photo courtesy of The More Good Foundation on Flickr

One of my favorite things to do while sifting through my Twitter timeline is to lurk in on other people’s conversations. That’s the nice thing about the tool itself. It’s like sitting in a big room and listening in on other people’s conversations. I often learn a lot.

This week I listened in on a conversation between Josh Stumpenhorst and Michael Josefowicz. Josh wrote a wonderful post about mediocrity in education, which Michael retweeted and then responded to with a link to a really powerful article,  Getting to No, which tied in perfectly with Josh’s post.

 

In his post, Josh criticizes various people in education, from teachers to parents to kids themselves for accepting mediocrity.

Teaching is what I do, and I strive for excellence in that every single day. I would be lying if I said there were not days when some of these factors get to me. Yet, I will keep teaching. I will keep pushing my fellow teachers even if they get upset with me. I will keep celebrating my fellow teachers even if it makes others jealous. I will keep challenging my administration even if it gets me into trouble. I will keep trying to get a seat at the table with the policy makers even if they repeatedly ignore me. I will keep looking at ways to make sure every student I have is given nothing but the best that I have to offer. Bottom line, I will keep teaching and keep striving to be better than mediocre and demand nothing short of that from those around me…

I wonder how many of us can say the same. How many of us are willing to take a risk, to speak our mind, to be honest with our colleagues when we have suggestions or see them struggling? In addition, how many of us are ready to take these suggestions, to talk openly and honestly about what we could be doing better?

This gets us to the article that Michael shared. The author calls attention to the difference between a culture of congeniality and a culture of collegiality. At first I didn’t think much of it, but as I read further, I realized that this is the key to what Josh’s post refers to (hat tip to Michael!). Teachers are often conflict-avoiders. We want people to get along, we want people to be happy. We also spend a lot of time with kids, and not a lot of time talking professionally amongst ourselves as adults. Most school staffs are very congenial. They are kind to each other, smile in the hallway, remember birthdays and even catch a happy hour now and then.

In some ways, however, a congenial environment can actually be toxic.

Teachers will often complain about a colleague, a policy or a routine to everyone without ever addressing the problem with the person who could help them alleviate the problem. As the author describes, if we are always worried about hurting someone’s feelings, if we are too kind or avoid conflict, then we are less likely to push each other to excellence, to probe each other about our beliefs and our classroom practices. If we do not keep each other balanced and challenge each other as professionals, who will? Sure, our leaders can definitely play that role, but the word collegial insinuates colleagues, which means change and dialogue cannot only be top-down.

Which brings me to my next question. What happens when a leadership team lacks collegiality? It is not only important for teachers to hold each other to expectations, to grow together, to ask tough questions and share ideas and question methods. It is important that our leadership in our schools avoids a culture of congeniality and embraces a culture of collegiality. Without that culture, then a school’s path will be layered with mediocrity.

What kind of culture does your school have? Do you agree that collegiality is healthier than congeniality?

5 Thoughts on “How Nice is Too Nice?”

  • Mary Beth- Thanks for bringing this topic up that is often swept under the rug. My staff and I made a commitment to studying and re-shaping our culture last year. I have learned that it is the leadership that must take the first step in setting the tone if culture is to develop in a way that is best for collegiality to take shape. If I as the principal do not walk the walk and come to grips with my own tendencies and how that impacts the culture of the school, then how can my staff? my students? my parents? The work of culture is never done.

    • I think they key phrase in your response, Joe, is “my staff and I made a commitment.” To me, that is the definition of collegiality. Committing to each other to meet a goal or expectation. As you state, however, “the work of culture is never done.” It is that teamwork that grows as people grow and change that makes a culture fluid, dynamic, and vital. Thanks for your insight!

  • I’ve noticed, from personal experiences, that an emphasis on combatting mediocrity will actually do the opposite. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it starts a witch hung mentality in the name of accountability. “Who will stand for this? Why aren’t we doing what’s best for kids?” quickly becomes an excuse to make teachers stay late after hours, add crazy new paperwork to prove what we are doing and avoid criticizing initiatives that aren’t truly what’s best for kids. Teachers grow paranoid. They quit trusting each other. Factions develop. It becomes a fear-based environment.

    On the other hand, when the emphasis is not in combatting anything, but in promoting meaningful learning, things begin to change. It has to involve a trust-based environment. It has to include a place for learning and vulnerability. New teachers need the chance to make mistakes. Veteran, jaded teachers, need a chance to recover their lost passion. Here’s where meaningful professional development, a respect of autonomy and quality coaching all make a difference.

    Too often teachers do not act like professionals. However, when a site makes a deliberate effort to “fight” it, the battle becomes a war and quality teachers, along with the students, become the casualties.

  • “Teachers are conflict avoiders.” Try most ADULTS are conflict avoiders. Too true, and sadly, we probably learned to do it in school. As a confrontational teacher, and a woman, I am often misunderstood and disliked. But I agree that it is necessary in today’s classroom. Great post. Checking out original articles now.

    TheUnderToad

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