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. Perhaps he wanted to soften the truth for us, so he walled us behind intricate medical terminology.
We needed him to say it. 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 year, 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 admitted he was floundering. "I really struggle with sharing bad news," he said, especially when he spoke to students’ parents during discipline investigations. “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, and I realize everything I’d said leading up to that moment was wasted.
We talked a long time. I understood his frustration. We all do, I think. Later, on the plane home, I thought of three main reasons us educators avoid saying really hard things to parents about their kids.
We don’t know how to say it. Since we never know whether 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 can’t read” or “I am out of ideas to help her,” or “His behaviors are frightening others.” Even typing those words here makes my fingers quiver, 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 there was a false accusation and our investigation was faulty? What if the problem actually lies with us, or the teacher, or our school structure, or how we have connected to the child? What if our professional judgment is off kilter?
Fear of the response. A few months ago, a principal pal of mine called a parent, one he knew to be volatile and accusatory, quick to defect blame to anyone and anything else. He had to tell her about a scuffle involving her son. Dialing, he felt sick. His hands shook. 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. With that kind of treatment, no wonder he was scared to tell her the truth. No wonder we all have felt—feel?—that way.
So what do we do? There isn’t a simple answer here, unfortunately. The best we can do is acknowledge and understand the quandary we’re in. We need to be honest but kind; we have a desire to help without hurting; we speak to an audience that might, or might not, be open to hearing the whole story in the first place. We do our best. We choose our words carefully and confidently. We leave ourselves open to feedback and the inevitable emotional responses. We admit when we are wrong. We forge on, learning more each time we say something difficult. That's what my grandfather's doctor did. His best. And in the end, it was okay, and we understood, and we knewhe’d done his best.
That’s all we can do, no? And as we stumble through missteps and mistakes as principals—communication being part of the package—we get better, each time, at being simultaneously kind, honest, helpful, and concise. We get closer and closer to our goal: To speak the truth, and speak it well.