is becoming more and more toxic. We’re wasting vital time and energy and undermining collegiality. Instead we ought to set norms intentionally for our intended outcomes, the established process, and the allotted time.
There’s a time for brainstorming and there’s a time for problem solving, and there’s a time for decision making. Clarity about these essential steps in the process will go a long way to building the confidence and trust of the group (the world may be crazy, but in our little piece of it we have some order, some control, something that feels positive and productive). (Again, glad to share our Culture of Excellence Ethics Brainstorming tool as a model for any who are interested).
4. Establish a process for negotiating differences.
If you work in a group of people—even if you have shared vision from a Touchstone, a Compact to guide behavior, and norms for brainstorming—you will still have points of disagreement where you will need to negotiate. Our Culture of Excellence & Ethics Win-Win Negotiation tool lays out an organizational norm for negotiating that contributes to efficient and effective group work. It takes a very complex process and breaks it down into its basics: at the core, negotiation is an I WANT, YOU WANT, WE COULD process. We need to express clearly our needs and desires (how many times we lose track of what we’re fighting for or about). We have to be able to articulate what the other party wants (again, simple stuff, but if you don’t truly active listen and articulate what you hear the other party asking for, you can expect unproductive conflict). Finally, we knowing what I want, and what you want, we need to use creative thinking in coming up with win-win solutions. We need to think outside the box, try new things, and make principled compromises. (Again, glad to share this tool with any who are interested).
It’s tough time for educators. We can’t do business as usual any more. We need to improve and evolve the craft. We owe to ourselves and to our students. But, as the old adage says, “you can’t give what you ain’t got.” We need to build up our organizational habits so that they build up our staff, so that they have the personal and collective support they need to serve the important educational and social goals facing our students, families, and communities. Sometimes you have to slow down to go fast. Look at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it; recover or re-establish intentionality. Your teachers will thank you, and your students will be the direct beneficiaries. “Feed the teachers, so they don’t eat the students.”