Clarity First; Accountability Follows

August 26, 2014

This post was originally written by Jennifer and published on Education Week’s opinion blog, Finding Common Ground.

As the school year starts and everyone wants to get off on the right foot, accountability ‘kicks in.’ All those initiatives that we need to ‘get off the ground’ and ‘get under way.’ All the deadlines we need to meet, the practices we need to ‘ensure,’ the alignment that needs to be ‘consistent.’ It is all well and good. If administrators and teachers are not meeting the expectations set out, they need to be held accountable. Hard conversations need to be had.

The question I always pose is “Does everyone really know what they are supposed to be doing?” I share Blaine Lee’s quote at the Having Hard Conversations workshops I do with schools. Lee says, “Almost all conflict is a result of violated expectations.” My question to my colleagues is “Does everyone know what the expectations are? Really are?” It stops folks in their tracks. Haven’t they put out the ‘plan’ and done the professional development? Didn’t they send teachers to a conference or send out the PDFs? I encourage them to consider their answer carefully. If you truly haven’t set out the expectations, it is unfair to have a “hard” conversation. Instead start by having a clarification conversation. I call it “being two feet in the present.”

Folks balk when I say this. Didn’t we hire professionals to do what they should do and shouldn’t we just leave them be to do their jobs? Do we really need to ‘spoon feed’ them? Don’t they know what we mean? Isn’t it all just “common sense”? Not always. I often query folks and ask them to offer me several observable actions that they would see or hear if the educators were meeting the expectation set out for them.

Responses are as follows:

  • “Well, they would just be more ‘rigorous’ in their lessons.”
  • “They would ‘engage’ students more.”
  • “They would ‘increasingly’ use more technology.”
  • “They would ‘take more initiative.'”
  • “They would have more ‘presence’ in front of the class.”
  • “They would show me they are ‘leadership material.'”
  • “They would ‘consistently monitor the implementation’ of the goal.”
  • “They would just simply do what is ‘right for kids.'”

In terms of immediate responses to my questions, the answers are rarely clear and as actionable as they could be.

Thinking through what these concepts would look like and sound like in practice ruffles feathers. It seems patronizing to be so ‘nitty gritty.’ We want to leave educators with their dignity. If we tell others exactly what we want, it seems too prescriptive. True, there is a risk of being too micro-managing. And, if someone is not meeting the expectation of ‘increased rigor’ in their lessons with no concrete examples of what that ‘level of rigor’ looks like in practice, it isn’t helpful to anyone either, especially the students. So we need to get clear on our end as to what our expectations are. Beyond the Powerpoint, beyond the standards on the website.

I once chided myself because I didn’t live up to my ‘clarity of expectations’ mantra. I was complaining that my boyfriend and I weren’t ‘connecting.’ I was angry we weren’t as ‘close’ as I wanted to be. He had no idea what I wanted from him. And I had to realize I had to do some thinking. What made me feel connected? Phone calls? Skype? More time together?

Embarrassed, but more aware of my muddiness, I figured it out. We as educators need to be as clear with each other as we try to be with our students. With students, we have criteria, rubrics and exemplars. We have peer assessments and self-assessments. We want students to have clear objectives for their learning and to be self-monitoring based on those objectives. We tell them what to shoot for. We get nitty gritty because it helps students see the goal. We need think about our need to be as clear with our colleagues. No hard conversations just yet. Clarity first. Accountability follows.

About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams considers herself a "voice coach," helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague and supervising an employee. Jennifer holds a Master's degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor's degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California. Jennifer's publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating & Creating Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. She has also created a Corwin Press e-course by the same name.

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Praise for Jennifer

“Jennifer presented a workshop on Having Hard Conversations to our staff. She is a superb presenter, with a strong command of the content, excellent real examples, and professional delivery. Staff have since been talking to me all week about how much they enjoyed the presentation. I only wish we had more time with her, as these practices have the potential to have a really positive impact on our workplace.”

Cameron Paterson, Head of Teaching and Learning
Shore Sydney Church of England Grammar School, North Sydney, Australia