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On Assuming Too Much

In the last eight years my personal life and professional practice has been enriched by the opportunity to meet, share, and collaborate with teachers from across the country. This summer a group of us from diverse backgrounds and teaching experiences came together for some deep discussions at a retreat sponsored by the Center for Teaching Quality.

Among those present was Ariel Sacks, a brilliant and thoughtful teacher from New York City who is young enough to be my daughter. This week, in her Teacher Leaders Network blog, On the Shoulders of Giants, she wrote

We began our intense sessions by establishing norms for the group's communications. One of my colleagues and fellow bloggers, Susan Graham, offered one of her favorite rules for successful collaboration: "Assume good intentions." Everyone agreed wholeheartedly, and we basically felt that that one norm said it all. Throughout the retreat, we abided by this rule and were both productive and collegial. We were able to discuss conflicting ideas and perspectives and it seemed like everyone's thinking about education and teaching reached new levels as a result of this.

I was both proud and humbled when I read that, because I sincerely believe we can learn so much and broaden our understanding by considering the perspectives of other knowledgeable, passionate people---even if we may have to agree to disagree. But Ariel, with her usual thoughtful insight, made me think about how this translates to the place where it ought to matter the most--the classroom. Ariel questioned

Does this rule work everywhere? I'm thinking about some of my students and how assuming good intentions often runs counter to common sense they may be accustomed to, like "Always watch your back." For students who come from a place where basic safety is not guaranteed, assuming good intentions of those they don't know well may be difficult or dangerous.

Hummm....Have I always assumed good intentions because I am such an open-minded person? Or do I assume good intentions because I've had the luxury of a life that rarely required that I "Always watch my back?" Was it safe to assume good intentions because I also assume that I have the power to control my circumstances? Could "assume good intentions" be my norm because I knew that if I discovered that the intentions of others were not so good after all, I could shake my head sorrowfully, make that tisk-tisk sound, and walk away in righteous indignation?

Because of Ariel's question, I realized that my norms might not seem so normal to everyone. For the last two days I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about the terms "norms" and "school culture" and how they've become buzzwords that crop up in literature and conversations about professional learning communities. According to the Small School Project

The concept of culture refers to a group's shared beliefs, customs, and behavior. A school's culture includes the obvious elements of schedules, curriculum, demographics, and policies, as well as the social interactions that occur within those structures and give a school its look and feel as "friendly," "elite," "competitive," "inclusive," and so on.

And those shared beliefs are norms which sources define as "the rules that a group uses for appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. These rules may be explicit or implicit. Failure to follow the rules can result in exclusion from the group."

The idea of norms was still rolling around in my head while I sat on the porch catching up on my reading today. Among the pile of catalogs and journals was the August 25 issue of Education Week highlighting post-Katrina education in New Orleans. As I read about the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy I noticed an interesting detail. In two pictures there are signs on the wall. I assume that they express one of those beliefs that translate into a norm or rule for this school. The signs say

Be nice or be neutral... and nothing else.

While it might not be any of my business, that bothers me a little because it seems to imply "Go along to get along---nice people don't question the status quo." From my perspective it encourages compliance and discourages conversations where diverse points of view and conflicting opinions result in self examination and new insights. I wonder, if that had been our norm this summer, would we have learned much from each other or only reinforced our individual points of view?

But you know what? I don't really know enough about that school's culture to make a judgment; and so I'm going to assume good intentions. Maybe I'm missing something and maybe I just need more information. And, after so much turmoil, maybe "being nice and neutral or nothing else" is what these kids need to stabilize their lives

Ariel is always nice, but she is rarely neutral. And because she is unwilling to settle for "...and nothing else," she challenged me to step outside my own experiences and perspectives. Now I am rethinking whether the norms that work for me are always appropriate for my students. As a teacher, it behooves me to tread cautiously when, however well meaning, I impose my value system on other people's children. Maybe "assume good intentions" assumes too much.

How about:

Assume good intentions, but think for yourself.

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