Field Trip: Conflict & Leadership: Shattering the Status Quo
The principal’s world includes plenty of conflict. And while conflict is never easy, it’s not always bad.
Paul O’Neill and Dennis Griffin, Jr. are principals in schools hundreds of miles apart — yet they regularly encourage and challenge each other through #EduGladiators, an online community of learners. Today, Paul and Dennis talk about leadership and conflict, and how when conflict arises, school leaders have a huge opportunity to encourage growth, impact school culture, and create a better educational landscape for students.
- How leaders can channel conflict toward productive outcomes
- What happens when leaders simply try to avoid conflict
- Fostering transparency and building relationships that lead to positive growth
- How to deal with conflict when taking leadership at a new school
- Big, burning questions to wrestle with as leaders
For Further Reading:
Get our eBook: “The Power of Failure — Encouraging Teachers to Take Risks in a Risk-Free Environment.” A look at helping teachers develop a growth mindset.
It doesn’t matter where you are, or who you are… conflict is inevitable. That may be especially true in a world as complex, and with such high stakes, as education.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: My idea of collaboration is that we’re sitting down, we’re having a transparent conversation where I can show you what my data is, I can tell you my weaknesses, and we’re going to help each other grow. Well, I had to learn as I was shifting cultures and the different schools that I worked in, that’s not true for everyone.
The thing is, as we’re going to get into today, conflict isn’t always bad. And in fact, often, it’s vital.
PAUL O’NEILL: So for us to sit in a room and all agree means that nobody’s thinking, you know, if we all think the same, there’ll be thinking. So it’s important for us to the question and examine are we doing what’s best for kids?
Today we’re exploring conflict and leadership. In particular, we’re looking at how leaders can not just avoid conflict, but use it, to build the kind of school environments that are good for students, and good for teachers and staff.
PAUL O’NEILL: I think when people feel cared for, and they feel appreciated and respected and acknowledged, that’s when you’re going to have educators that want to run through the wall for each other. And it has to go both ways. I don’t want teachers just to run through the wall for me. I want to run through the wall for them!
From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
RYAN ESTES: Today, I’m speaking with Paul O’Neill, Supervisor of Instruction at Mill Pond Elementary School in New Jersey, and Dennis Griffin, elementary principal at Brown Deer School District in Wisconsin. Paul and Dennis, thanks a lot for speaking with me today.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: Thank you for having us.
PAUL O’NEILL: Yeah, we’re excited to be here. Ryan. Thank you for the opportunity.
Paul and Dennis work in different parts of the country. They met through a Twitter group called EduGladiators.
RYAN ESTES: Well, we’re here today to talk about conflict and leadership, and I want to ask you first, as leaders in schools, what kinds of conflict do you encounter in your jobs?
PAUL O’NEILL: Well, I think there’s quite a bit of conflict. I think that some of that conflict can be positive conflict, which inspires growth. And I think some of that conflict can be negative conflict that comes from a place of misunderstanding or comes from a place of disagreement. And it’s not that that negative type of conflict cannot produce growth. It certainly can. I think it’s how we approach that conflict, which is key. But I like to think of times where I’ve sat in meeting rooms with people and we’ve talked about student experience, we’ve talked about student achievement, and we maybe didn’t necessarily agree on how to get there… because I think—I know—that the two are closely related.
If you want to improve student achievement, then you’ve got to make sure that the student is having a great experience in your building and in your community. So for us to sit in a room and all agree means that nobody’s thinking. You know, if we all think the same, nobody’s thinking. So it’s important for us to question and examine, “Are we doing what’s best for kids?” We talk a lot about the status quo, and the status quo, it gets a bad rap, but if it’s the best thing to do for kids, then the status quo is okay, you know, it’s good to do that. But if we’re just going to roll over initiative after initiative because it’s the way we’ve always done things, that then that can be dangerous. Quick story, I was part of a meeting and we were talking about increasing test scores and making sure that our data was representative of the talents that our students had.
We talked about the fact that our students were most particularly struggling in math, and one of the solutions was, “Well, we’re going to give them more math,” and a large part of the room agreed that would be a good idea. And my question was, “If we’re struggling, if the kids are struggling with what we’ve given them, what’s going to make it different if we increase the seat time?” You need to look at the quality of instruction and the quality of the learning experience as well. Not just look at the quantity of time that we deliver that instruction alone.
