The fear in dilemma

Day 3 of this Critical Friends Group coach’s training and again, so much to think about.

We spent a fair amount of time today talking about professional dilemmas. I was able to workshop a dilemma of my own, and help some colleagues workshop their dilemmas. In this context, a dilemma is “a puzzle, a problem seemingly without any desirable outcomes.” It’s something that keeps you up at night, that you have some power to solve (if you knew what to do!) and is important enough to keep at it.

Going through the dilemma protocols, we asked and were asked probing questions. Questions that pushed our thinking, that made us consider what might really be going on here. And at some point or another, the presenter of the dilemma was asked to share one or two probing questions that really resonated with them. And I noticed something.

The question “What do you fear about…” came up in every single round I participated in. (Ok, so that question stem was listed in the stems for probing questions that we were given.) But also, every single round, the question “What do you fear about…” was one of the questions that the presenter wanted to think about more deeply. (Caveat: I only have four data points right now.)

So I wonder.

How big of a role does fear play in our dilemmas? I don’t think that this is limited to my professional dilemmas. If I think about all the different things that bother me and keep me up at night, how many of them have a component of fear embedded somewhere in that frustration and worry? And how many of those fears are really the fear that this dilemma has the potential to reveal to me that I am not who I thought I was?

From my current perspective, dilemmas seem to threaten identity. If my students really aren’t learning, then does that make me a bad teacher? If what that person said is true, does that make me a bad person? Did they treat me like this because I am not likable? And perhaps, on some level, we already know what we should do to address our dilemmas, but the risk associated with unearthing a threat to identity make us run in the other direction (and spend a lot of time/energy in that running).

I want to think more about identity and the impact it has on our interactions. (Really, right now I should be sleeping, because these days are maxing me out mentally.) This past year, I read through the book “Difficult Conversations” with some other KSTF fellows because we wanted the tools to have those difficult conversations at work. The authors point out that one of the main reasons that conversations are difficult is because they threaten our identity – I don’t want to talk about that because it makes me seem like a jerk and I believe I’m a good person. I don’t want to talk about this because it makes me look incompetent and I believe I’m more than competent. What is the impact of this situation on my self-image, my self-esteem?

I think we react viscerally to threats to identity. Which might be why dilemmas are dilemmas. If this situation threatens my identity in some way (even if I’m not conscious about it), then I’m definitely going to stew about it. So I guess, if I find myself in a dilemma, I need to ask myself – is there something that I fear about this situation? How might that threaten my identity? And then, how do I acknowledge that threat, accept the disruption, and find a way to move forward?

The risk in reflection

Reflecting can be risky.

I’m on Day 2 of a Critical Friends Group coaches training (sponsored by the Knowles Teaching Initiative, formerly KSTF, with a trainer from the National School Reform Faculty. I’ll be here for three more days and I’ve already had plenty of think about. (What’s a Critical Friends Group? NSRF has an answer to that.)

Day 1 we did an activity around quotes, and this was the one that I picked:

I like this quote because it captures how growth is not easy. There’s plenty of talk in education about teaching students to struggle and teaching them to embrace mistakes as growth opportunities, but mistakes are risky to make. Particularly if they are made publicly. But a part of making mistakes and struggle worthwhile to the learning process is examining them and reflecting on them, and I’m realizing that this reflection piece can feel just as (or perhaps more) risky than just making the mistake itself. How many times have I made a mistake or had a difficult experience and just wanted to get past it, rather than thinking through what happened in that scenario and how I can learn from it?

Today, we read an excerpt from Margaret Wheatley’s book “Turning to One Another” that spoke about the willingness to be disturbed in conversations that we have with one another. There were many parts of this piece that resonated with me, but for right now, a quote:

Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new.

Although the whole excerpt is about how we should be willing to really listen to someone else’s view and let that disturb us so that we can think well together, I also think that the willingness to be disturbed is essential when we reflect on mistakes and difficult experiences. We need to be willing to be disturbed in our assumptions and beliefs about ourselves. And that’s risky. Because what if I reflect on a difficult experience and find that there are so many places in which I can grow? What if I reflect on that difficult experience and find that it makes me question my beliefs and assumptions about who I am? Am I willing to risk having my very identity disturbed?

In teaching, everything is personal. Being a teacher is a core part of my identity; in particular, believing that I’m a reasonably good teacher is a core part of my identity. Reflecting on experiences that could expose this belief as untrue (or at least, not as true as I thought it was) is risky. But if I don’t reflect on my difficult experiences teaching, how will I grow as a teacher? I have many thoughts about the importance of reflection, and I want to promote more reflection in my students, so I need to be willing to take the risk in reflecting on my practice and be willing to face whatever disruptions to my beliefs and assumptions that might come out of that. I need to be willing to dive into the confusion that accompanies having my beliefs and assumptions disrupted, so that I can continue to grow and change.

I don’t think that, as a society, we’re good at acknowledging the importance of mistakes in the growth process or rewarding mistakes. I don’t think that we’re good at recognizing the importance of reflecting on our experiences and really learning from them, growing from them. Rather, we tend to highlight the successes and gloss over the reality that those successes required us to get through many, many difficult situations. But I want to be more willing to acknowledge my mistakes, acknowledge my difficult experiences, and use those to grow. I want to encourage my students to have this attitude, and I want to encourage my colleagues to have this attitude. I’m still not completely sure how to do this (and I’m hoping that the rest of this workshop will help me clarify some next steps for next year), but I’m just trying to remind myself of the importance of this kind of work. Even when it’s hard, messy, and uncomfortable.