One theme that kept coming up again and again during my weekend at the Denver TeachToLead Summit earlier this month: Us versus Them.
The “us” was universally the same: teachers and teacher leaders.
The “them” varied depending on the project. In some cases they were unwilling principals, myopic departments of ed, or whoever “they” are that design and mandate clunky policy.
In our movie-plotline fantasies about leadership, we might envision the lone, passionate advocate standing up to “them,” converting “them,” and having waved the wand of leadership to magically change their minds, rather easily change the world.
The reality of Us versus Them is more complicated. And I believe that the first step in successful teacher leadership is the honest admission that this dichotomy does not actually exist.
Like everything else in our current society, we like to neatly compartmentalize everything into the friends and the enemies, the right and the left, etc. In a public school system, however, every individual should be considered a potential ally…in fact, a necessary partner…in whatever change we idealistic, passionate teacher leaders may want to initiate.
For many years of my career, I taught Sophomore English at my school. The major project of this year is a Persuasive Research Paper and Presentation. Get a bunch of fifteen-year-olds together, ask them to select a “controversial topic” and persuade an audience to agree with your research-based position, and you quickly see camps of Us and Them magically materialize.
It didn’t take long for me to realize what this project was doing to these kids. Basically, it was teaching kids to stand on one side of an ideological chasm and shout to the other side about why that distant position was wrong, stupid, dangerous… typically with all the nuance of a sledgehammer cracking a pistachio. I was cultivating a bunch of Fox news commentators and internet trolls.
Shouting at someone that their position is wrong typically does not persuade them very effectively toward new thinking. (Perhaps this is why I so strongly doubt the effectiveness bullhorn-led steps-of-the-capitol sign-wielding protests.)
Instead, I eventually sought to teach these students that the real work of persuasion isn’t proving your position right or proving their position wrong. Rather, the real work is in genuinely understanding why they believe their position to be right. The real work is in setting aside your own position to fully empathize with the “opposing” perspective, looking not for the flaws in their logic but for the soundest foundations of their reasoning. When people adopt a worldview or ideology, it always comes from somewhere. When that worldview or ideology then influences policy decisions, adopting an Us versus Them attitude to draw enemy lines and attack the decision (or the decider) is not effective at bringing about change.
Several times in Denver, I visited with teachers wrestling with a building principal or district administrator who would not buy in or would always say no. Such casting makes the development of Us and Them camps seem natural. The key to effective leadership, though, begins with realize that we are all in the Us camp.
Using positive presupposition, every decider within a school system has the same core interest in mind: what is best for students. The challenge comes in the reality that each person in the system is privy to different knowledge and operates using different personal compasses…even if the important work at the center remains the same.
To effectively lead, we have to be willing to trek down and across to the other side of the ideological chasm. We have to be able to stand on that far rim and see the issue from the perspective of the perceived other. Every time we as leaders do this, it not only informs us more about our own dilemmas, but it helps us realize what it is they know, what they care about, and what they are concerned about.
When we know these things, we can adjust our message: instead of shouting across the chasm whatever it is we want to say, we learn instead what they need to hear.