Difficult conversations: How to get colleagues to discuss touchy topics

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QI’m a high school math teacher in New Jersey. I work with dozens of smart, interesting, kind colleagues, and for the most part all is good. We probably spend a bit too much time patting ourselves on the back, though, because we avoid the tough topics. The culture here is to make nice and avoid confrontation, but that just means the problems we have tend to have get swept under the rug. I think we need to bring up the sensitive, touchy, and downright divisive issues. Several come to mind right away. For instance, our White teachers (and admittedly I’m one of them) have more trouble remembering the names of our Black students than our White students. I think we need to be calling each other out on that. Also, our administration doesn’t make much of an effort to recruit and hire teachers of color. We don’t have a great track record on retention, and I feel like they’ve thrown in the towel. Also not OK. And although female teachers outnumber male teachers at my school 12 to 1, the men consistently are the loudest voices in the room. I could list more problems, but I don’t need help with talking points — I need help getting the party started, so to speak. How can I get everyone to agree to have these difficult conversations in the first place, and then how can we as a group ensure we don’t splinter into factions when we do?

A: I’d take a look at the big picture. Do you have information that highlights the need for these conversations, such as climate survey data, statistics on staff retention or feedback from employee exit interviews? Are there systems in place to collect staff concerns in real time, whether the principal keeps a mailbox in the main office or gives staff access to an anonymous Google document? 

Ideally, some general themes will emerge and your administration and fellow teachers will recognize the need to tackle tough topics together as a group. You have to start somewhere, but your principal will need to be clear that this is just the first of many conversations. No one should feel like one person’s pet peeve gets priority over anyone else’s. Develop a long-term plan from the outset. These are not “one and done” conversations, and there should be a progression from emoting to processing to problem-solving to gathering feedback on whether things are trending in the right direction. 

Consider bringing in a neutral, skilled facilitator to get the ball rolling and to set the tone. This could be a diversity practitioner or someone with experience running community circles. Whether it’s an insider or an outsider, they should acknowledge that these conversations are hard and can trigger intense emotions, such as defensiveness, anger, or hurt. People may be worried they’ll say the wrong thing, or that their voice will get drowned out, or that nothing will change. Put structures in place that address these concerns. For example, make sure staff members know the topic in advance so they can collect their thoughts without an audience. Agree on ground rules for respect, empathy, and confidentiality. Your principal or the facilitator can remind the staff to approach the discussion constructively and with an open mind, and to let go of their assumptions about one another. 

Start by discussing the issue in smaller groups of two to four, then have a representative from each smaller group share out with everyone. Use a timer to ensure that no one monopolizes the conversation. Some individuals will be too reticent to speak in front of even a small group, so provide a way for them to contribute their ideas anonymously. After the meeting, ask everyone to take time to reflect, perhaps in a journal, and come to any follow-up meetings prepared to discuss possible solutions. If you skip that last step, you’ll end up right where you started. 

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Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email contactphyllisfagell@gmail.comAll names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.


PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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