“I would do it again. I’m just being honest.” This was the statement made by a participant in the workshop I was facilitating. It was disappointing (to put it mildly) to hear, three hours into a workshop that was designed to, in large part, change his perspective.
Although I am retired, I consult every so often for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), working with school district governance teams. The idea of the workshop, generally, is to strengthen the team and make sure they are on the same page. I have been doing this for more than ten years, with varying degrees of success.
Typically, a board will have one of these retreats when they are experiencing trouble. The specifics of the problem differ each time, but it usually boils down to lack of trust between the board and administration or among the board members themselves. Sometimes the breach is not too serious, and a healthy discussion and review of roles and responsibilities can get them back on the right track. Sometimes the divisiveness is deep and seemingly intractable. That was the case at this most recent session.
This Board had recently gone through a contentious process hiring an assistant superintendent. The Board, particularly the Board President, had been very involved in the selection. Best practice, as defined by NYSSBA, is a more circumscribed role for the Board, leaving more of the responsibility to the Superintendent. Without getting into the gory details, the relationship between some of the Board (it is a seven-member board) and the Superintendent had broken down. Two board members were uncomfortable with how things had gone and thought the team would benefit from some training. The full board agreed.
I was invited to help the team by putting together a program that would review their roles and responsibilities and walk through a hiring scenario so that we could discuss the issues. The goal was to have them, including the Superintendent, agree to a protocol moving forward. When the Board President made that comment that he would do it all again, it was crystal clear that he was not buying what I was selling (which was not a specific solution, but rather a definition of roles). We continued the discussions, going over other topics, but this was a case of mission NOT accomplished. Maybe I had spent too much time going over the details of what had happened; or maybe we hadn’t spent enough time and needed to dig in even deeper.
It got me thinking about conflicts in general. I know a great deal has been written about conflict resolution and I have read only a tiny fraction of the literature. Perhaps I should read more!! I’m wondering: how much should we hash out our conflicts? Do we go over all of the minutia? Or is it better to talk more generally and focus on moving forward? These questions apply to personal relationships, too.
Most people don’t like conflict, though I have come across a few who seem to crave it and are purposefully provocative. Fortunately, they are the exception. Other people are so steadfast in their desire to avoid it that too much gets swept under the rug resulting in a mountain of resentment. I guess the challenge is to find the sweet spot – to balance processing/understanding the differences with the need to move forward and not belabor the point. It isn’t easy to find – especially when emotions run high.
Plus, all parties have to be invested in finding resolution, not a given in many situations. In the case of the workshop I was facilitating, the Board President was intransigent, convinced of his rightness. Ultimately, we had to agree to disagree. I had the luxury of leaving it at that. In personal relationships you can’t necessarily do that.
I am thankful that in my marriage I can say with confidence that we are both able to see the big picture. We both want resolution and we want the other to be happy. We have some fundamental differences that pop up now and again, but we have been able to manage them.
I’m thinking, looking at our world rife with conflict, that more situations are like the one with that school board than my marriage. I’m thankful for what I have and wish it for others.
After listening to the panelists, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any substance to the union’s side of the conflict. The story that was told that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society was eye-opening, but, there was a glaring omission. No one mentioned the issue of teacher professionalism as a source of conflict.
For my father, and others like him, this was probably the single strongest motivating factor in supporting the strike. The attitude and actions taken in Ocean Hill-Brownsville exhibited a blatant disregard for the professionalism of teachers, in three ways: by having the community dictate curriculum, by hiring uncertified, inexperienced replacements, and by dismissing teachers without due process. All of that would have felt like a personal insult to someone like my dad.
Dad, Barry Brody, got his B.A. from Brooklyn College, then did two years in the Air Force. He went into teaching, earning his master’s in education from Columbia Teacher’s College. He went on to get a master’s in economics from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (coincidentally Al Shanker’s alma mater). He spent most summers furthering his education. He would apply for grants to study. He spent a summer at Wharton, another at Weslyean, then Clark University in Worcester, MA, three summers in Illinois and one at the University of Colorado. Our family joined him, this was how we vacationed (which is another story). He was always a voracious reader. If there was a new biography of Lincoln or Jefferson, he would read it – and critique it. He read widely, though history was his passion.
