Who are we protecting – and silencing – when we suggest that a community can thrive without judgment?
Last week I attended a mini conference for districts that were partnering “less successful” and “more successful” schools with the intent of forming mentoring relationships. As a former principal, and later center director in such a relationship as part of the National Coalition of Essential Schools’ Mentor School project, I was excited to attend and see what progress this mentoring model has made since CES’ original program nearly 10 years ago.
Good people attended with the intentions of doing good work, so it was a good two days. The formal learning however, left me wanting more. Not only was minimally shared about forming formal mentor relationships, but also the facilitation modeled practices that I had long ago learned did not foster the necessary conditions for these desired relationships. I am a facilitation snob. I know that. But in our work, I have long learned some basics that have the potential to either make or break a transformative relationship. One of the more subtle, nuanced facilitative moments comes when developing group norms. For this group, no such work occurred. We just moved into the agenda with the assumptions that we knew and agreed on how to work together and what to do when conflict occurred. Even though people were playing nice, neither was true as evidenced by side conversations used to debrief and release minute tensions. Perhaps the most serious was when an African American colleague shared that she – as one of only 6 black educators in a room of nearly 200 – did not think that she belonged in the room. She explained her feelings were based on the reactions she received when she shared her experience of school. Others, as she noted, “were put off” and the tension was never addressed.
I know that rolling out an arbitrary list of expected behaviors does not assure those behaviors. But in my experience, not naming and agreeing to expected behaviors almost always assures greater difficulty achieving these behaviors in an intentional way. Furthermore, a lot more work must be done besides “naming” a set of norms – communities must agree to and must make meaning of behaviors together – up front and ongoing. Additionally, communities must determine how are (and develop skills for) individuals to respond to a breach of norms – before such a breach occurs so that the community is not experienced as reactive and retaliating.
When the norms of a community (or relationship) are not explicit, transparent, shared, who benefits – at whose cost?
So? Norms were not named up front, and we could have used some language to navigate tensions that arose. We were all adults. We should be able to deal. But dealing is not our goal – transformation is. Te very purpose of the mini-conference rose out of our limited success with students from outside of dominant culture. So much of their limited success is based on being in schools that don’t level the playing field by making expectations and access to them transparent and equitable. Just because we don’t name our norms – does not mean we don’t have norms. Every community has norms. All too frequently, when not named explicitly, the norms of a community are reproductive of dominant culture – thus serving many, but not all.
Even when we do take the time, I am surprised how many times the norms being introduced include standards such as, “be respectful”, “be on time”, “do your homework”. I consider these job expectations, not norms. In some professions, being disrespectful, arriving late or not doing your work leads to disciplinary action. While I am not advocating for increasing disciplinary action, I also believe our students deserve their professionals to leave such basic understandings as unstated. To me, norms should be the behaviors for which a community and its members need to stretch in order to reach. Especially in public education, working and discourse norms should put us into dissonance – not comfort.
When we don’t take the time to name and make meaning of normalizing behaviors that challenge us to grow, we leave room for us to normalize behaviors that seem correct… politically correct, that may unintentionally or intentionally, and unconsciously or consciously, subtly or blatantly retain the status quo. These positive-sounding but innuendo-laden terms include, “trust/assume best intentions” or “cause/ do no harm”. Another one that was introduced and slipped into the directions before schools were supposed to discuss their work was, “No Judgment.”
A quick online search reveals “judgment” to be defined by Merriam-Webster as “an opinion or decision that is based on careful thought.” Why is it that we want to norm NOT having opinion or decisions based on careful thought? While I understand the unfriendly environment for teachers has put the profession on the defensive, I also believe we need to distinguish between being safe from unwarranted attack and being in the discourse necessary to develop as professionals.
As noted above, we need to be clear about our purpose in our work. We have to examine and be honest about our stance. Are we seeking comfort or dissonance? If we say we are committed to equity, we have to reflect on the extent to which interruption and transformation are possible without judgment – and commit to work on the conditions – and norms necessary for this work.
Once we have some understanding about the stance we have about the conditions we need, I challenge each of us to compare that stance to the one we take for the students in our care. Does our theory of change play out consistently with them? In other words, for those of us who require a norm of “no judgment”, to what extent do we exempt our students and their families from any form of judgment?
Is that what our students need – to NOT having opinion or decisions based on careful thought? Is that what we really need? I truly believe most educators don’t believe this when espousing such politically correct language as “no judgment”. I also think we are past this negotiation for a standard of behavior and may need to think about how such language may actually encourage and reinforce the limited participation patterns we espouse to interrupt.
SF-CESS has adopted and built on the norms suggested in “Courageous Conversations About Race”, (Singleton, G. and Linton, C, 2005). In the book, the authors encourage individuals to consider how they best can (1) Stay Engaged, (2) Speak Their Truth, (3) Experience Discomfort, and (4) Expect and Accept Non-Closure when challenged by difficult work and interactions. In addition, SF-CESS encourages that groups identify “process observers” who can help a community (A) Pay Attention to Patterns of Participation, (B) Maintain Contextual Confidentiality, and (C) Go to the Source when conflict arises.