REFLECT: 365 - Why can’t I tell everyone the bitter truth about their performance?

By Ed Leaders posted 11-13-2015 08:45 AM




Why can’t I tell everyone the bitter truth about their performance? 


Before I answer that question, I must address another – should I tell everyone the bitter truth about their performance and, if I do, will it make things better? 


I will start by saying there are absolutely times when the direct, bitter truth is necessary.  When someone’s performance becomes toxic to their colleagues, when their behavior is not in the best interests of our students, when their actions begin to harm the overall environment, there is nothing to do but confront the behavior and put a stop to it.  Stopping this kind of behavior will absolutely make things better.


But what about the rest of us, the vast majority of us who spend our days doing our level best?  Sometimes we are great, sometimes good enough and sometimes not quite up to par.  Who among us hasn’t looked in the mirror at the end of a given day and been thankful they weren’t judged by that day’s performance?  If we are faced with the bitter truth about our shortcomings, does it make us better?  I think that depends on how that news is delivered and the quality of the relationship between the people involved. 


On the evaluation front, relationships can be a double-edged sword.  In order to truly help someone improve his or her performance, that work needs to be done in a highly trusting relationship.  No matter how valid the point or well-intentioned the effort, if there isn’t an established base of trust, the message, and any hope of significant improvement is lost.  The other side of the blade is that same relationship may make it difficult to be honest – because we know the truth may result in hurt feelings and changed relationships.  It is impossible for most of us to do this work without developing deep connections with our colleagues.  The most difficult honest conversations are with those to whom we have the closest connections.  And this is what makes us avoid them. 


If I’m honest with myself, I find it much easier to deliver the bitter truth to staff members at the beginning of their careers.  They come to us primed for that conversation.  They have just spent years teaching in front of an audience and then breaking down their performance to its basic elements.  They know they have room to grow and are eager to hone their skills, eager for any feedback they can get. 


Veteran staff present a much bigger challenge.  Long-standing relationships, years of habits – good and bad, and the “this is how I’ve always done it” mindset can present major roadblocks to the bitter truth.  Many of these teachers have developed stellar reputations in the school and the community.  The pride of a successful teaching career can be easily wounded by the suggestion that some areas may need improvement.  The fear of wounding that pride, of de-valuing their hard work makes most of us want to shy away from the conversation.  Yet, if we expect our teachers to grow and, in turn, our students to achieve, these should be some of our most critical conversations. 


In the end, no matter how much we would like to avoid the bitter truth, it will come to light.  Performance issues are rarely as private as we would like to believe.  Parents, students and colleagues are well aware when things aren’t going well.  The only question is – will that bitter truth come to light in the controlled environment of professional conversation and evaluation or in the middle of conflict or controversy?   Addressing these ‘bitter truths’ in a context of support and relationship affords us the opportunity for a successful, respectful outcome.  Avoiding them sets us all up for failure. 

Cece Coffey is the principal of Churchill School in Homewood, Illinois.  She has a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Valparaiso University, a master's degree from National Louis University in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy and did her administrative coursework at Loyola University. She has most recently served as Region Director for South Cook IPA and is a trained S.E.E.D. (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) facilitator.  


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