Several years ago, I was invited to work with a school in Georgia to help the administration address very serious problems relating to student motivation and engagement, teacher burnout, and what they described to me as “quickly deteriorating atmosphere of resentment and disengagement among our staff.”
I was asked to offer a series of teacher development workshops on 21st-century skills and student engagement. The principal sent me a rather comprehensive letter outlining their teacher development needs and painted a grim picture of the school, using language that I found honest and direct, but generally unsupported by any specific examples or detailed information about the school, its students, and the teaching staff. I read and reread the letter carefully and, still interested in learning more about the school and its challenges, asked to spend two days at the school before facilitating my workshops. I wanted to get a more complete sense of the place.
On Day 1, at lunchtime, after meeting a number of teachers and visiting a few classrooms, I found a comfortable armchair in the staffroom, placed my laptop on the table in front of me, and prentended to work while I focused on listening to about three or four conversations taking place around me.
Soon, one conversation really grabbed my attention. Three female teachers were talking about Natasha and a group of her friends and classmates. I learned that there was a high rate of teenage pregnancy in the neighbourhood served by the school, that many of the students dropped out to become teenage moms, that it was not uncommon for both boys and girls to be swept into the gang culture and drop out, and — perhaps most importantly — that the teachers felt powerless to effect change, to motivate the students and help them see opportunities that come along with staying in school.
On Day 2, also at lunchtime, the conversation continued, this time with a few more teachers adding their thoughts and experiences. I listened intently, and the more I learned about the students, the neighbourhood, the challenges, the school culture, the more I realized that the workshops I had prepared for my visit needed to be seriously reworked.
I had prepared the workshops based on information received from the principal, information that did not include any of the facts I had learned in two days in the staffroom and from many informal conversations with the teachers. I could not deliver these workshops knowing that they had only a very faint connection to the daily lives and challenges faced by the school’s teachers. At the end of lunch on Day 2 I knew that I needed a completely different strategy — one built upon the realities I had learned about and witnessed, and on the power of dialogue.
My “True Voice”
As I was listening to many negative and discouraging comments about a certain group of grade 12 girls, three of whom had gotten pregnant, were spending too much time with the wrong crowd, or started dressing inappropriately for school, one name continued to pop up — Natasha’s. Of course, I had no idea who Natasha was, but the conversation I was listening to, in the school’s staffroom and as a complete outsider, was gradually painting a picture of someone who was a fairly good student, resposible daughter and sister (often taking care of two younger siblings), good athlete (“girls’ basketball wouldn’t exist here if it wasn’t for her”), and who was also “absolutely gorgeous and likely to end up pregnant, too, like all her friends.” This last statement was acknowledged by a few teachers, some of whom added their own comments, while others nodded, dejected.
The conversation then continued for a few minutes, but that statement about Natasha being destined to end up pregnant “soon” really got to me. Finally, in response to yet another comment about Natasha, I couldn’t resist jumping in and blurted out, “Maybe, instead of accepting the seeming inevitability of her pregnancy or some other mistake she’s likely to make soon, someone here should tell Natasha how proud you all are that she’s not pregnant, that she’s not in a gang, that she’s not going out with some low-life, and that she’s keeping up good grades and being a great daughter and athlete.”
Silence. Oh, I’m sure you can imagine the silence.
Surprisingly enough, I did not make enemies that day. I started a fantastic conversation that provided a valuable and practical building block for the workshops I facilitated the next day. Looking back, I know that this perhaps reckless act, in a still unknown context and in front of teachers I hardly knew, was the sharing of my own genuine voice. What those teachers heard was not some “expert” invited to facilitate workshops at the school, not an official guest invited by school administration, but a human being and a teacher who cares about teaching and learning.
The teachers responded to that voice. The ensuing conversation before the end of the lunch period and after school became the foundation of my workshop the next day. It all worked out precisely because I engaged in the act of speaking my “true voice”, one of the four key practices of what William Isaacs calls Dialogic Leadership.
Isaacs, a lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, believes that
In the new knowledge-based, networked economy, the ability to talk and think together well is a vital source of competitive advantage and organizational effectiveness. This is because human beings create, refine, and share knowledge through conversation. In a world where technology has led to the erosion of traditional hierarchical boundaries … the glue that holds things together is no longer “telling” but “conversing” (Isaacs, 1999).
Of course, the school where I was invited to facilitate workshops subscribed to the traditional model of “telling.” All of the school’s professional development events involved an “expert” who told the teachers what to do in their classrooms. Needless to say, the teachers resented that approach and, faced with a number of serious challenges that the invited “experts” merely glossed over, felt unsupported and disempowered. The professional development strategy implemented to help effect change and improve morale had the opposite result.
It’s important to point out that this approach to teacher development is alive and well around the world. In fact, teacher professional development has traditionally been something done to teachers, not something that we engage in with our colleagues and use to build knowledge. To this day, teacher development often reduces teachers to handout technicians and implementers of other people’s ideas and strategies, many of which are conceived far from the classroom and with no understanding of the specific context where the teachers work every day.
William Isaacs’ organizational leadership work suggests a much different approach: The school’s teachers can play an integral role in helping, supporting, engaging, and motivating Natasha and her friends — they can develop the strategies and solutions the school needs; the only way they can be successful is through what Isaacs calls “conversing”; and the process that can help them achieve their goals and address challenges they face is what he calls Dialogic Leadership.
And so, the next day, having completely abandoned the workshops I had been asked to deliver, I restructured my approach to build on Isaacs’ concept of dialogue, which he defines as a tool that “surfaces ideas, perceptions, and understanding that people don’t already have.” It’s the basis of Dialogic Leadership, “a way of leading that consistently uncovers, through conversation, the hidden creative potential in any situation” (Isaacs, 1999).
It worked. We spent a full day together talking about being a teacher in that specific context, about the students and their problems, about the curriculum, about testing, and a myriad of other challenges and — also — opportunities. Solutions and suggestions emerged from dialogue. There were no “experts” in that room; no one had all the answers, but everyone had questions, and it was through these questions that a way forward emerged. We built valuable professional knowledge together. Even my statement, blurted out a day earlier in the staff room, was subjected to serious scrutiny. Many other “true voice” statements were made, and they led to a sense of openness, unity, and possibility. They were treated with respect and as building blocks to help move towards meaning and practical solutions.
We spent many wonderfully productive and inspiring hours together. The dialogue helped us explore “the uncertainties and questions that no one ha[d] answers to.” We began to “think together — not simply report out old thoughts. In dialogue people learn to use the energy of their differences to enhance their collective wisdom” (Isaacs, 1999).
Unfortunately, it’s this sense of collective wisdom that’s often missing from teacher development initiatives. We need more of it, much more. We need to ensure that, as teachers, we always have the time to engage in dialogue and learn with and from each other. The way we learn as professionals must be based on questioning our practice, learning from it, and engaging in dialogue with colleagues. Administrators, education leaders, and classroom teachers must learn to listen and create environments that make dialogue possible, that encourage it and build on it.
The work of William Isaacs gave me a solid foundation to implement professional development that builds on multiple voices and helps access collective wisdom. I believe it deserves wider adoption.
Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogic leadership. The Systems Thinker, 10(1), 1-5.