Problems of Practice

It’s not an easy job. No one said it would be. For those of us in public school administration, however, the job is one worth doing and worth doing well.

This is my twenty-fifth year in education, about half of those as an assistant principal and then principal, and while the overwhelming majority of the work is positive, connecting with kids, getting to know families, and supporting caring teachers, there is a stressful side too (I suppose there is in any meaningful work) and I couldn’t have stayed at it -through the tears, raised voices, tension, and stress- if I hadn’t worked with supportive people and honestly believed that I had the possibility of making a difference.

Being a site administrator means being a good steward of the school, a supporter of the staff and students, and a person willing to have the difficult conversations to help the school function best.

Those are often conversations held solo, one at a time, door closed, emotions high. When they end, however they end, principals and assistant principals are left to take a deep breath and get about the business of whatever comes next.

Sometimes, in those most fortunate and often rare times, there’s a colleague able to escape the rush of obligations that define our worlds and listen for a bit. Principals and assistant principals who have been in the business know the value of these kindred spirits and recognize the challenges of making time to support one another.

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It’s this reality that makes me most appreciate a commitment the administrators in my district are making this year to build time for us to pause from our daily work long enough to share some “problems of practice.”

At our monthly principals meetings we take time midway through the morning to break into groups and talk. One of us poses a question, a real one, that is weighing on our mind. The issues might be school culture related, about safety, or about academics. The common denominator is that as a principal we don’t have the answer. Not yet, anyway.

There’s a structure to our discussion, based on the consultancy protocol developed by the School Reform Initiative. It’s a thorough process that involves a group of half a dozen administrators.

One of us takes about ten minutes to introduce a dilemma we’re struggling with, asking a question to the rest of the group to help focus the conversation to come. For another five minutes the group asks clarifying questions, doing their best to understand nuances of the problem at hand. As administrators we want information before we make decisions, and this back and forth provides it.

We then shift to probing questions, hoping to prompt the original questioner to think about the issue in a new way. Next, the process shifts into a curious conversation between the group during which the original questioner is an observer, taking notes, but not participating in the discussion. Having been both a participant and an presenter this year, I can say that it’s a part of the process that is transformative. To hear peers puzzling through the issue, the same issue vexing one of us in real time, is powerful and can lead to real insights. The process ends with a reporting out, the presenter reflecting aloud insights and appreciation. In the course of an hour or so real movement can take place.

But even more than technique, this time we spend leaning in and listening, being vulnerable (and truly so) with each other, and focusing our attention (attention so often fragmented by diverse demands and unexpected stresses), focusing our attention on helping each other, this time is important because it reminds us that we are not alone. We are more than bureaucracy and we are facing problems that may just have a solution, even if we haven’t been able to see it on our own.

Getting to those solutions alone can seem impossible. I suppose sometimes it might be. But in the company of colleagues, the stress of our meaningful work feels more likely to form a diamond than remain a lump of coal.

It’s not an easy job, but with the perspective, encouragement, and support of others, it’s a job we may yet do well.

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