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When Is it Time for a Hard Conversation?

This was the question she asked me: "There's a teacher at my high school, an older white guy who teaches science, who pulled into the parking lot on the first day of classes in his big truck which was plastered in Trump stickers. I watched as many of our Mexican-American kids noticed the stickers, pointing them out to their friends--about 50% of our school is Latino. I felt so uncomfortable and bad for the kids. This wasn't a surprise--he's said things before like, 'This is America. They need to speak English,' but I was really upset. My question is: Is it time for me to have a hard conversation with him?'"

And here's how I responded: "I am moved by your empathy for the kids. Yes, that must have been horrible for them to see a message of hatred and exclusion coming from a teacher. I hear the emotion in your voice and I'm glad you are asking this question."

First: take stock of the emotions. Recognize them in another and yourself; name them--perhaps sadness, anger, empathy, fear.

Something must be said--about that there is no question. A conversation must happen. Most likely, the conversation will be hard for the initiator and perhaps also for the other person. But if we hear or observe adults in positions of power doing things that harm children (such as telling them that they are not wanted) then it is our responsibility to do something. Otherwise we are complicit with the violence.

Second: Determine the kind of conversation that needs to happen. This depends on your role and relationship to the person with whom the conversation must happen. So I asked her this: "Are you his coach? Or his colleague?"

The relationship makes a big difference in how the conversation happens, in the path that the conversation takes.

If you are a coach then you engage in this conversation through a lens of adult learning, with the intent to cultivate awareness and explore beliefs. You remember that people can change, that racism is learned--it is like smog in the air and we all breathe it in, you remember that you, too, have held beliefs about others that have been distorted or misinformed; you enter the conversation with humility. If you are the coach, then your job is to coach--not to judge. Your job is to facilitate a conversation, not to be in the conversation.

You enter the conversation with a plan. You have practiced this conversation with someone else. You have accepted and explored your own feelings--and please know this: You don't have to get rid of or suppress or "manage" your feelings. You can have sadness and anger when you're having a hard conversation with a coachee who espouses racist, exclusionary beliefs--but you can't act from them. You need to act from a place of compassion, hope, possibility and humility--from the source of transformation. The other feelings can offer fuel and inspiration, they may be entwined with who you are, but you don't speak directly from them. Which is not an easy thing to do.

When you are the coach, the conversation might start like this:

  • "I hear that you are holding some beliefs about students who don't speak English. Would you be willing to explore those?"
  • "I noticed your Trump stickers on your truck and that our students saw you pull into the parking lot. Could we talk about how that might have impacted them on the first day of school? How that might have made them feel when they came to your class later that day?"
  • "My role as your coach is to help you refine your teaching practices so that we can meet the needs of our students. I'd really like to understand where your beliefs about English Learners come from. Would you be willing to talk about that?"
  • "I'm wondering what's behind these feelings about ELs? Where they come from? Would you be willing to talk?"

The purpose is to open dialogue. If you are the coach, you might have your toe in the door. You may be the only person who can instigate some cognitive dissonance in such a mindset. This is a big one, this kind of a belief system, and one that's supported and solidified by millions of people, many systems and structures, and by a long history of racism and oppression in this country. So this belief system is not going to crumble in one conversation. But you can create some cracks in the foundation, you can open a dialogue, you can invite change. And you have to: Silence equals complicity.

In order for a coach to facilitate a conversation that explores and shifts beliefs, we need a massive tool set, a lot of practice, and an acute awareness of our own emotions. And in order for this to happen, we need our own professional development in coaching, we may need our own coaches, and we need community--other coaches with whom we can practice, prepare, and debrief these hard conversations. You can't do this work alone.

If you are a colleague then the hard conversation is different. It can sound like this:

  • "This morning I saw you arrive at school, and I watched the faces of some of our kids as they read the stickers on your car. I thought about how they must feel knowing that their 3rd period teacher doesn't want them there. I felt really sad and embarrassed."
  • "Our school is here to serve our community--and that includes everyone. Your Trump stickers are a message of hatred, specifically hatred of a large group of our kids. It is an act of aggression to display those on your truck."

If you are a colleague, then in some ways it is easier. You can speak as yourself and for your students. And especially now, especially during this election season, you must.

It may be hard and scary, and your hands might shake in fear or anger, but you must. If you are reading this then you have privilege and power and you must use that to attempt, at the very least, to interrupt mindsets that exclude groups of people, mindsets that are simply dangerous.

The woman who asked me the question was a teacher leader at her school, and a hybrid role means a hybrid stance in this hard conversation--which is the hardest of all. Because she needs to be both coach and colleague.

"I'm afraid I'll do it wrong and mess things up," she told me after I shared my suggestions.

"You might," I said, "and you might not. Prepare, practice, and anchor yourself in your core values and love for your students. Forgive yourself if you make mistakes in the conversation, and know that you're doing what's right by saying something. And remember that it might not be as hard as you're anticipating. It might be empowering. It might go well. It might result in something good for kids."

History is littered with examples of times when people stood up and said things that were hard, and also by times when good people did not stand up in the face of injustice.

In this election season, we have (sadly) another opportunity to stand up and do what's right--to have those hard conversations about beliefs with our coachees and colleagues, and perhaps with our neighbors and family members. You can also use these approaches with them--and yes, I know that's a scary suggestion, and why do that when Thanksgiving looms in the near future and a hard conversation in October would make for a tense dinner in November--but this might be the time when you have to. Silence equals complicity.

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