He took pride in his scholarship and his teaching. If there was one overriding lesson he imparted to his three children, though there were many, it was to do your job to the best of your ability, no matter what it was. If you were a busboy or a secretary, take pride in your work. You show up on time, put your nose to the grindstone, without excuses. He modeled that behavior. There was dignity and pride in a job well done. My brothers and I took that lesson to heart and it served us well.
I believe the issues raised by the decentralization experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville struck at the heart of my dad’s sense of himself as a teacher and his pride as a professional. The fact that the changes being wrought were accompanied by so much anger, and in some quarters, hate, made it impossible to bridge the divide. Both sides were convinced of their righteousness.
The idea that parents would dictate curriculum, and I think Dad’s perception was that the plan gave parents that authority, would be an anathema to him. The notion that laypersons would make decisions about what material to include in global studies or American history likely struck him as absurd.
Today we are much more aware of the importance of incorporating the contributions of people of color and women so that a more complete and accurate picture of American and world history is provided (I’m not suggesting that the work is done). Some of that change came about precisely because of the pressure brought to bear by communities of color. Some of it has come about as more women and people of color become historians themselves.
But, today community input is still fraught. What about when a community objects to teaching evolution? Or sex education? Or, inclusion of LGBTQ literature? The list can, and does, go on and on, and I think it always will. The process of incorporating public opinion needs to be robust enough to withstand pressure from extremes, but flexible enough to evolve as new knowledge is gained. But what does that look like?
One of the reasons I believe so strongly in public education is that a cross-section of children, representing different parts of society, learn together. And, hopefully, across communities there is a common body of knowledge imparted. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same, but if you grow up in Harlem or a rural town in central New York, I believe you should share a common understanding of science, history, math, etc. There can and should be differences that reflect the needs of the children, but a great deal of the fundamentals should be shared.
I think the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society lost an opportunity to engage in a more balanced way. To discuss community control without acknowledging the legitimate concerns of teachers took away from the credibility of the program.
I am still left with the question: What should the role of the community be in curriculum? If folks reading this have opinions about it, please comment! I’d love to hear.
It may not be readily apparent why I am spending so much time writing about the events in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But, 50 years later, there is much to be learned, especially since we find ourselves still struggling with some of the fault lines exposed during that conflict. The strike touched on racism, anti-Semitism, and education policy (the role of community in school management, the value of multiculturalism in curriculum, student discipline and the professionalism of teachers). Each of these topics resonates with me and are actively debated today. We need to learn from our history; the strike and its aftermath are rich with lessons.
One of the tragedies of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike was that it marked a serious deterioration in the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in New York City. The two groups, through the early 1960s, were allies in the civil rights movement. The strike either created or revealed a schism.
I grew up feeling a connection to African-Americans. Because of my own people’s history, I identified with their struggle against persecution. My parents were believers in equal rights and opportunities. I never heard a racial or ethnic slur from either my mom or dad. Thinking back on it, I know they weren’t perfect, they were a product of their time and place, so I’m sure they had their prejudices, but that would have been the product of ignorance. They were life-long learners, and as they understood more, their thinking evolved. The strike and the emergence of the Black Power movement tested them.
My mother was teaching in a parochial school at the time of the strike. She was employed by the New York City Board of Education as a Title I teacher, a corrective reading specialist, but assigned to Catholic schools and yeshivas, depending on the year. Since the parochial schools were not affected by the strike, she continued to go to work, she didn’t have to cross a picket line. She remembers the time as being rife with tension, though. She taught in a neighborhood not far from Ocean-Hill Brownsville and took a subway line that travelled through there to get to work. She remembers a change in the air, she felt self-conscious on the subway as one of the few white people and previously she had not. Between the riots in cities around the country, and the friction of the strike, she felt the anxiety of the time.
My father, a social studies teacher in a NYC high school, walked the picket line. I recall him coming home and expressing anger with the leadership of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. I remember some of the names he mentioned, telling my mother of the latest inflammatory rhetoric from Sonny Carson and Rhody McCoy. Listening to the panelists at the Brooklyn Historical Society, it sounded like either the incendiary messages weren’t uttered, were overemphasized or misunderstood. It occurred to me that perhaps my father wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.
