Tough (but necessary) Stuff

The thought of packing and leaving for a regional conference is always a bit daunting for me. It is time taken away from my daily J-O-B duties. It is time on a plane, traveling a considerable distance and dealing with the jet lag that comes with it. It is time away from my family and important life-events like Halloween. I always end up having a moment when I think- Can’t I just get this from the internet in the comfort of my house? However, as has been proven again and again, no, I really can’t get the same learning or have the same experience.

So, on my return home from the EARCOS Leadership Conference in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia this weekend, I would like to share a snapshot of my learning.

Jennifer Abrams- Having Hard Conversations

I attended the following sessions with Jennifer: Having Hard Conversations, Aspiring Leaders, and Being Generationally Savvy. All were eye-opening and applicable.

First of all, Jennifer’s stories about hard conversations, and the right and wrong way to handle them was especially relevant because Jennifer was a teacher, just like me. She brought that teacher-thing to her talk. She reminded me of my best education friends- funny, accurate, ready to call it as she sees it. In short, I followed her from session to session because she made me believe I could learn to do a better job. Her message, though challenging (hard conversations are hard!) is attainable for me as a learner.

Her make-and-take workshop gift? A framework to work through, which can help keep the hard conversation focused. The framework provides a path for pre-thinking and planning before diving in and having the conversation. Not only does that focus improve your ability to be clear, it also helps with sorting out the emotions that always follow these kinds of events.

Hard conversations are always hard. Jennifer can’t show us how to make that go away. However, she challenged us to have them because they are professionally necessary and simply the right thing to do. (And in education sometimes- we don’t-because it doesn’t fit in with the nurturing, hand-holding, everyone-deserves-a-chance belief we have about learning.) With Jennifer’s words ringing in my ears “you aren’t less nice just because you ask someone to do their job” I find I’m ready to become better at something so very difficult. So, I’ve bought her book and plan to sign up for her Ecourse. From there, I aim to practice. That’s the final thing I learned, this is a skill you build up, over time, and get better at.

What a relief. I’m ready to do the heavy lifting.

Jane and Jim Hulbert: Crisis 101: You Have a Crisis Are You Prepared?

Other sessions I attended from The Jane Group include: “Is That Thing On?” “What Keeps You Up at Night?” “The Role of the Board in a Crisis.”

Sitting in my second of these sessions, a Director from a school leaned over to me and said, “If you are here is it because you are interested in being a school director?” “No. No.” I said. I’m interested in being prepared and not being the reason my school’s message gets messed up. I’m here because I’m interested in not making a bad situation worse. Can you imagine being that person? Well, I can.

Originally I hadn’t planned to attend Jane’s workshops. However, as happens at these things, I was in the lobby, waiting for another colleague when I sat next to Jane and started chit chatting. Next thing you know, we are an hour into conversations about our lives, our kids, and our jobs. When Jane’s husband and co-presenter Jim joined us, I knew I needed to follow them around over the weekend too.

Key takeaways? First of all, if ever approached by the media, I have rights. While it isn’t that I didn’t think I did, I had never fully thought through how I would handle being approached. Jane had us practice being in a media ambush. She taught us how to politely navigate the question bombs. How to tell the truth without saying anything potentially damaging, and offered some questions we can ask back to actually find out more about what is going on given the chance we are blindsided and don’t have a clue. While I learned a lot, I know I’m still far from being comfortable with being chased to my car and peppered with questions I don’t know how to answer.

From there, Jane and Jim talked at length about how our schools can plan for and deal with a crisis like the recent international school sexual abuse scandals. To me, the most interesting thing about those sessions was how the climate in the room changed, and my colleagues and I became increasingly uncomfortable with the whole conversation. Knowing that is the reaction, it is even more important to me as a leader and as a member of any school community to make sure we have clear guidelines for protecting our community. These must include hiring and vetting policies and procedures and staff education around how to spot issues of abuse.

The idea I will end on (because it is the most powerful and simple shift they recommended) is to ask this question when interviewing all potential candidates: Have you ever been accused by a school or an individual of inappropriately touching a child? This question lets everyone know we are on the lookout for possible predators. It might just give enough notice to someone hoping to hide in our schools- that we don’t offer that option.

About Jen Munnerlyn

Jen Munnerlyn is the Elementary Principal at the American School of Warsaw. Her international experience began back in 1980 when her parents first started teaching overseas. Jen blogs about her own experiences as a Third Culture Kid, the adventures of being the mother of a TCK, and about elementary education in an international school setting. Her picture book The Adventure Begins, about the first day at an international school, is a favorite among adults and students abroad.
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