Courageous Conversations for Cowards

This is the information generation. Information about everyone and everything is at our fingertips. New social media sites are created almost daily. Although it seems like we communicate all the time, more often than not, we communicate electronically, not person to person. Why is that?

One would assume that communication among staff members within a school is constant, but it isn’t. Educators talk about students, other staff members, parents, and the administration (especially the administration), but they rarely share their own professional challenges with those around them. And when it comes to giving colleagues feedback to support their professional growth, even the most confident educators seem to avoid it at all costs. Why? What are we afraid of?

We are afraid of the reaction or response that the feedback may generate. Often, school and team leaders prefer to excuse or ignore the inadequate instructional skills of teachers rather than confront them. They tolerate negative interactions between their co-workers and the students in order to keep the peace on their team. They often are frustrated with the school administration for not “doing something or saying something.”

Research shows that improved instruction leads to higher student achievement; therefore, it is imperative that school leaders—administrators, department chairpersons, and team leaders—not shy away from having “courageous conversations” to address challenges and stimulate the professional growth of staff members.

SOS for Leaders

It’s been said that “Success comes when preparation meets opportunity.” The opportunity already exists for courageous conversations. With a little preparation—an SOS strategy— even the most timid leaders can be successful. Here are some strategies to help you prepare fora courageous conversation.

Surround yourself with the facts.

  • Schedule meetings for times when you are rested and prepared.
  • If you are addressing a particular incident or issue, allow ample time for all parties to calm their emotions prior to sitting down together for a collaborative, problem-solving discussion.
  • Before the meeting gather information—data, dates, e-mails, notes, and artifacts.
  • Plan exactly what you are going to say.

Offer solutions.

  • At the beginning of the meeting, introduce everyone and explain why each person is there.
  • Reiterate the reason for the meeting and present the facts and information you gathered.
  • Present possible solutions.
  • Clearly state the non-negotiables.
  • Make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.
  • Summarize the meeting, reviewing all solutions and agreements.
  • Include due dates and identify the person or persons responsible for next actions.

Stay calm.

  • If you have requested the meeting, remember that you have positional power. You are in control.
  • Don’t give control away, but share it as needed.
  • Don’t take negative behavior or negative reactions personally.

Test Your Courage

Here are three scenarios. Choose the best action based on the SOS model:

Scenario 1. A team leader consistently leaves 30 minutes before the duty day is over. When questioned by colleagues, he has stated that the last period of his day is his planning time, so it doesn’t make a difference. He is well-respected in the school and often volunteers for extra duties such as lunch duty and after-school plays and sports events. However, everyone knows that he has been allowed to leave early for years, and some staff members resent the fact that he has been “getting away with it.” The principal has asked you, the assistant principal, to talk to him about the importance of putting in a full day. What do you do?

  1. Meet him at the door as he’s leaving and say, “Hey, where are you going?”
  2. Send him an e-mail stating his hours.
  3. Change his schedule to start 30 minutes earlier and alert him to the change via a memo to him.
  4. Schedule a meeting via e-mail and put “Duty Hours” in the subject line.

We chose D. In this case, it will be most beneficial to meet with this person face-to-face. Before the meeting, gather several days or weeks of information to document the time the team leader leaves.

Begin the meeting by acknowledging his contributions to the school and sharing that the staff respects him and appreciates his extra volunteer activities. Present the facts about his early departure, state the problem with his leaving 30 minutes before the official day is over, and ask him if he has a solution. If he agrees to stay until the end of the day, great! If he refuses, be prepared to offer a solution such as changing his start time or inform him that during the next semester or next school year he will have a class for the first and last period of the day.

Do not be surprised if the meeting appears to go well and the problem seems resolved, only to have the teacher go back to his early-release habit. In this case, send him another e-mail documenting what you had discussed and agreed upon and request another meeting. Again, begin by recognizing the positive contributions and end with whatever solutions you both agree upon. Stay calm and monitor his departure time. If he continues to leave early, move forward with a new solution.

Scenario 2. You are presenting student data during a staff meeting. During your presentation, a teacher raises her hand and questions the validity of the data you are sharing. She states, in front of the entire staff, that the data are wrong. How do you respond?

  1. Say, “Thank you for bringing that to my attention, what data are you questioning?”
  2. Invite the teacher to correct the data.
  3. Ignore the teacher.
  4. Say to the teacher, “Let’s talk after the meeting.”

We chose A. Sometimes you have to probe more before offering solutions. Ask the teacher specific questions about her data: where she got it, when, and how. Maintain control of the meeting by addressing her accusations immediately. If your facts are wrong, apologize right then and there and thank the teacher for the correction. If your data are correct, explain why and move on.

Stay calm. You have positional power and don’t have to relinquish control to the teacher.

After the staff meeting, schedule a meeting with the teacher and give her a chance to state why she interrupted you. Review the proper procedure for addressing a mistake that isn’t glaring and will not have an immediate impact on instruction. If a similar incident occurs again, document the interruption in the form of a memorandum.

Scenario 3. A parent contacts you and states that her child’s teacher has entered only three grades and the marking period ends tomorrow. You pull up the online grade book and see that the parent is correct. You call the teacher in and share the parent’s concerns. The teacher becomes upset, calling the parent a liar. When you show her the data, she says, “I’m out of here” and gets up to leave. What do you do?

  1. Call for security, open the door, and say “Go.”
  2. Tell the teacher to calm down.
  3. Ask the teacher why she is reacting this way.
  4. Apologize to her and ask how you can help.

We chose C. Even if you are not a big fan of this teacher, she is a staff member and part of your school. By the same token, it’s not your fault that she is upset, so don’t apologize.

Start by thanking her for meeting with you and ask her why she is so upset, what made her think walking out was the best solution. Then, gather more information. Find out whether other assessments were given and, if so, whether the student completed those assessments. Determine why the grades weren’t entered into the system. Then offer solutions to mitigate the problem. Document the meeting with a follow up e-mail. Review expectations and ask if anything else is needed.

Recipe for Success

The next time you must have a courageous conversation, think SOS: Surround yourself with the facts, Offer solutions, and Stay calm. You are having the conversation to improve student achievement. You have a lifeline. Use it.

Deborah R. Higdon is principal at Lakelands Park Middle School, Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Carrie L. Reed is assistant principal at Lakelands Park Middle School, Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2015.


  1. I like this article a lot. Sometimes it is uncomfortable to be in certain situations, especially if you are unsure of how to handle it. Using SOS (surround yourself with facts, offer solutions, and stay calm) is a great way to start being comfortable with the uncomfortable. Thank you for this!

  2. This article is super helpful! For many, conversations and difficult conversations can be immensely intimidating to not only start but follow through with. The outline over various strategies to start a meeting, develop a meeting, and prepare for a meeting are super helpful for not only future educators but also veterans in the field! “SOS: Surround yourself with the facts, Offer solutions, and Stay calm” is a great way to remind ourselves as educators that even difficult situations possible to come out on the other-side of.

  3. Feel like I could use this article because I am someone who tends to avoid courageous conversations when possible. Conflict is a big issue for me and so reading how I can better handle it by presenting strong facts and staying calm will help. I am not one to come across as a know it all or judgmental so being able to still help others grow as I am will create a better school environment.