Managing Impulsivity and Passivity – A Leader’s Constant Challenge

January 1, 2008

When I began to work outside the classroom as a teacher on special assignment, I was excited about the opportunity to create and facilitate learning communities, to work one-on-one with new teachers, and to design and offer trainings to supervisors and my colleagues. I was eager to be with team members that were trying to live up to their roles as teacher-leaders, to be agents of change in the schools, to work on reforms that focused on student learning.

My key learning in the first years of doing this work was this – I had a credential in how to work with kids through the subject I was teaching. I did not have a credential in how to work with adults. My teacher credential program didn’t instruct me on how to work effectively with the other professionals in my school and district. And while some administrative credential programs might offer courses that focus on specifically on human resources protocols and communication processes, coaches, directors, instructional supervisors, mentors and other teacher leaders might not have been able to take those courses. Suffice it to say that many of us in teacher-leaders roles need to hone their skills in order to work effectively with the variety of adults they will encounter.

So what dispositions, skills and knowledge must a teacher-leader have to become an effective collaborative colleague and an agent of change in schools? What does it mean to be “politically literate” and “systems savvy?” What do we need to know and be able to do?

One place to look is to Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick’s Habits of Mind. Costa and Kallick initially intended these sixteen habits to be taught to students as dispositions and skills to foster thinking in school. Yet, the need for personal development of those habits is essential for the adults in schools as well. In our contexts, the habits of mind can help us navigate the systems we work in and help us change the discourse with which we speak. All of us continue to develop these intelligent behaviors throughout our lifetimes. So on the professional path we are headed upon, the habits of mind are an integral component in our own development as politically literate teacher leaders. (Costa, 2000).

There are sixteen habits to work with, and one considered essential from the get-go is managing impulsivity.

We have all been there. Sitting in a meeting which is focusing on brainstorming possible ways to help the students academically, and someone shouts out, “That won’t work!” Or perhaps the receiving of an email from a parent on a night where you aren’t your best and you shoot off a response only to think to yourself the following morning, “Oops.” Or how about the announcement at a staff meeting and you hear yourself audibly sigh in discontent as the principal starts to look your way. Sound familiar?

The concept of managing one’s impulsivity extends far beyond teaching the students in your elementary class to not shout out their answers and to raise their hands instead. It is a skill of self-management and self-monitoring that serves the politically literate leader well. (Costa)

We teach students to make sure they understand the directions before starting to do the assignment, but we don’t read the memo in full and then complain about the action needed. We moan and groan immediately about a hire or a change in policy without learning of the rationale of the decision and we immediately jump to a value judgment of a new program (block schedule, teaming) without thinking through either the pros or cons of the proposal.

Learning to sit back and plan instead of jumping ahead leads some to avoid the confrontation with their administration that the comments you just made weren’t “ready for takeoff.”

And getting things ready for takeoff is key when you want to make a successful change as a school savvy leader. Managing impulsivity looks like a number of things – not just stopping the occasional “blurt out” in a meeting. Body language during meetings or interactions – eye rollings, slumped shoulders or big gasps of air. Waiting 24 hours to respond to a memo, a proposal, an email, a comment. Noticing when a teacher is going straight into teaching and not interrupting her as she is closing the door. Not bringing up a major topic with five minutes to go before school starts. Practicing responses that respect both you and your colleague when you are caught in a pinch. Saying, “I always give myself 24 hours to think about a new proposal,” or “I believe this proposal deserves a bit more of my focused thinking before I respond” or “This is complex and has many facets to it. I’d like to take a bit of time to think this through before I give my perspective.” All of these are good suggestions for controlling one’s next comment.

Yet some might be thinking, “Managing my impulsivity isn’t a problem for me. MY problem is managing my passivity.” You might be thinking, “I never speak up.” You wait until it is too late and the decision has been made or the schedule has been finalized and then are hurt and frustrated but just stuff it because you didn’t say anything to start. You perceive those who come into a meeting and steamroll through the agenda as pushy and intense. You don’t think you have the right words at the right time and you always wonder how someone else can marshal the right phrases at the perfect moment while you are bumbling around looking for a sentence stem to start with and worrying you will stutter when you finally speak out. Managing one’s passivity is just as much of a challenge in becoming an agent of change as managing one’s impulsivity. Getting some training on how to advocate for your opinion can help you feel empowered. Practicing with colleagues and getting more skilled at what to say and when to say it will help you learn how to speak up before the pressure is on. Finding this type of “voice teacher” could be the boost you might need to feel more in control.

The politically literate leader who manages her impulsivity asks:

  • Is this a good time to take a risk and pose a challenge?
  • What is the intensity of this need? Does it need to be handled now or can it wait?
  • Am I in the right frame of mind to say something or will I become too emotional?
  • If I speak up, who or what else will this affect? What is the ripple effect?
  • If I bring this issue up do I have an action plan thought out? Can I support the individual through the changes I would like to see made? Do I have a game plan in mind?
  • Can I say what I want to say and still project acceptance of my colleague?
  • If I do bring up the concern, is there enough time to really deal with it or will it just cause problems?

The politically literate leader who manages his passivity asks:

  • How important is it for the students or other staff that I bring this up?
  • Is what is going on in the classroom physically unsafe, academically unsound or emotionally damaging to students or colleagues?
  • What might happen if I didn’t have the conversation?
  • What am I trying to accomplish and if I speak up will it move me toward or away from that goal?
  • No matter the outcome is this something I have to say because I have to say it?
  • By my silence does this person think I agree with his/her perspective/behavior? Is that ok?

One of the most important skills one can cultivate is the ability to separate action from reaction. Thinking before you speak and then speaking up when you feel it is truly important is by far the first few steps to becoming political savvy.

(References: Costa, Arthur and Kallick, Bena, Editors, Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series, ASCD, 2000)

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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