Speaking Up: Hard Conversations with Ourselves

We’re pleased to present this original conversation between Jennifer Abrams and Robert Garmston concerning the difficult but important conversations educators need to have with themselves about speaking up when critical issues are on the table.

Jennifer Abrams is a former English teacher and new-teacher coach, and a professional developer with two books to her credit. The first, Having Hard Conversations (Corwin, 2009), provides a step-by-step approach to mastering the art of challenging conversations in a wide range of professional situations. Jennifer’s next book, with the intriguing title Being Generationally Savvy: Working Effectively with Educators of All Generations, will be published by Corwin in 2013.

Bob Garmston – a legend in professional development circles – co-authored The Adaptive School, which won the NSDC Book of the Year award when it first came out. Bob is also the co-author of Cognitive Coaching, based on the influential PD model he developed with Art Costa. His most recent book is Unlocking Group Potential to Improve Schools (Corwin, 2012). His next publication from Corwin, Lemons to Lemonade: Resolving Problems in Meetings, Workshops and PLCs, will appear in 2013.

ABPC’s Cathy Gassenheimer had the opportunity to participate in a day-long session with Jen and Bob at the recent Learning Forward annual conference. We’re delighted they’ve accepted her invitation to extend the learning here at our blog.


Bob: So what questions might one ask him or herself as they work toward becoming more effective at speaking up around what matters? In essence, what hard conversation must we have with ourselves before we have one with others?

Jen: Great question, Bob. But why is this important to you?

Bob: I’ve learned from you about the value of asking hard questions and even examples of questions that stir up what you call necessary trouble. I can think of occasions in which I’ve asked difficult questions in order to raise awareness on either ineffective or pedagogically offensive practices. But I’m not sure I am conscious of what goes on in me before I act.

Jen: Well first, let’s talk about the why. As leaders, we are responsible for setting the tone, for raising the stakes, for holding both the mirror and the net. We have to speak up around what matters for schools and students. If we take time to think more intentionally about our hard conversations now we can be in a space of pro-action and not reaction.

Bob: OK.

Jen: Given that, the first question I ask myself is am I looking at something that is educationally or professionally unsound, physically unsafe or emotionally damaging?

Bob: That’s a good description of what prompts me to speak up. Under those circumstances I also ask, can I raise the issue in a manner that unambiguously addresses the challenge while at the same time working to maintain the dignity of those I am talking to? I guess that is the net you speak of. I also ask myself what is the best thing that could happen by my addressing this.

Jen: Yes. I add to that what is the worst thing that could happen by my not speaking up. This is the driver for me to act.

Bob: Another thing I have learned to ask is there something I can learn about myself in this interchange. If I am open, I sometimes discover that I have personal behaviors I can correct.

Jen: So in summary we are saying: Speak up when values or principles are violated; work to maintain the dignity of the other person(s); ask yourself what is the best thing that could happen by acting and what is the worst thing that could happen by not acting.  Anything else?

Bob: A final question that occurs to me is about personal identity. Who am I? Who do I want to be? About what do I care and how much do I dare? If I were a hero in a novel, how would I act in this situation?

Jen: The questions keep coming and they are worthwhile to ponder, but I don’t ever want the questions I ask myself to become paralyzing.
I always go back to social justice advocate and civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis for my final inspirational ‘nudge’ toward speaking up.

When asked the question, “What advice do you have for us as we go into our adulthood,” Congressman Lewis told this group of high school students that his wish for their lives was that they “get into trouble, necessary trouble.” I take his wish to heart and ask myself what trouble is necessary for me to get into, and when I know, I leap.