The Surprising Thing about Lines in the Sand
This is one of those blog posts where I’m reflecting on my own thinking and evolution as an educator. (I often enjoy reading other educators’ reflections when they’re looking back on how they used to handle certain situations, so I suppose this is written in the same vein.)
Receiving requests from parents that I can’t necessarily say “yes” to comes up somewhat often, and I wonder if you’ve had similar experiences?
This morning I opened my e-mail and read a request from a parent. The nature of the request was probably similar to some of the requests you've received via e-mail, telephone, or in face-to-face conversations with families. And it was definitely coming from a really good place.
There was just one problem with the request...and you may be able to relate to this part too. The problem was that our school doesn't do what the parent was asking for. You might be wondering, "If you're the principal...can't you just honor the request?" Even if we would have tried to say yes, it could have created frustration in the future, inequity, and possibly even organizational chaos (slight exaggeration) :)
One obvious response would have been for me to draw a diplomatic line in the sand with the parent. I’m going to call this “leading with no” because that’s sometimes how it can feel to families who hear well-intentioned administrators denying their requests. I can think of a few sentence starters I’ve used in my career while leading with no:
Leading with No:
"We don't do that here."
"That wouldn't work because..."
"The policy prohibits..."
"Data privacy prevents me from sharing..."
"Past practice doesn't allow me to..."
"If I made an exception here..."
"What you're asking for is inappropriate or conflicts with the values of our community."
Make no mistake about it...leading with no is not always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes saying “no” can be the most appropriate or courageous thing we have to do as educators. For example, if something conflicts with our core beliefs and community values we need to respond accordingly. This often includes a firm "No."
However, there are other instances when the thing a parent or caregiver is requesting comes from a place of deep care for their child. In these instances, I'm learning to listen for the basic need(s) behind the request. This helps me find alternate routes to what a family needs without compromising core values. It also means that instead of always having to lead with no, I might be able to search for the things we can do to help.
When we search for the smaller yeses within a caregiver's request…the things we can both agree on…we can co-create new pathways and options that may even surpass their original expectations. This often means I'm saying "Yes" to something slightly different than what a parent originally asked for, but this is typically due to the fact I'm needing to navigate several important boundaries. It also means I'm needing to listen harder so I can approach these conversations with a level of empathy that does not always come automatically for me.
So, instead of leading with "No" I’m trying to empathize with "Yes" more often.
Empathizing where the “Yeses” Might Be:
"I see why this matters and I'd like to try and help."
"Would it work to..."
"Here are some ways we've helped others with similar requests in the past..."
"Did you know we have the option to..."
"We could try this, this, or this. What am I missing?"
"Help me understand why this is important and we can work together on this."
It's important that the lines we draw in the sand are the right lines so they don't become relational tripwires. The surprising thing about lines in the sand is that they are often surrounded by lots of little yeses when we're really truly interested in trying to help.
When I was a newer administrator I think I missed seeing all that was possible because I was too focused on what wasn’t. The rules were outshining the reason…if that makes sense. I know none of this is earth-shattering, but it feels good to put words to some of my thoughts. I’d love to hear how you handle “lines in the sand” or partnering with parents on requests that are not always doable.
And if this blog post resonated, you might like my newest book, Reclaiming Our Calling: Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education. The book tackles a tension many educators are feeling using a combination of stories and practical strategies. If you’re interested in technology integration, Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Students is a best-seller with Corwin Press. Both books are built on the belief that everything we do in education starts with relationships and connectedness.