Now reading about the events, I see a fuller picture. My research revealed a number of interesting pieces.
One of the flashpoints during the strike was the assertion that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community was anti-Semitic. As I noted in a previous post, the panelists contended that Al Shanker, the union president, was largely responsible for stoking the issue. Two of the three panelists, Ms. Edwards and Mr. Isaacs, refuted the claim that there was anti-Semitism in the community. Hearing that, I was incredulous; there is anti-Semitism in every community, just as there is racism. The degree of it, how close it is to the surface, may vary, but to deny its existence struck me as disingenuous.
Unless I misunderstood his point, Mr. Isaacs said it was the union that produced and distributed literature that included anti-Semitic language and images. I found that charge hard to believe. I could imagine that Shanker would want to consolidate his position by, as we might say today, riling up his base, but it didn’t ring true that he would go so far as to create the pamphlets.
I read news accounts, journal articles, recent scholarship and books, so much has been written about the strike. I learned that was that there was an anonymous anti-Semitic letter circulated in the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at the time. The letter said:
‘If African-American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must be done by African-Americans Who Identify With And Understand The Problem. It is Impossible For the Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring to This Important Task the Insight, The Concern, The Exposing of the Truth that is a Must If The Years of Brainwashing and Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught to Our Black Children by These Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be Overcome.’
McCoy and the local Board denounced the letter. The union reprinted it, 5000 copies, as part of a leaflet which asked if this was acceptable; in effect publicizing it. Some might say Shanker exploited it.
I don’t know how strongly the African-American leadership disavowed the letter and its sentiments. I can only imagine how hurtful those thoughts would be to someone like my father. Was Mr. Isaacs suggesting that Shanker actually composed and planted the original letter, or was he criticizing the tactic of publicizing it?
It was not the only evidence of anti-Semitism. A teacher in the district read a poem by a student on WBAI, an African-American radio station in the city, called “To Albert Shanker: Anti-Seimitism.”
Hey Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head
You pale faced Jew boy I wish you were dead…
Jew boy you took my religion and adopted it for you
But you know that black people were the original Hebrews
When the UN made Israel a free, independent state
Little four and five-year-old boys threw hand grenades
They hated the black Arab with all their might
And you, Jew boy, said it was alright
And then you came to America the land of the free
Took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy
Cause you know, Jew boy, there’s only one reason you made it
You had a clean white face colorless and faded.
When interviewed twenty years after the fact, the teacher had no regrets about reading the poem on the air. He said it was “raw,” but otherwise didn’t see a problem with it.
Unfortunately, there are people in the world who would write that letter and that poem today.
I come away from the panel discussion and my subsequent research believing that everyone shared responsibility for stoking racial and ethnic tensions. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville leadership was unwilling to distance itself from the extremists or troublemakers in their midst. Judging by the statements made by the panelists they still don’t acknowledge the damage done by the anti-Semitic communications. It may be true that the letter and poem didn’t represent the majority of the community. But, think of it this way: if a single noose was to appear in a school locker, it would not be sufficient if school officials disavowed the symbolism, explained that it didn’t represent the opinion of the majority and left it at that. We would expect more, and rightly so.
It is true that the demographic of the replacement teachers was similar to those that were terminated – the majority were white and Jewish. That would support the idea that McCoy and the Board weren’t blindly anti-Semitic. But, that doesn’t address the hurt and fear engendered by the other events. The hiring of the replacements represented other problems from the union perspective (an issue I will discuss in more depth in my next blog post).
The union leadership, on the other hand, focused on those extremists to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns. There were issues with the quality of the teaching, with the atmosphere of the schools that did not welcome parental involvement and that didn’t include African-American and Puerto Rican contributions in the curriculum. And, the main point, the main issue at the heart of everything, was the problem of poor academic performance. By keeping their rhetoric focused on the hateful messages, the union didn’t appear to be willing to engage on the problems that were at the heart of the community’s anger.
There are parallels to how we engage in political discourse today. People are quick to point to the outrageous claims, or the hateful rhetoric, from the ‘other side.’ While I see the merit in bringing attention to discriminatory acts, they should not be swept under the rug, I think we go too far. The extremes get distorted and end up having more influence than they deserve. I don’t know how we reclaim some balance, but we need to give more careful thought to what we emphasize. We need to be more focused on problem-solving and substance.
