The elephant in the room

A common metaphor heard in schools is “the elephant in the room”– the issue everyone knows its there, but no one has the guts to name. Sometimes that elephant is important feedback for the whole school, for school leadership, or for individual teachers. Unfortunately, schools are ideal places for people to keep their thoughts and feelings under wraps. The basic design of schools is structured for autonomy and isolation, so teachers and administrators do not get a lot of practice. Or sometimes people worry (rightfully) about being punished for telling the truth about something.

Also, negative feedback is often hard to give. It means telling someone (to their face), “I do not like how you are doing that, and here’s why.”  We worry what they’ll think of us for saying it, think about our own shortcomings and bite our tongues, and note that few people seem to listen to advice anyway. The western cultural emphasis on the individual means we think of people’s behavior as coming from an innate and fixed part of their personality, identity, or experiences.  People who come from different backgrounds, people with different belief systems, and especially different generations will disagree about how to handle everything from discipline to curriculum design.

Unfortunately, failure to name the elephant, provide authentic feedback or debate differences keeps organizations locked in what scholar Chris Argyris called “organizational defensive routines.”   These patterns of behavior keep schools stuck–they prevent innovation by stifling learning and creativity. Learning means being honest about thoughts and feelings, but in a way that is generative rather than harmful.   As schools and districts move to implement teacher evaluation systems, organizational health and happiness (and therefore learning) will depend on getting this right.

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