06 September 2008

Can't We All Just Get Along?

My job includes mediation between a lot of different stakeholders---all of whom think they know what's best for kids. And while their passion is welcome, the truth about "what's best" lies somewhere in the midst of all the various ideas. I have to try and tease out just what that might be and be the peacemaker.

I find that I can't keep things at an impersonal level. You see, I have my own ideas about what's best for kids. I admit that I have certain biases. I am far more likely to listen to a classroom teacher who is working with children every day than I am to a college prof who has never taught a single day in a public school in her life. There are those who are all about the science, and not about the realities of life in the classroom---and others who are entirely focused on instruction, but differ on content. As for me? I think I'm more of the latter. Make no mistake---my job is about science education; however, I feel like I am being naive if I don't consider the pre-k through 12 spectrum, connections with ed tech, literacy, and so on. I am more interested in talking about practical applications and realities and people who understand them than I am about the theory behind science standards. I think it's good to be able to state these various proclivities. I'd prefer to be up front with people and let them know that when they come to the table with me, they're far more likely to have my attention and support if they have their thoughts organized, and are ready to focus on what will make as immediate and positive difference as possible for teachers and students.

The reality is, of course, that what I want and what I often get are different things. I am learning to adapt. For those who are random thinkers (or the occasional Big Picture type of person who can't deal with details), I let them ramble. The jumbled course of conversation grates on me, but I channel my energy into taking lots of notes. I organize the information in a way which lets me take some control of it. Then, I take a break. (This job means I am doing an awful lot of walking at lunchtime. LOL) I make a series of very specific questions to ask the person based on the "holes" in the conversation. Then, I go back and get the clarification I need. This strategy is working very well.

What about pushy people whose egos barely fit into the room? The ones who are legends in their own minds? I have run across only a handful of them...and am grateful that they are a rarity. I can respect their opinions without catering to their whims. But making it clear that I am not going to kow-tow to certain demands requires a certain type of skill I've never had to exercise. My district position was such that I had all of the responsibility and none of the authority for the projects I was charged with. Now, I have both. That is not reason for me to abuse the level of authority that I have (any more than it is okay for the Ego Brigade), but it is comforting to know that I do not have to negotiate everything. I am good at give and take on a lot of things, but those rare few that I am willing to go to the mattresses for? My ace in the hole is to just be able to say "No." If the egotists want to have a hissy fit, so be it---nothing will change their view that everything in life is an all or none proposition. So far, I've only had to exercise my right to say "No." once, and there is nothing on the horizon which suggests that another similar situation is coming soon. I'd much rather compromise, and most other personalities would, too.

I'm learning to delegate, another skill which most teachers don't have to develop. We don't get secretarial support for our classrooms. There aren't people who take care of our travel, mail, copies, supply orders, and so on. With the new job, it's hard for the control freak in me to let go enough to trust someone with some of the tasks on my plate...and yet, there is no way I could possibly do them all. I need someone who understands how to navigate all of the bureaucracy and chase down the details. Fortunately, there is wonderful support in this area, and I am teachable. I'm getting the hang of having partners with the efforts. My problem, however, is I'm much more interested in getting in and getting my hands dirty. I want to do the professional development with teachers. I want to get out and work with coaches in classrooms. I want to participate with various groups. But my new role is one that is more heavy on the idea side---that I should come up with these things and then find people (and trust them) to properly carry out the work. I'm not ready to do that, yet. And, frankly, I'm not sure it's desirable. If I don't keep my feet in classrooms somehow, how will I ever know the changing needs of teachers and schools?

After three weeks on the job, the training wheels are starting to come off and I am being expected to manage the load given to me. It is a staggering amount of work and the scale is enormous. Slowly, but surely, I'm learning to balance the needs of competing stakeholders, job expectations, and my own vision for the work. I'd like to think that all of that can fit neatly with the rest of my life...that it will all just get along.

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