The panel discussion sparked so many questions and reflections. After some preliminary remarks by the moderator, Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Sheepshead Bay, across the borough, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.
She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.
I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over. Monifa continued, explaining how based on this, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). Radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced. In the context of the time, I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. She joined the Black Panthers, who became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Hearing the idea that white people were the devil reminded me of another time I heard that sentiment. As I have written before, I facilitate workshops for school boards across New York State. The goal of the sessions is to educate board members about their roles and responsibilities and to do team building. I had worked for the Anti-Defamation League before coming to NYSSBA and been trained to facilitate workshops on multiculturalism. So, when a school board was experiencing conflict due to charges of racism, I was asked to conduct a retreat to help them through it.
The nine-member Board had only one person of color, an African-American woman. As the session progressed, after opening exercises and a discussion of identity, we got to the heart of the matter: the racism allegation. In the course of the dialogue, the African-American woman expressed her frustration that she was not being heard by her fellow board members. She explained that she grew up in a southern state and shared that her grandmother told her white people were the devil – it was a message she heard repeatedly. She wanted us to understand how hard she worked to let go of that thought; she wanted her colleagues to understand how difficult it was for her to trust them.
It took courage and self-awareness for her to admit that. The other board members at the table had not acknowledged any racist impulses or messages that they had grown up with (or may have still held).
As the discussion at that workshop continued, it emerged that all of the first-and second -year Board members (there were three of them, all of them women), shared the feeling of not being heard. It was possible that the source of the problem was in not effectively orienting new members and not explaining how to get items on the agenda, or it could have been sexism (the Board president was male), rather than racism directed at one member.
I left that Board retreat somewhat optimistic that we had made some progress. Maybe they had a better understanding of each other. Perhaps the Board President, having heard the frustration of three of the female new members, would be more inclusive. I was disappointed that the white board members hadn’t acknowledged any stereotypes or preconceived notions they had about African-Americans, but I was hopeful that they had food for thought. Perhaps as they had time to process the session, in the privacy of their own thoughts, they would examine their beliefs.
Sitting in the audience listening to the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I was reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.
Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message. Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took. I wanted to understand more (I plan to return to this subject in my next blog post).
I also wonder how many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized.’
Next week: More on the teachers’ strike and the charges of anti-Semitism.
A notice (see above) came across my Facebook feed that caught my eye. The Brooklyn Historical Society was hosting a panel discussion about the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike (a school district in Brooklyn). Memories were sparked of a very controversial place and time. The topic touched on issues that have interested and motivated me my entire life: education and race relations. To add to my curiosity, the strike touched my family. Though I was a child at the time, I knew my father had been involved, he was an early union organizer for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). I remembered that he walked that picket line. I clicked on the link to look at the details.
The program featured three speakers and a moderator. One was a teacher from the junior high school at the center of the controversy who crossed the picket line, the second was a student who was the valedictorian of that junior high school’s graduating class in 1969, and the final presenter was a scholar who wrote a book that took a fresh look at the conflict and its legacy. The moderator was a current resident and activist in that Brooklyn neighborhood who had family that taught in the district at that time. The teacher, Charles Isaacs, was noted as also having written a book (Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education 1968-69). Conspicuously absent was anyone representing the union. Though I was a bit concerned that the presentation might be skewed, I wanted to hear what they had to say.
I bought a ticket. I found a parking spot nearby, no mean feat in downtown Brooklyn. I got there early; the room was already filling up. One might think that events from 50 years ago might be long forgotten, but clearly others were equally interested in revisiting this time and place. There was a palpable energy in the room. The space wasn’t very large, I think the capacity was 200. Every seat was taken, with some folks standing along the perimeter. The audience was very diverse: young, old and in between; white, black, and brown; men and women. I didn’t know a soul.
Before going to the session, I did a little research to remind myself what the issues were that surrounded the strike. I read some New York Times accounts and looked at a summary of the book written by Mr. Isaacs.
