Hopefully we are all growing and learning during this time of social awakening in America. Hopefully we are beginning to understand that all lives can’t matter until black and brown lives matter. And hopefully we are learning some skills that help us each to move with humility from where we have been to where we still need to go.
Listening is one of those skills. I think our schools, and in particular our school leaders, must take a very deep dive into the role that listening plays in how our schools meet our missions.
Many school leaders say they are effective listeners, and for some, that is probably true. But so also is the weekly or bi-weekly meeting in a conference room, when the largely white, largely male admin team gathers to first hear from the principal or head of school, and then, following, to hear from all of the others in the room. What is wrong with this picture?
- The people in the room, and those that speak first, are not representative of the community, and they are not representative of the lofty diversity goals that most school say they support.
- We know that once someone in a group states an opinion, the chance that others will offer a contrary view falls precipitously; and this is even more the case when the first voice is one of titular authority.
- “Once around the table” meetings are almost exclusively operational and rarely, if ever, unwrap deeper undercurrents that we have clearly avoided for too long.
What might we do otherwise? I suggest we start by getting out of the conference room. Create opportunities for small, diverse, mixed groups of community stakeholders to share personal reflections about racism, justice, and American history. Weave in the experiences of the pandemic shutdown with the health, social fabric, economy, and emotional experiences of individuals, families, and diverse communities. Use anonymous 360-degree activities that encourage honest inputs. Embrace and value the life experiences and contributions of the maintenance staff and food preparers as vigorously and authentically as you do the head of the English Department.
Ask stakeholders to push the edges of comfort, to suggest ways that the school, and YOU, can better create a more welcoming, inclusive, reflective, school and community that begins to deal with the really hard realities of systemic discrimination that permeates all of our lives.
And just listen. Let someone else lead and provoke the discussion. Don’t debate or defend. Listen deeply. Let it wash over you. Start and end with the knowledge that you and I, despite what we probably think were good efforts in the past, have not done enough. We can do better.
Don’t try to finish these conversations in an hour; let them wander and build over an entire year or more. Let them percolate into, and nurture, the soil of your school community.
Let’s commit to making school year 2020-21, with all of the probable pandemic disruptions we will sustain, the year of listening, particularly to those whose voices are vastly underrepresented, if not absent, from our leadership teams. Even as I write those words I want to follow them with, “and then take action”. But one thing I am learning is that even my best attempts at action are somewhere between misguided and ineffective if I have not listened well to ALL the people I purport to serve and support.