Navigating Between the Professional Rock and the Personal Hard Place (Honors Mindset with Garnet Hillman)

Navigating Between the Professional Rock and the Personal Hard Place is a scenario-based blog series aimed at helping educators effectively navigate how to address instructional, cultural, and procedural concerns with colleagues to help achieve a positive outcome (The Professional Rock) in a productive and collaborative manner, all while keeping in mind the ever-present concerns of resentment, fractured relationships, or even retribution that impacts us or, more importantly, our children and students (The Personal Hard Place).

In the first entry of this blog series, Myron Dueck provided his insight and coaching to Beth, a small town elementary teacher attempting to navigate a conversation with a parent regarding concerns stemming from a colleagues classroom. In this entry we turn to Garnet Hillman, a 19 year veteran of education, former world-language teacher and instructional coach, and world-renowned educational consultant and author as we dive into another reader-submitted scenario requiring a professional and effective approach.

As always, names and some personal information have been changed to protect individuals who submitted scenarios. If you are an educator/parent and have ever found yourself to be or currently are Navigating the Professional Rock and the Personal Hard Place and you would like to contribute your scenario to our blog series, please contact me at brandon@firsteducation-us.com.

Series Entry #2 featuring Garnet Hillman, (February 25, 2019)

Cecilia is a veteran secondary educator working in a suburban middle school. She works with underrepresented students who are looking to prepare themselves for career and college success after high school. Many of her students face challenges outside of school that supercede the challenges they face in school. Cecilia is committed to supporting and encouraging her students to challenge themselves and to believe that they can do whatever it is they set their minds to. Unfortunately, not all of Cecilia’s colleagues work within the same mindset.

One of Cecilia’s students, Chantrea, is a hard-working student who averages A’s and B’s in most of her classes and has zero behavior referrals, but she struggles with self-advocacy. Cecilia has encouraged Chantrea to step outside of her comfort zone and challenge herself by enrolling in a 7th grade Honors English course. While difficult and challenging, Chantrea is committed to doing her best to be successful in the course. Her teacher, however, does not believe that Chantrea can be successful in an Honors course.

So much so, that the teacher contacted Chantrea’s mother and convinced her that it would be in Chantrea’s best interest to return to non-Honors English, without consulting Cecilia. Cecilia knows that Chantrea can be successful if given the proper opportunity and support. She’d like to address the matter so as to advocate for Chantrea, who is unlikely to advocate for herself, but isn’t sure how to go about doing so.

Key Question #1: Should Cecilia address her concerns directly with her colleague? If so, how can she do so effectively and professionally?

In this case, I believe Cecilia should address her concerns directly with her colleague. From my instructional coaching background, asking questions to understand the teacher’s point of view is essential. Cecilia needs to listen and honor the teacher’s thoughts, perspective, and concerns before anything else. When she listens to her colleague, it cannot simply be to determine what she will say next. It must be an honest, valid attempt to understand where the other teacher is coming from. It is necessary to include conversation and inquiry in the dialogue.

Some example questions could be:

  • As an honors student in your classroom, what are the expectations academically and behaviorally? (this relies on the expertise the teacher brings to the table)
  • Why are you concerned about Chantrea’s performance in the class? (this refers to the academic and behavioral expectations from the first question)
  • Is there a particular skill set that you feel Chantrea is lacking? (this could be for clarification if necessary after the previous question)
  • Would you be willing to involve Chantrea in the conversation to see how she is feeling about the class? (gentle reminder of the importance of the child’s voice in the decision)

This way, Cecilia can get a read on the situation in order to best communicate what she knows about Chantrea and her aptitude. People are much more comfortable engaging in difficult conversations if they truly feel that their opinion has been heard. When Cecilia shares her perspective on the situation, it can’t be confrontational, and must be based on the evidence she has seen in her classroom. One strategy to accomplish this could be to bring in some of Chantrea’s work to look at together with the other teacher.

The hope would be that Cecilia and her colleague would determine the appropriate placement for Chantrea together. If Cecilia’s colleague still feels strongly that Chantrea will not be successful in the honors class the decision may be to bring her back to the regular 7th grade ELA class even though Cecilia feels differently. If this happens, Cecilia can rely on the information she has learned from her colleague to better differentiate for Chantrea and continue to move her learning forward. No matter the label of the class, teachers share the goal of improving student learning. Chantrea can get what she needs to learn from either teacher.

Key Question #2: Should Cecilia inform her building administrator of her concerns?
To me, this is not a time to involve the building administrator. Cecilia should engage her colleague in dialogue before going up the chain of command at the school. An action such as this can ruin a collegial relationship because one of the people directly involved has not been included in the conversation. It could appear that Cecilia is ‘telling on’ her colleague and is trying to get the administrator on her side before any other conversations happen. Trust is broken, and moving forward the relationship between the two teachers would be very guarded.

If Cecilia and her colleague cannot come to a consensus about the course placement for Chantrea, then it could be a time to bring in an outside voice. The administrator may bring in a different viewpoint that neither teacher had considered previously. When all parties involved are working to determine what is best for the child, collective decision making provides the support Chantrea needs moving forward.

About the Authors:

Brandon Macrafic is a Principal on Special Assignment for Career and College Readiness for the Rochester Public Schools in southeast Minnesota. He also serves as the FIRST Educational Resources Regional Director for the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Brandon started his career as a middle and high school German teacher before serving as a secondary building administrator in both Hayfield and Rochester, MN. His educational passions include school and leadership reform, proficiency based assessment, grading, and reporting, and career pathways. Brandon lives in Kasson, MN with his wife, Katie, who is a kindergarten teacher, and their two children, Henry and Ellie.
Twitter: @BKM31

Garnet Hillman is an educational consultant and author from Crest Hill, IL. She has previously served as an instructional coach in Deerfield, IL and as a high school World Language instructor in Lockport, IL. She has been an educator for nineteen years. Garnet enjoys working with schools and educators to improve instruction, assessment, and grading practices. She works with teachers to incorporate new technology to differentiate instruction and connect with the students on a new level.
A passionate educator, Garnet has extensively researched and implemented standards based learning and grading in her classroom and district to maximize student growth and achievement.

As a ‘lead learner’ wanting to set an example for students and teachers alike, Garnet’s quest for knowledge continues. Her first book, Standards Based Learning in Action, provides teachers, administrators, and schools practical ways to implement Standards Based Learning, Assessment, and Grading in their schools and classrooms. It will be published in January, 2018 (Solution Tree Press). In addition to live presentations on Standards Based Learning and Grading to fellow educators, she enjoys writing about her educational journey in her blog, co-moderating and participating in various education-focused chats on twitter, such as the #SBLchat(Wednesdays, 9pm est/6pm pst) , and working as a mentor. Garnet also enjoys collaborating with fellow educators at various conferences and events throughout the year.
In March 2014, Garnet was chosen as Sophia.org Featured Teacher of the Month. The site featured one article per week for the month of March from Garnet. Read the first in her series about standards-based education, “A Teacher’s Journey of Positive Deviance.”
Garnet likes to travel, read, run, and cook in her free time. She also loves to spend time with her husband and their two wonderful sons.

Twitter: @garnet_hillman

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