What Our Conversations About Teachers Say About Us

Coaching Articles - Essays for coaches

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Most of this issue of Literacyhead deals with where we are from, literally; it explores the places and the people we knew first. For Coaching Matters, Jan takes "where we are from" to a more abstract level. Read to find out the ways we reveal our motives and our sensitivities in the conversations we have, or don't have, about teachers. These conversations demonstrate "where we are from" in terms of how we think of people.

What Our Conversations About Teachers Say About Us

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Open Mind by Gina Esky

About Talking:

What Our Conversations About Teachers Say About Us

by Jan Miller Burkins

If we are listening, it means that someone is talking to us, and this kind of listening carries with it a certain responsibility. A literacy coach can lose her credibility with teachers instantly by violating their confidences. Confidentiality isn't limited to the conversations we have with teachers, but includes what we see when we visit a classroom. The relationship between confidentiality and trust is a direct and simple one, but living up to it isn't always simple. Nevertheless, skills of discretion are essential to our work and certainly worth developing.

If we are working in teachers' classrooms, it is as if we are guests in their homes. If I am invited into someone's home for dinner, and I notice dust on the furniture, I need to reserve judgment, and I certainly shouldn't go out and talk to people about it. More important, if I am noticing dust on the furniture when someone has taken the time to cook for me, there is a bigger, systemic problem that is about me. If I can't give people the benefit of the doubt, then I'd better keep my opinions to myself.

Perhaps I think that I can talk with a particular teacher about another teacher's classroom. Maybe I need to unload a bit. Maybe I really do want some support in looking for ways to help the teacher. Perhaps my motives for talking with a teacher about another teacher are pure. It is probably still inappropriate.
Even if the person to whom I speak doesn't tell anyone else (and he probably will), even if it is a professional conversation (and it's probably not), and even if he is my best friend (and he probably shouldn't be), I am demonstrating that I am untrustworthy. Furthermore, on some level, however small, the person to whom I am speaking is thinking to himself, "If she'll talk about so-and-so, she'll talk about me," and his concerns are justified.

I have another self-imposed rule of extreme silence: I won't let teachers talk negatively about other teachers to me. In talking about conversation skills, Susan Scott says, "You get what you tolerate" (Fierce Conversations, p. 59), and I believe this to be true. Not only this, but if we establish our conversation comfort zones with just one teacher, if we have this uncomfortable conversation one time, we probably won't have to have it again. Word of our philosophy will spread to every other teacher in the building. This is good "gossip," and it helps teachers begin to trust us. If we do have to have this conversation more than once, it will be much easier because by then we will have observed the benefits of candidly articulating our philosophy.
This can be difficult. I have had to say more than once, "I'm not comfortable with this conversation." Teachers have come to me to unload about colleagues, and I respect their need for this, and often I understand. However, if their tone is hurtful or angry, I just can't offer a listening ear. If the conversation can truly stay professional, and occasionally it can, then I am able to offer professional advice about the situation. This can happen only when the teacher with whom I am talking and I are able to assume that the teacher in question has the best of intensions.
But conversations about colleagues that are more akin to gossip are something I am vigilant about suppressing in my presence. Even a conversation that begins professionally can quickly slip into something inappropriate. If a teacher regularly starts sentences with "I don't mean to be ugly, but..." or "I don't want to be unprofessional, but..." then I will interrupt, smile, and say, "Then don't." This response is a bit extreme and will probably only be necessary if there is a chronic problem. However, I have had to do this, and it has not hurt me to come out strongly in favor of speaking respectfully about colleagues.
The issue of supporting gossip is worth taking a step further. We implicitly support gossip by letting it happen in our presence, even if we are not participating. The message I want to clearly communicate to teachers is that I won't let teachers talk about other teachers in my presence. I will address it directly, leave the room, or close my door. The message to teachers is, "If she won't let me talk about so-and-so around her, then she won't let anybody else talk about me." This makes me a safe person to whom teachers can go to be honest and seek encouragement.

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Excerpted from Coaching for Balance: How to Meet the Challenges of Literacy Coaching (2007)by Jan Miller Burkins, pp. 71-73. Permission to print from the International Reading Association.

Author's Note: When I wrote Coaching For Balance, I really struggled with gender references and balancing the practical difficulties of gender neutrality with my interest in representing everyone. I finally decided to alternate between female and male gender references. As I typed this excerpt into Literacyhead, however, I was bothered by the alternating exclusivity of my gender references. As a point of interest, I've pasted below the poem that is in the preface of Coaching for Balance, also with permission from the International Reading Association.

Gender Matters

I give much more thought than I should
as to which personal pronoun is good.

When in writing one cannot use we,
one must choose between heand/or she,

or in some interesting way combine
the two sexes with one slanted line.

I could count them out evenly,
address masses or minorities.

If I use both and then alternate
my writing flow quickly stagnates.

But I think that the point, perhaps,
is not our gender sensitivity gaps

but our clumsy attempts and thought patterns
that teach us about gender matters.

So I will continue to grapple
with Adam and Eve and this apple,

(I thought to say Eve and then Adam
but it upset the poem's nice rhythm.)

but still when I write a new sentence
I will want to give deep pronoun penance

to generations of readers forgotten
when our gender sensitivity was rotten.

I'm just glad there are only two genders.
I hope, now, that I won't omit her (or him).