Monday, March 5, 2012

Difficult Teachers? Why ask Why?


From the time we are three years old we want to know the answer?  Why do I have to go to bed?  Why do I have to eat my veggies?  

As we age the why question remains …

Why do I have to be in at 10?
Why doesn’t she love me?

Why can help us figure things out … it can help us make sense of our world.  But sometimes the why is an unnecessary impediment to our productivity and our ability to move forward. Let me give you an example.
Since September (yes, the start of the school year) I have been working with a principal to correct the behavior of a teacher.  The teacher was on a corrective action plan the main component of which was “teacher will work in a collegial manner with co-workers.”  In other words the teacher had a bad attitude that would manifest in her lashing out at those around her.  The plan included a provision for the principal and teacher to meet once a week and discuss the teacher’s interactions with others.  The principal would then coach her to do better.  The problem was that it wasn’t working (well duh!) for either the teacher or the principal.  

The meetings would go like this …

Principal, “It was reported to me (no direct observation) that you said such and such to so and so at Wednesday’s grade-level meeting.  Why did you do say that?”

Teacher (immediately on the defensive), “I didn’t say that … what I meant was … you weren’t there.”

Principal, “Well the assistant principal was and she said that you said that … why did you say that?”

Back and forth they’d go … on and on.  It was painful to watch.  And it must have been even more painful to be caught up in.

Now I wasn’t around when the plan was developed.  Had I been I would have told the principal that the plan sucked needed tweeking and it was destined for failure unlikely to produce positive results.  There was no way the teacher would ever improve and no way for the frustration to ever end.  

I was finally (after months of trying) able to convince the principal to scrap the plan and either start over with a better plan or address behaviors through other avenues.  The hook that finally convinced her was “what would you do if your learning plan for a second grade reading class was not producing results – you’d throw it out, right?”

“Well yeah.”

“Then we need to do the same thing here.  This plan is not producing results, it cannot produce results in its present form – it needs to go.”

Then came the aha moment.  The principal cried out, “But I just want to know why she acts this way!!!!” 

“What does it matter?”  She looked at me like I had 3 heads.

"Our goal here is to change her behavior … the why doesn’t matter.  In fact the why may get in the way of changing the behavior.”

My advice ...
Focus on the observable. Describe what you see. Explain the ramifications. Define consequences.

Here’s what it looks like in action.

Principal, “When you say in an angry tone, ‘Your idea is stupid.’ It disrupts the creative flow of the meeting and brings your colleagues down.  I expect you to use a pleasant tone of voice and for your contributions to add value to the discussion.  If you continue to speak in a distuptive manner I will have to document the behavior in writing.”

No arguing, no fruitless discussion, and everyone is clear on what went wrong.  Be as objective as possible.

Here another one.

Assistant Principal, “I heard you make three disparaging remarks about the principal in the hall today.  When you speak publicly about the principal your comments have a negative effect on morale, are disrespectful, and make it more difficult for the administrative team to effectively manage the building.  In the future you are to refrain from making these types of comments or I will have no choice but to mark you down on your evaluation.”

With the “why” gone you can focus on and correct the behavior. 

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