In Leading Professional Conversations: Adaptive expertise for schools, Emeritus Professor Helen Timperley outlines the key enablers for effective professional conversations – relationships, resources, processes, knowledge and culture – which support teachers to be independent learners and result in positive impacts on educational, social and emotional outcomes for students. The book features examples of real conversations between school leaders and educators, and practice templates that you can adapt for use in your own school context. This exclusive extract for Teacher readers discusses the importance of firstly establishing the purpose and focus of the conversation, and some things to think about before diving in.
This first strategy may appear to be self-evident as the starting point of all professional conversations but the evidence from my analysis of many conversations is it is often skipped over or stated in very general terms. The issue that arises in these situations is that the person initiating the conversation, usually a leader, assumes the other person knows the purpose, and agrees with it. This results in the leader failing to clarify these important foundations prior to getting started. Beginning a conversation without establishing the purpose often leads to confusion, with the other person wondering why they are having the conversation and sometimes looking for the ‘hidden agenda’ even when there may not be one. Hidden agendas are inconsistent with the values outlined in the introduction and the development of adaptive expertise. A key rule for all these conversations is that there are no surprises. Unpleasant surprises destroy trust.
Establishing the purpose and focus is a balancing act. While clarity establishes trust that there are no ‘hidden agendas’, it can also be controlling if the person initiating the conversation fails to show sufficient flexibility to accommodate the other person’s preferences and priorities. It is important, therefore, to be invitational of the other person’s ideas, so they have an opportunity to contribute to the purpose and express issues that are important to them.
• What is my purpose and focus for this conversation?
• Why this purpose and focus and not something else?
• Have I considered the other person’s preferred purpose and focus? Have I asked?
• How can I state my purpose clearly but in a way that is invitational of the other person’s contribution?
• Have we previously agreed on the purpose and is this conversation a continuation
of the same agenda? If so, do I need to check?
Compare the different openings to the conversations below. This first is from a regional leader (RL) to a school principal and is controlling with a hidden agenda despite the informal language.
RL: ‘Hi, I wanted to chat with you today about the students who are giving you a hard time’ [when you want to talk about the teacher’s classroom management because of a number of complaints].
This next one from a school principal (SP) to a teacher is vague and fails to be open about what you want to talk about and why.
SP: ‘Hi, how are things going?’ or ‘What do you think about …?’
Conversations starting in this way are typically unfocused up to the point when the leader initiating the conversation finally finds an opening for what they want to talk about – which then often comes as a surprise to the other person.
The following examples are both clear and invite the other person to raise issues that are important to them.
In this first example, a senior school leader (SL) has responsibility for focusing faculty meetings on school development priorities. The senior school leader attended a faculty meeting at the invitation of a leader because a teacher was reportedly blocking discussions. The senior school leader opened the follow-up conversation in the following way:
SL: OK, so I wanted to touch base with you following up from being at your faculty meeting the other day and talk about how we can move the faculty forward. Would it still be helpful if we work that out together?
In this second example from a large secondary school, a school principal (SP) wanted to review a difficult reorganisation of the Arts PLC with the PLC leader (PLCL).
SP: I wanted to thank you initially for the support that you’ve provided to the combined junior and senior PLCs in the arts. I imagine that decision has created some difficulties, some challenges for the group coming together like this and I just thought this might be a good opportunity to talk about some of those challenges and see what we can come up with together in terms of addressing them.
PLCL: Sounds good. There certainly have been challenges.
Negotiating the purpose and focus by a phone call or email in advance can save time, particularly when those having the conversation are not in the same school. The following example of a phone call consists of the opening lines from a regional leader (RL) and a school’s team leader (TL).
RL: Thanks for your email and an update on how the testing went on Tuesday. I’m thinking that for tomorrow, focusing on both reading and writing might be too much, so I suggest we focus on the reading part of your email and look at writing another time. Is that ok?
TL: Well, I’d really rather look at inferential comprehension today because it’s this term’s focus.
These more transparent and inclusive conversations share some key features.
• The purpose is clear with context and reason provided (remember a key rule – no surprises).
• The purpose is checked with the other person in a way they are invited to contribute.
Leading Professional Conversations: Adaptive expertise for schools, by Emeritus Professor Helen Timperley, is published by ACER Press and is available to order now via the link.
In this extract, Emeritus Professor Helen Timperley writes: ‘… the person initiating the conversation, usually a leader, assumes the other person knows the purpose, and agrees with it.’
Think about your own approach in this area. If you can, think back to a recent professional conversation with a member of your team that you’ve been leading. Did the other person understand the purpose of the conversation? How did you check this? Did they agree with its purpose? Did you ask?