The strike was spurred by a decentralization experiment in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district. In 1967 the New York City Board of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation, authorized the creation of three experimental school districts; one in Harlem, one on the Lower East Side and one in Brooklyn (Ocean Hill-Brownsville). The idea was to give decision-making power (in hiring, firing, budgeting, curriculum approval, etc.) to the local community, rather than the central bureaucracy. The hope was that, as a result, the staff in the district would begin to look more like the community around it and that parents would be more invested in their children’s education if they had a say in it. Each of the demonstration districts was poor and student achievement was abysmal.
What happened next is a complicated story and depends on which account of events you read. I can’t do justice to all of the details in this space (whole books have been written about it!). The agreed upon facts are these: A new superintendent, Rody McCoy, who was African-American, was brought into the newly created district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville. A locally elected school board was seated. Changes to curriculum and pedagogical approach were instituted. After a year in charge, McCoy believed that the effort to implement change was being stymied by some administrators and teachers. As a result, during the summer of 1968 a letter was sent to 19 staff members advising them that they were terminated, and they should report to the central Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. All 19 were white, many were Jewish (this becomes relevant as events unfold).
The teachers’ union interpreted this personnel action as a threat to their authority and a breach of the contract that they had with the New York City central Board of Education. According to their agreement, termination could only occur after due process, and this action had been taken without the necessary administrative steps. The union, led by its president Al Shanker, protested and called for a strike.
All of this was occurring in the context of heightened racial tension in the country as a whole. Though the civil rights movement had resulted in new laws, poverty, discrimination, police brutality and the perception that the Vietnam War was exacting more pain from African-Americans were still troubling realities. During the summer of 1967, called the ‘long, hot summer’ for a reason, there were multiple riots in urban areas (159 of them). Detroit and Newark experienced some of the worst violence, resulting in 43 and 26 dead in each city respectively. Hundreds of others were injured, and swaths of city blocks were burned. Mixed into this violence was a call for African-Americans to forcefully claim their rights, rather than taking the path of nonviolence charted by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The decentralization of schools in New York City was seen as part of a response to the call for Black Power. The conflict over the termination (which became a subject of dispute because some said it was a reassignment, not a firing) of the teachers/administrators was taking place against this backdrop. It became impossible to disentangle the contractual issues from the racial and power politics of the time. Though I was a child, I was aware of the tension. I was aware of the strain on my father. He supported the union’s position.
I think the most common interpretation of events would suggest that the union ‘won’ and that the decentralization experiment failed. Hearing the panelists, a different picture emerged. Their interpretation emphasized that the 19 teachers/administrators were racists and weren’t actually fired but were to be reassigned; and that children were being harmed in the union’s quest for power. They blamed Al Shanker for stoking racial tensions (alleging that he fueled charges of Black Anti-Semitism) and for letting the strike stretch to 36 days (the longest in American history). They highlighted the successes of the experiment in improved self-esteem among the students and empowerment of parents and community.
While I have no vested interest in Shanker’s legacy, my father did walk that picket line. I was troubled by the allegations because it could implicate my father, a man I admired (and still admire) for his moral compass. I listened to their presentations and wondered what my father would have thought. If only he was still alive, so I could ask him. I would have to do more research to see if I could come to my own conclusions.
Next week: More on the panel discussion and the legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Class ended. Mercifully, after two and a half hours of policy analysis and evaluation, it was time for lunch. A group of six of us, all full time graduate students at Columbia, had a habit of going to the diner a couple of blocks down Amsterdam Avenue after class.
I gathered up my stuff and started walking with the others to the elevator when Dan nudged me to get my attention. Dan, who wore crisp oxford shirts and chinos to class and spoke with authority, asked “Why do you always apologize before you ask a question? I don’t get it.” I looked at him blankly, “Huh?”
He continued, “You always start your question, in class, by apologizing for it. Like, ‘Sorry, but I was wondering…’ Why do you do that?” There was more than a trace of annoyance in his tone.
I felt defensive. I thought for a moment, as we continued walking, trying to come up with an answer. Fortunately, the others in the group were chatting amongst themselves.
“Well,” I began, “I can’t say I consciously knew that I did that….” I was thinking quickly, reviewing what had happened in class that may have triggered Dan’s observation, trying to come up with some kind of reasonable response.
“There’s no reason for it, you shouldn’t do that.” he said, emphatically. “Sorry if it annoys you,” I responded, and I sped up to join the others. I probably annoyed him again by apologizing again.
