Saturday, March 30, 2019

Speak the Truth, and Speak it 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.  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. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Particles: Actually a Thing. Really. For Sure.

What makes meaning in our words, our conversations, our writing and communication?  What serves as a "body language" or words, helping us really connect to others beyond the dry sequence of formal words?

Particles do.

Mary Norris wrote of particles when explaining her dive into the Greek language in her New Yorker piece, "To The Letter."

Who knew there was a word for the tools that help us enhance meaning, "...the small, indefinable, not strictly necessary words that linguists dryly call 'function words' and which are known in Greek grammar as particles... Particles help make a language a language.  They give it currency and connect you to the person you're speaking with.  English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech." Norris gives examples:

Like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough... know what I mean?  Just sayin'.

"Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language," Norris says.  She's right.  I've heard that done.  But Norris explained their value, and summarized precisely why I actually really enjoy particles:  They "act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions."

I like a good conversational nudge.  A secret little word poke.  When words become a facial expression.  It's fun.

When I was a teenager, my father pointed out, gently, as he was wont to do, how often I was saying "like" in my conversations.  "Listen to yourself," he said. I did.  He was right; I was using "like," like, all the time.

Saying "like" wasn't wrong, in and of itself.  Using it as the only particle in my arsenal was my mistake.

Sorry, linguists:  I don't believe particles destroy the beauty of our language.  I don't think it is lazy to use, them, and I don't think it makes me inarticulate when I do.  Like most words or phrases, they can be fancied up and used perfectly—at the perfect place, time, pause, or thrust of conversation— to enhance meaning and drive a point home.  A good particle makes the listener or reader grin in recognition.

Which is why I'm never annoyed when I hear students using particles and experimenting with their meaning and effectiveness.  After all, all they're doing is connecting with others through words.  Who can dispute the benefits of a kid learning to communicate?

It's super-cool.  Truly.

*By the way, if you're into such things, track down this piece in The New Yorker.  The the effort—the will!— Norris puts into understanding ancient Greek language is unidentifiable to me, but is, among other things, indisputably impressive.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Finding Beauty in FebruMarch

A mentor once told me, "Every five or ten years, you'll have one that feels you might not survive."  That's this year for me.

So I'm writing a pep-talk blog post.  The pep talk may be for you, or it may be for me, or maybe both.  In the end, it doesn't matter—just so it serves a purpose for one of us.

This year's relentless array of challenges have grown almost comical.  Every single time I think there will be a quiet day, I'm blasted with an out-of-left-field problem I didn't see coming.  It's been a hard year.  Students struggling, staff struggling, an endless stream of parents finding fault, causing fault, raising all kinds of hell.

I've also felt cold for five straight months, and there aren't enough sweatshirts to take it away. My skin feels like a crinkled, worn parchment.  My house is crumb-y and my clothes all look the same.  Rut, rut, rut.

There should be some sort of law that if you live in Ohio, you go somewhere warm as winter wanes.  For a day or two, even.  That's all.

My sister lives in Mexico City.  Almost on a whim, my husband and I packed up our kids, tank tops, and sun hats, and flew there to see her and her family.  We spent three full days drinking in the stories of this rich, layered city.  I stepped back from myself and pictured an energy tank that was filling, filling, filling up. We were buoyed, giddy:  The colors!  The sun!  The tortillas!  The welcoming smiles of the people!  The blue of the sky!  For breakfast the first day, my niece squished up a fresh avocado and spread it on thick wheat toast with a drizzle of spicy sauce on top.  I ate it every day we were there, and have eaten it every day since.

Seasonal depression is a real thing, methinks.  I'm a relentlessly positive person, but there were many days this winter I wondered, "What is wrong with me?"  Blech and ick and meh and blah.

A few weeks ago, I presented to a group of principals about ways to avoid burnout.  The topic itself was an irony not lost on me, since there I was, presenting as some sort of expert, and I felt—had been feeling— like a wet, bedraggled rat trying to scurry and scrape my way out of dirty depths of seasonal doldrums.  I felt like a fraud:  Who had thought I could talk on avoiding burnout?

I started by being really honest about the internal fights of frustration in my own mind, reminding them multiple times, "I don't have answers.  I can only offer validation."  I felt the audience really sitting up.  Putting down their phones and closing their laptops.  Agreeing and relating.  When I finished, one raised his hand. "Why don't principals feel like they can talk about their dark times?"

We kept talking and talking, long after the session was scheduled to end, as we tried to answer his question.

"We have to be the strong ones."

"We're not paid to have bad days."

"There is no time to wallow."

"Everything just moves too quickly."

"We need to be unbreakable."

All these things are valid.  And it wouldn't be right or fair or productive to try to find a way out or around them.  We are paid to be the strong, positive, confident ones.  That's why we are leaders.

It's just what we need to do.

And, as they say, if we look around and see no one following, we're not leading.  If we're grumpy, we're making everyone else grumpy.  And that's not okay.

So let's pull our bootstraps—yank them, if needed—and bust through this month.  Stay strong, my Midwest friends.  The sun is coming out soon.  It's a promise, promise, promise!

**This, by the way, is a photograph of a tree we saw when walking to the Teotihuacan Pyramids.  I look at the colors and gasp a little.  This tree alone may be enough to get through

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