Difficult Conversations: Planning, Managing, and Seeking Improvement

It’s the middle of February. 14 more school weeks. The end of the school year is quickly coming into focus. Events, details, meetings, activities, responsibilities, etc. will eat away at the precious time allotted to do my job as a Principal.   How are the teachers under my supervision performing? How do I know if student learning is being optimized? I have walk thru data, observation data, and my intuition honed from years of being in schools.   Fortunately, I am confident in the professional capacity of those I work with and I know that good things are happening in classrooms. I also know that we are closing in on the end of a year and it’s time to prepare myself for some tricky conversations. Providing honest feedback to teachers indicating strengths and areas for growth is a vital part of the role. For some teachers, the areas for growth are more directed and intense then for others.   These conversations can be more challenging and are more necessary.

Very few people in education enjoy conflict but managing conflict and having difficult conversations are part of a Principal’s role. When the evidence is clear and student learning is impacted, the conversation takes on urgency. Often times, however, situations are not “black and white”. The grey area is challenging. Providing feedback, evidence, and facilitating the learning of the adults I work with is my role. But, I can’t control anyone. The capacity for others to reflect, internalize, and “change” is beyond my control.

I’ve been thinking lately about the literally hundreds of teachers I have worked with over the years in my role as a Principal. For sure I have had difficult conversations and for sure there have been conversations I have held back on, and avoided.  My grounding belief, and overall experience, is that adults want to learn and adults are capable of learning. If there is good faith and a desire to work and learn to support the best interests of students, then there is great potential. I try, possibly to a fault, to bring out the positive that all are capable of bringing to students.

Ellen Drago Severson in Leading Adult Learning: Supporting Adult Development in Our Schools writes about developmental capacity and developmental diversity as it relates to adult learning.

Adults make sense of their experiences in different ways. Therefore, adults need a variety of supports and challenges to create understanding and learning.

According to Severson, “developmental capacity concerns the cognitive, affective, interpersonal, and intrapersonal capacities that enable us to manage better the demands of leadership, teaching, learning, and life.” We regularly provide professional development around instructional capacity that grows adult professional learning. However, the capacity of adults to actually learn and grow in other areas requiring more personal introspection and reflection, is a huge challenge.   It seems as if the capacity for an adult to inquire into their affective, interpersonal and intrapersonal behaviors depends upon multiple factors.   It’s complicated. Adults who struggle with collaborative relationships or communication or hierarchical school structures may actually possess very sound pedagogical strategies but they can be a challenge for those around them. But, if they are willing and capable of developing themselves, there is reason to be optimistic.

Anyway, preparing for challenging conversations is part of the landscape for this time of the year. Often times the greatest source of angst about managing difficult conversations is the anticipation of those conversations. In preparing, I try to:

  • gather clear examples and evidence
  • lay groundwork with preliminary conversations or through feedback following observations/walk thrus
  • make a plan for the conversation that includes consideration of the opening comments and articulating the salient points in writing ahead of time and for reference during the meeting
  • rehearse the most important points, ensuring the right words, in the right context, support the right message
  • act with integrity and ensure that integrity underlies the process; when you get the process wrong, you are ineffective.

Of course, when the bottom line is student learning and ensuring a positive and productive learning environment for students, then the impetus for conversation and action is always strengthened. While I know well the challenge of difficult conversations, I also know that over the years, as I have aged (matured), I have developed personal skills and assets to successfully engage and manage such conversations.

Challenging conversations require strength and resolve. Once again, as the end of another school year comes into view, it’s time to plow forward!
















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