This happened over 35 years ago. I thought about it then, and I still reflect on it now. Asking questions, in class or in conversation, isn’t that simple. At least not to me.
As I thought about it, many things came into play. First, was self-consciousness and insecurity. Maybe I HAD missed something the professor said. I knew some students, as a result of those doubts, didn’t ask questions. I had enough confidence to ask, but not enough to not preface it by hedging or softening it. I realized, as Dan pointed out, that I likely did start with something like, “Sorry, maybe I missed this, but can you explain….” I wondered whether there was anything so wrong with that.
I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but it did years later, that it also probably related to being female. I knew that as a woman there was a line to walk, of not coming across too aggressively, but not fading into the woodwork, either. I had a hard time with that. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to express opinions, but I wanted to be feminine, too. I think I felt that asking a question could be threatening and that was the last thing I wanted to communicate.
Other things probably played into it, too. When I was in college, Merle, my roommate, and I volunteered to work at the campus hotline, called High Hopes. It was a resource for students to call if they had questions. The question could range from the ordinary, like where to get birth control, to the very serious, like what to do about feeling depressed. We went through fairly extensive training – we weren’t supposed to be counselors providing therapy, but the hotline was a first line of getting someone help if they needed it. Some of the training involved attending lectures, getting information about drugs, sexuality and other common issues of concern to college students. We also learned about non-judgmental ways of listening to people and we did role plays.
We were trained, in a basic way, to use Carl Roger’s technique of reflection, which meant listening to the caller and repeating back what you heard them say. This method was intended to help the person clarify what they felt. Sometimes a person didn’t know exactly what they felt, so by reflecting back what you hear, he or she can evaluate whether it is accurate.
In addition, in reflecting, we were trying to refrain from judgment. Sometimes just asking a person ‘why’ can insinuate judgment. If we needed to ask the caller for more information, we weren’t supposed to ask, “Why do you feel hurt (or substitute any other emotion, angry, sad)?” It was better to say, “It sounds like you feel hurt. Can you tell me more?”
This made so much sense to me. I had a number of opportunities to use that approach on my shifts at High Hopes and, generally, it worked quite well. It turned out to be useful in parenting, too.
Leah was quite an emotional child. Supporting her through the roller coaster of adolescence was a parenting challenge. I was most effective when I remembered to use reflection (full disclosure: I didn’t always remember). It validated her feelings, helped her clarify them and often led to insights. I recommend it!
While that technique doesn’t exactly apply to asking questions in a classroom, which is what my classmate Dan was calling me out on, in one respect it does. As a result of my High Hopes experience, I became conscious of not implying judgment in a broader sense – I didn’t want a professor to think I was questioning their expertise, or suggesting they were a lousy teacher. It seemed like a reasonable strategy to start by acknowledging that I could be wrong or uninformed.
Before Dan’s comment, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, much less considered that there could be a downside to doing it. But I was learning that there was. If Dan was any example, it could be annoying. It also diminished whatever came after the apology, I was devaluing my own contribution. I didn’t want to go around apologizing for my existence. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve done it less.
This issue is relevant in another setting. As a school board member, and as a trainer of school board members, this aspect of communication comes up often. Frequently at board meetings a staff person makes a presentation and the board is given the opportunity to ask questions. This can be a minefield. A board member can, premeditatedly or thoughtlessly, embarrass the presenter by asking a pointed question. So much transpires in this communication. There can be history or baggage – is there goodwill as a baseline between the board and the staff? A particular presenter can be overly sensitive to questions. Some people are comfortable with public presentations and thinking on their feet and welcome engagement in the form of questions; others don’t. Even educators, who spend their day teaching, get nervous when speaking in front of the school board. We spend time at our workshops talking about modes of communication in order to raise awareness of potential pitfalls. I imagine this dynamic comes into play in many office settings. Who knew asking questions could be so fraught?
So, I’m still thinking about this issue. How do you ask a question?
Note: Names and details have been changed in the essay below to ensure the anonymity of the participants.
