Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Same Question, Different Reaction

I was recently asked, "What would the people you work with say about you in your role as principal?"

The first thing that popped into my head, "They would say that I like to ask questions!"  Indeed, I do like to ask questions.  I like to hear about the rationale behind ideas.  I like to hear about the barriers that may be in the way.  I ask question to learn more about what is going on.

The challenge with some questions is that they mean different things to different people.  The easiest example is the question, "Why?"  For some people, this little three-letter word automatically flips the defensiveness switch.  If you are asking why, you must not trust me and my decisions and you think my words are not OK.

Within a solid relationship, this one usually does not cause a defensive reaction.  But it can.  For example, two strong, thoughtful, and energetic teachers I worked with for several years approached me with a question about team teaching.  They were very excited!  These two had been on the campus leadership team and had led several successful initiatives.  They were seen as true campus leaders and I felt like they knew I respected their work and their thoughts immensely.  They were very comfortable engaging in professional discourse and they had enjoyably indulged my why a thousand times!

They asked if their whole team could try a new arrangement for teaching and learning.  Just the thought of taking a risk and trying something different was awesome!  I loved the fact that they wanted to explore ways to improve what was happening for their students!  I listened to them explain the logistics for few minutes, then asked them about their rationale, "Why will this arrangement be better for your students?"

I had asked these two teachers the "Why" question many times in the past and they typically loved answering it because they confidently knew their business!  They didn't mind answering why!  These teachers, the ones that I felt like I had a great relationship with, had previously shown no problem with my why.

This time however, their faces changed a little, and they approached their response with a bit of hesitancy. As usual, they had some really good answers to the question, but they did not have their typical level of confidence, so their reaction to the question wasn't the same as usual.  No bright smiles this time. Rather than excitedly telling me about their plans, they hemmed and hawed a little bit.  They didn't like my why.  I am sure the fact that I had had not immediately approved caused a great deal of the difference in their reaction.

Knowing these two, they would have made it successful regardless of my question.  They usually did!  However this time, I left them with two outstanding questions to think about.


  1. How will you ensure that you build relationships with every single child just as well as you usually do in a self-contained classroom?
  2. How will you ensure that your lesson planning remains fully collaborative like it is now?


It didn't take too long for this group to approach me again with the same request, "Can we team teach?"

This time, I didn't even need to ask, "Why?"  I could tell that they had really thought out the the answers to that question.  When they presented their rationale, their reactions were quite the opposite of the first request.  They were excited and confident.  They had already thought through the why.  They had really done the thinking and talking to make sure that their plan would have the very best chance to work well!  Bright smiles and brilliant ideas abound!

My why didn't bother them this time!

In hindsight, knowing the talent and passion for doing great things of these two teachers and the entire team, I should have responded to their question with an immediate and emphatic, "Yes!"  Then I should have engaged in some other good questions to hear more about it.  Also looking back, I can say that they made their team better by working hard to build relationships and by using their collaborative strengths to plan for incredible instruction!