Sunday, May 6, 2018

Seeking to Speak Well

When my grandfather was very ill, the doctor came in the hospital room to explain to my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt how he was responding to their medical interventions.  I was there, too, hesitant and wordless in the corner, hoping to help in some way—if only as another heart in a room full of broken ones.

We had no idea what the doctor was saying.  He talked and talked and talked, but his words were like a jumbled box of Legos—we knew they could be put together, if we really tried, and they’d amount to something legitimate.  But we didn’t try:  It was easier to let them land, scattered, and then be still.

In the end, of course, the doctor was trying to tell us that my grandfather was old and sick and dying.  On some level we understood this, even without the Lego words, but he didn’t say it.  He seemed unwilling—or, more likely, unable—to use words we could understand.  He wanted to soften the truth for us, perhaps, so he walled us behind intricate medical terminology.

We needed him to say it, though; it would have helped, because it could have taken our hope to a different place, where it could bring peace, and relief, and a long-awaited celebration of a man and his well-lived life.

Sometimes I fear we do the same in education.  The stakes aren’t as high as those of a physician standing over the grief of a dying patient’s family—not by any stretch—but we educators, too, often falter when we try speaking the truth.

Last month, at a leadership conference in Boston, one of my session’s attendees stayed afterwards to talk.  He wanted my insight after an off-the-cuff remark I’d made about the unintentional consequences of complicated conversations.  He was only in his eighth month of being a principal, and he was floundering, he thought—mostly because he struggled with sharing bad news.  The worst was when he spoke to students’ parents during discipline investigations.  We talked a long time.  He told me he got physically nauseous when preparing to call parents. “I find myself apologizing, talking quickly, contradicting myself,” he said.  “Sometimes I’ll be midway through my speech and realize the parent is confused—they have no idea what I’m trying to say.”  His instinct was to forge on, but:  “When I get to the part about consequences, and I refer to the Student Code of Conduct, it gets really serious, really fast—they are angry and shocked, as if everything I’ve just said was wasted.”

I understood his frustration.  We all do, I think.  

Later, on the plane home, I thought of three reasons educators struggle with saying really hard things to parents about their kids.

Fear of the how.  Since we never know if a parent will support us or fight us, we often don’t know how to approach our message.  Because we are well trained, we know what we should say:  We use words like “support” and “struggling” and “poor choice.”  But oftentimes those words don’t capture the difficulty or gravity of the scenario we are trying to address.

Fear that we’re wrong.  Just like the doctor who didn’t say, “Your grandfather is dying,” we often avoid telling parents tough things about their kids.  We don’t want to say, “Your child was cruel to another person today” or “His behaviors are disturbing to others” or "We don't know how to help her."  Even typing those words here makes my fingers frightened, because I’ve been so trained not to say things that may cause hurt or wrath.  We all have.  And… what if we are wrong?  What if the problem actually lies with us, and how we have connected to the child?  What if our professional judgment is off kilter? 

Fear of the response.  The colleague I spoke with explained a situation in which he had called a parent, known to be volatile and accusatory, known to defect blame to anyone and anything else, to tell her about a scuffle involving her son.  The moment he said the word “scuffle,” she interrupted him with an unstoppable rant.  In the end, he was called names (“racist,” “incompetent,” and “bully” being the most hurtful of the lot), he was threatened, and he was left holding a dead phone line.  No wonder he was scared to tell her the truth.   

So what do we do?

What should my grandfather’s doctor have done?

Nothing differently.  Not then.  He did his best.  And in the end, it was okay, because we knew he’d done his best.  That’s all we can do, no?  And as we grow our administrative skills—communication being part of the package—we get better at being simultaneously kind, honest, helpful, and concise.  After all, that is our goal, is it not?   Speak the truth, and speak it well.

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