One of my roles, when I worked for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), was to facilitate board retreats. These sessions were designed to build trust and improve communication between board members and the superintendent, and to review their roles and responsibilities. Although I have retired from NYSSBA, I continue to take assignments to facilitate these workshops. I like to think that I can be helpful to boards that may be experiencing some dysfunction or just helping them improve their performance as a team, and a little extra cash doesn’t hurt either.
I’ve had some interesting experiences in doing this work. We usually begin with an icebreaker activity where we go around the room sharing some information about ourselves. We start with some straightforward stuff, where they grew up, how many siblings they have. And, lastly, they are asked to share their biggest challenge growing up. I often share the difficulty I had growing up with crossed eyes (which I have written about in this blog).
I had done this exercise many times. Participants usually respond in a range of ways, from offering very little by saying something innocuous, to making themselves vulnerable by sharing a private pain. In a recent workshop, an older gentleman, who was the first of the group of 12 to share, responded in a way that I had not heard before.
He began, “I’m not quite sure how to put this.” I got a little nervous, not knowing what kind of experience he was going to recount.
He went on, “I was an excellent ballet dancer.”
In the words of my mother-in-law, this I was not expecting.
My first impression of him would not have led me to associate ballet dancing with the short, 50ish year old man sitting before me. Without casting aspersions, he presented as squat and not noticeably graceful. He didn’t hold himself in that elegant, regal way that dancers typically do.
I also didn’t know where he was going with this. Being excellent at something isn’t usually a challenge, but then again, perhaps his experience related to gender stereotyping, or people like me making assumptions based on appearances.
All these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I listened to his story. Hopefully I maintained a neutral facial expression, as all professional facilitators should.
He went on, “I recognized I was better than most and I needed to learn to hide that knowledge.”
Wait, what exactly was his challenge? To learn humility?
“I’ll give you an example….” He went on to explain that in high school he had a run-in with some members of the football team, who were teasing him about his ballet dancing.
Now the anecdote started to make sense, though, he certainly started the telling in an unusual way.
“There were three or four players, including the quarterback, in the room before class started,” he explained. “hassling me about being a ballet dancer. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I get to hold an attractive girl, whose costume leaves little to the imagination. You, on the other hand, put your hands behind the butt of another guy! Who’s the gay one?’ That shut them up.”
There were 12 of us in the room, sitting around a rectangular conference table. Everyone was silent. I think we were all nonplussed. I’m not sure if he was expecting a response, but after a brief pause, he continued.
“Later, when the school day ended, I was heading to my locker. I saw the guys from the football team at the end of the hallway. We made eye contact. I left my stuff in my locker and turned to leave school and head home. The football players saw me turn and they took off, chasing me. I ran.
It was a distance to home and there were some hills. One by one the football players gave up, until only the quarterback was left chasing me. I was just outside my house when I stopped and faced him. We looked at each other. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal – you don’t do anything to me, you leave me alone, and I won’t tell anybody at school that I, a ballet dancer, outran the football team!’ After all, that would have embarrassed them. And, I would have done it, too. He agreed and that was the end of it. They never bothered me again.”
As he finished his story, he had a self-satisfied smile on his face.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was the story true? Was this a story he told himself? I looked quickly around the room to see if anyone wanted to say anything. After a bit of an awkward silence, I smiled and said, “Joe, thank you for sharing, sounds like a challenge you handled. Jill, how about you go next.”
I felt a mix of emotions. I was a bit incredulous, it all seemed too neat, almost scripted. But, it certainly wasn’t appropriate to question him. I was also offended by the casual sexism and homophobia in the way he relayed the story. Though this was an experience from many years ago, and talking that way was understandable and would’ve been acceptable then, there was nothing in his telling that showed any insight gained over the years. He was quite pleased with himself.
I also felt sad. I should have sympathized with him – it must’ve been difficult to be a male ballet dancer all those years ago. It likely still is. But, in how he framed his story and in his telling, he buried the pain of it. And that made it difficult for me to respond with genuine empathy.
Interestingly, as we went around the table and others shared, it was as if they, in response to his approach, revealed their childhood challenges without masking their pain. It was quite remarkable actually – in that small group, three had been abandoned by their mothers and one had a parent who died when he was in high school. Two revealed that they had a parent who was an alcoholic. I was reminded, again, how much private pain there is in this world.
The point of the exercise is to build trust among the team. I wondered if it had the desired effect.