On “Difficult” Conversations

In my email inbox this morning was a newsletter from ILA (International Literacy Association) Conference. The first article in the newsletter has a headline,

Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

It links to an article about a panel at the 2017 conference titled “Disrupting a Destructive Cycle: How Literacy Drives Social Change.” I highly recommend reading the article.

What stuck with me for a bit was the language of “difficult conversations. I’m writing here to help me think through why this stood out to me….

  • I have heard and used this language of “difficult classrooms” in the past and have been thinking about the ways it can be used to position teachers and students.
  • Who is the conversation difficult for? Clearly this is about teachers because of the audience of the newsletter and the positioning of the conversation in a classroom.
    • I think this is more specifically for teachers who have never discussed race, ethnicity, inequality, etc in any aspect of their lives. In other words, middle class white teachers. This makes sense given that more than 80% of the teaching population in the US is white.
  • Part of what troubles me about this language is that I have heard the language of “difficult conversations” used as an excuse to NOT have discussions around race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, SES, etc in the classrooms. Some examples sound like this:
    • These conversations are too difficult for my students.
    • These conversations will make my students uncomfortable and I want to create a safe space for my students.
    • I teach elementary age students, they don’t see race so it isn’t appropriate to have these discussions.

This is what bothers me about this language, why it stood out to me when I first read it. If these discussions are difficult for you as an adult or teacher and you use your students as an excuse not to have them, that is irresponsible pedagogy.

If the discussion is difficult for you, as an adult or teacher, then it is your responsibility to do some work to help you learn how to work with and past your own discomfort and have these necessary conversationsA great place to start is by reading this article and watching the archived video of the ILA Panel.

 

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Teaching: delivery is not most important…

I spent a good portion of my day today working with a teaching intern. We observed each other, we analyzed some assessments, we designed instruction, we reflected, we learned. One of the things I love about helping people learn to teach is that it is very much a coaching relationship. I can provide feedback and insight, but ultimately the intern is the one who has to practice and do the teaching. I also learn things every time I work with teachers, regardless of the stage of their career.

Today as we worked, I had a realization. Teaching, like many act that are performative, can appear as if the delivery is the most important component. But it is not. It is in the planning, thought, practice, and rehearsal. For a musician, it is the hours in a practice room, private lessons, etudes, scales, and master classes. It is learning about a specific piece of music – the composer, time period, other performances, tempos, and accompaniments. And more practice. And the practice isn’t just about learning notes and rhythms. It’s also about knowing the music so well that the performer can interpret it. It’s about being able to improvise a cadenza and take license with the adagio to make it just a bit more sultry.

The most important component is preparation. It is what allows the musician to tailor the performance. Preparation is often lonely. There is rarely applause or acknowledgement. But it leads to a  performance unique to each musician, audience, and environment. Preparation is what allows a teacher to do the same, to tailer lessons and instruction unique to the specific context. It allows the teacher to make adjustments based on the students’ needs on a particular day. Are they grasping the material more quickly than expected? Do they need extra support? When a students makes a fascinating connection, does the teacher go off plan or stick with it?

The teacher needs to know their students, the content objectives, materials, assessments, and if it is a full moon. This is the intellectual work of teaching. The reason that not just anyone can teach. The reason that delivering a lesson is not the same as teaching a lesson.

Swimming out to the raft

I had a coaching meeting today with a teaching intern. Learning to teach is incredibly complex and often a very bumpy journey. 

As we were talking, I came up with an analogy to help her manage the incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance she is experiencing right now. Remember the raft from my first blog post, we’re going to revisit it again. 

This time I described my eldest daughter – when she was much younger, she hated the feeling of not being able to touch the ground when she was in the water. She was fine, as long as she knew she could reach her toes down and feel the bottom. Otherwise – no thank you. She desperately wanted to go out to the raft. But to do so meant that she would have to be in water too deep to touch the bottom. But oh, to jump off that raft and make a glorious splash. 

She had a life jacket, she had someone with her, but she was just not ok with her legs floating with no bottom to touch. It made me a little crazy at first, then I realized that I just had to let her do it when she felt ready. I would be there to support her, I would make sure she had a life jacket, but she had to decide to pick up her feet and move forward. 

Doing things that create cognitive dissonance in our lives require the choice of picking our feet up off of the ground. Sometimes it takes a little while. The tricky thing about learning to teach is that it isn’t possible to know everything you need to know ahead of time, it just isn’t. So you put on a life jacket (mentor teachers, field instructor, faculty, other teachers) you take a deep breath, and you pick your feet up off the ground. And it is so so so worth it because when you get out to the raft, there is a classroom of students. And it is exhilarating. It is HARD work, but you will never be sorry you picked up your feet. 

Swimming out to the raft

I had a coaching meeting today with a teaching intern. Learning to teach is incredibly complex and often a very bumpy journey. 

As we were talking, I came up with an analogy to help her manage the incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance she is experiencing right now. Remember the raft from my first blog post, we’re going to revisit it again. 

This time I described my eldest daughter – when she was much younger, she hated the feeling of not being able to touch the ground when she was in the water. She was fine, as long as she knew she could reach her toes down and feel the bottom. Otherwise – no thank you. She desperately wanted to go out to the raft. But to do so meant that she would have to be in water too deep to touch the bottom. But oh, to jump off that raft and make a glorious splash. 

She had a life jacket, she had someone with her, but she was just not ok with her legs floating with no bottom to touch. It made me a little crazy at first, then I realized that I just had to let her do it when she felt ready. I would be there to support her, I would make sure she had a life jacket, but she had to decide to pick up her feet and move forward. 

Doing things that create cognitive dissonance in our lives require the choice of picking our feet up off of the ground. Sometimes it takes a little while. The tricky thing about learning to teach is that it isn’t possible to know everything you need to know ahead of time, it just isn’t. So you put on a life jacket (mentor teachers, field instructor, faculty, other teachers) you take a deep breath, and you pick your feet up off the ground. And it is so so so worth it because when you get out to the raft, there is a classroom of students. And it is exhilarating. It is HARD work, but you will never be sorry you picked up your feet. 

Learning to teach…

Learning to teach is hard.

It is complex and layered and about the teacher but also not about the teacher.

It is about being vulnerable in a world that discourages vulnerability.

It is about being vulnerable in a career where people who know nothing about your career are trying to quantify the unquantifiable.

Watching people learn to teach is incredible. Watching them choose to engage in the deepest part of themselves while engaging with everything that every student brings with them.

I have had some challenging moments this week. But I would not choose anything else.