As a school leader, I have always valued working with teachers and others who openly disagree with me and are willing to come talk it out with me. I seek out possible dissenters to get their feedback on how something is going, or how they experienced a meeting. One time I was so successful, that a teacher spend 45 minutes in my office, and while continuing to disagree with a decision I had made, hugged me good bye.
Making room for conflict when leading for change is not a particularly revolutionary idea, but I have been reading more about it lately. In a recent post, George Couros makes a case for the value of hearing the Naysayer and the Antagonist – making room for public dissent so that it doesn’t fester in the parking lot and behind closed doors. In a 2011 article, Doug Reeves makes a similar case about dealing with Skeptics and Cynics, arguing that school leaders must make room for the former, while making the rather more controversial assertion that cynics should be “banned” from meetings as they are not open to learning and new ideas. I was at a workshop recently and the presenters from The Table Group also described the necessity of allowing disagreement in order to create a culture that can eventually move forward. How could a leader disagree?
The problem, however, is in the execution. Often, the dissent is masked by a culture of politeness. I am new to my current school, and while teachers may agree with me about a decision, a comment I made, or how I planned a professional development meeting, often they are too polite to come into my office to express their concerns. This means that they will politely agree with something, smile and nod, and then just go about doing things the way they have always done them. With the most toxic form of this dysfunction, the conversations occur in the parking lot, or in classrooms with closed doors. I am confident that I will be able to build trust and will soon have teachers coming to me, but in the meantime I must intentionally seek the dissenting voices and ask them their opinions.
The problem of politeness is most acute when striving for peer accountability in schools. I have seen this play out in department team after department team where the team makes agreements about curricular changes, only to break them the moment they are alone in their classrooms. Rather than disagreeing in the moment and having the difficult discussion in the open, passive resistance takes the day. Then the perception can be that teachers who disagree are “in trouble” for disagreeing, rather than held accountable to what they say they were going to do in the first place. The problem of politeness is compounded somewhat by the US West Coast culture in which I work – people are sensitive of constructive criticism and tend to shy away from disagreement.
In addition to embracing and listening to dissent, leaders need to make room for respectful disagreement everywhere in schools, cultivating a culture where many ideas contribute contribute to the best school possible for all students. Any ideas?