W0D4 “Start where you are.”

Vaguebooking: An [intentionally] vague Facebook status update that inevitably prompts friends to ask what’s going on. As in:

Mark is: “thinking that was a bad idea”

(An aside again: You really should click on that “Mark” link, especially if you have a friend named Mark.)

Yesterday, I vaguely alluded to the fact that I might have something unpleasant to deal with today.

…I think I might have a tricky day ahead of me tomorrow, based on an email I received moments ago.

I received an email indicating that there was some tension brewing in one of my teaching teams. It seemed both people had the best interests of the girls at heart, but different priorities. One emailed me and asked me to weigh in and define the roles of instructor and TA in a meeting we are having on Friday. Ugh. I became mildly nauseated – there’s a part of my mind that just wants everything to go smoothly so I don’t have to deal with this. But that’s not why GWC hired me. My feeling comes from a time when I didn’t have good tools for these types of situations. I think I’m getting better at it now.

First instinct, don’t deal with it by email – too fraught with the peril of misunderstanding. Still, I needed to respond.

First, thank you for reaching out so quickly. I know that’s not an easy thing to do.

Your instincts are right that this is very important to address sooner rather than later.

I also know that this is the kind of thing that might keep you up at night, so I wanted to respond right away. We need you well rested 🙂

We agreed to meet this morning for coffee. I’m thinking,“Good call, Ochterski – you just bought yourself some time.” I knew what I wanted to do, but on the way downtown this morning, I looked at some conflict resolution web sites just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

Before today, I had only met her once, in a meeting with the corporate host for her classroom. One of the things that struck me was when she asked the host, “Is there a place we can take the girls outside to unwind?” Ah! Someone who gets it and can see the needs the girls will have even before meeting them. Good teacher instincts. The force is strong in this one.

My basic plan for this morning was this: 1) ask a question, 2) listen 3) validate 4) then do it again 5) maybe, just maybe, offer a “what if”.

The first question (after “Hello”) is always “How are you feeling today (or right now)?” Yoga sutra 1.1: “Atha Yoga anushasanam”. My Sanskrit is a little rusty these days, and every site translates this a little differently (“Now, after having done prior preparation through life and other practices, the study and practice of yoga begins.” or “Then comes the right time to undertake the practice of yoga.“) A translation I’ve heard and particularly like is “Start where you are.” First, of course, you need to know where you are, hence this question. It is also a way of communicating “I know you are going through something, and it’s OK to talk about it”.

It opened the flood doors a little bit, and she started telling me a lot about what had been going on. We hadn’t actually gotten into the coffee shop yet. This was fortuitous, as was my poor choice of a coffee shop. Wait, what? It is so easy to find good coffee shops these days – “OK Google, coffee shop near 9th Avenue and 34th Street” Red Eye Coffee – 4.8 stars on Google, 4.5 on Yelp. Boom. Done. However, if you don’t actually READ about the place, you wouldn’t know that there is no seating there. I bought both drinks (If you feed them, they will follow you. Best advice ever.) The transaction in the shop interrupted our conversation long enough that I could back up a bit. After all, we hardly knew each other.

We walked toward the host site, which was about 15 minutes away, looking for a place to sit and talk. It was a pleasant, if breezy, morning, and we found a plaza with tables, chairs and shade after about a block and a half. Along the way, I tried to get to know her – Where are you living this summer? (She is from the West Coast and is still trying to understand New York weather), How did you you get involved in GWC? and so forth. I learned a lot about her teaching background, philosophy, and goals. Just listen – no need to make conversation here.

Over the next hour, we teased apart the situation. I did my best to listen, then repeat back what she had said, changing the words, but still capturing what she said. “Let me tell you how I understood what you said, and let me know if if I have it right, and correct me if I’m wrong.” When I did this, I tried to reframe what she said, to help look at it from another perspective. “A sense of superiority” (she didn’t want to use that word, but no other one came to mind) became “maybe their confidence in their technical skills makes them want their opinions to carry more weight”.

What I got was that there were two experts in the room – one in tech, one in teaching, and they probably had different ideas about how the class should look and feel and what should be taught. I said that it sounded like she was looking for a way to get both people what they want, and not have an antagonistic, win-lose situation around every disagreement. She agreed. As I said, the force is strong in this one. GWC knows what they are doing when they hire people. I try to remember this when I lose my confidence.

Fortunately, GWC gave us a tool which may have saved the day. They called it “the decision making framework”. It is new this year. It is a three point checklist for making decisions:

  1. Advocate for all students
  2. Make your thinking visible
  3. Build more than code

That’s brilliant stuff right there, and the solution to the problem. It gives both people a common goal to work toward – something they both have to subordinate their opinions to. It gives them a way out, and a way to resolve conflicts – which idea is closer to the framework?

We also came up with some ideas about how to rebuild the teaching team after the difficult day yesterday – use the same tools we use with the girls. With them, we have them write a classroom contract, so what if they tested that activity plan by making a teaching team contract? With the girls, we practice affirmation bonding activities. State what strengths you see in the other person. OK, what if the teaching team practices that? Fortunately, the tech person is also a big proponent of bonding, so it should go OK.

All the teaching staff I talked to remember hearing about the decision making framework, and remember the first point, almost. Advocate for all (girls?students?people?). Almost no one can remember the rest. I’ve tried, and I have the gist of each, but I still get messed up on the specific wording. I have the same difficulty with lyrics in songs – it is one of the ways my brain has changed since I was younger – I get the gist better, but the specifics less so.

So, my plan is this: tomorrow morning, with the help of Staples ( which is 187 stairs and half a mile and from here (close to the 231st Street station), and has more stuff than my local Staples in CT), I am going to make a laminated card for each teaching team (I checked, they can print and laminate my document). That was easy.

Post script: I just received an answer to my check in email. Things went better today, but there is still some tension.

Everybody knows Bruce Tuckman’s stages of team formation, right? (Form, storm, norm, perform). Start where you are.


2 thoughts on “W0D4 “Start where you are.”

  1. Great post. I’m gonna share it with the team builder in the family. (As you know, I’m just not a team player. ;))

    A bit a caviling: I think you want your third word to be “intentionally” rather than “internationally.”

    Best of luck w/ this one. 🤞

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