Dennis also began by asking that question – how can educators really impact the lives of students? It’s a tough question, because it means taking a hard look at the realities of our world today, and of our educational system today, and even looking at the work we’re doing ourselves. And that’s not always comfortable.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: But at the same time, if we don’t address our current reality, how can we ensure the future of the students that we serve? How do we build collaborative teams? Because when we sit down, we all have different viewpoints. We all have different perspectives, we all have different talents and different strengths. I read some quote the other day on Twitter. Paul, I was going to share it with you. The gentleman said, and I wish I remember who said it, “You’re willing to tolerate your weaknesses in other people.” And when you think about collaborative teams within the schools, who holds who accountable? If this is something that we’re doing to move forward, how do we get everyone to lock arms and move forward, versus “We’re going to wait for the administrators go hold everybody accountable.” There are so many levels of conflict that happen within schools when you’re talking about kids to kid conflict, parent to parent conflict, parent to teacher conflict. Every moment is an opportunity to overcome an obstacle. But there is some type of conflict involved, and without that conflict there is no leadership, but you have to determine when do you want to address it. Do you want to address it in the beginning and help set the culture and the standard? Or do you want to let it grow by ignoring what’s happening? And when you ignore things, you actually validate them, making the conflict and the status quo even stronger.
Because many people are hardwired to shy away from conflict, I asked Dennis and Paul how leaders should respond. Is it the leader’s job to mitigate conflict? And Dennis said, no.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: Because conflict is inevitable. And no matter what you do within a system, oftentimes somebody doesn’t benefit initially, and that creates a level of conflict, a level of discomfort that tends to happen. Ultimately, I think what the leader is supposed to do is to help create a collaborative, shared vision amongst everyone that lets everyone know we haven’t arrived, conflict is going to be there, but this is the idea that we are striving for. And collaboratively we can strive and we can make it here. This is something that’s attainable, but it isn’t about me as the leader. It’s about the team. Because leadership is really about relationships. So you have to be able to get people to move with you if you’re going to be a leader.
PAUL O’NEILL: Great point, Dennis. It brings me to the example of when people talk about a plant not growing and they say when a plant doesn’t grow, you don’t get rid of the plant, you change the environment and put it in a better place to grow. So how I feel like that applies to our situation here in education, but really in any organization, is it’s our job as leaders to continually shift the lens. And we have to shift the lens ourselves in order to create… I don’t like to use the word “buy-in” because I feel like if you use the word buy-in, buyers can be sellers. So when things get bad, they may decide to push their chips in a different direction. So I like to use the word “investment.”
I think when you invest in the something then you can really use conflict as an opportunity to grow something in a positive way. Even though when it doesn’t look positive, if you think about it from an educational perspective, many districts are facing the same financial crunch, where difficult conversations have to happen and difficult decisions or are being made. And it would be very easy for people in leadership positions to get frustrated and to allow their frustrations to become contagious and to bring others down. But we have to find a lens to look at it through so that we can put on a smile every day when we come in and like the old deodorant commercial, never let them see you sweat. You want to be able to come in and provide that positive reassuring reinforcement, even when things aren’t going well and you use conflict as an opportunity and a springboard for growth.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: And one of the things that allows that conflict to happen, learning. A lot of conflict is created when you learn something. Because when you start to learn, you question your current paradigm, and there’s a conflict between your current paradigm and what you learned, and it’s going to eventually create a new paradigm for you in regards to the way you think, and that’s going to influence your actions and your next steps. So continuous learning creates conflict in itself.
RYAN ESTES: So schools might be rich, rich ground for conflict just by virtue of the fact that learning is the goal there. Let me ask this. There are obviously different kinds of conflict and certainly some conflict is harmful, some is helpful. What do you think differentiates between helpful and harmful conflict? What makes it either good or bad?
PAUL O’NEILL: I think it’s the place that you come from, it’s very agenda based. When you’re doing things, whether it’s delivering news, delivering initiatives, you know, we all suffer from initiative fatigue at times cause it’s constantly the new, the new, the new, with very rarely stuff going away. But it’s about being able to create a healthy culture where people understand that. And my superintendent, Dr. Vanessa Clark, talked about it today in our administrative academy. She talked about ladder climbing and ladder holding. And I really liked that example because I felt like it’s very easy for people to chase titles, very easy for people to chase a vision of what they have. And they’re constantly climbing and they’re trying to get to a point, but it’s so important for us to not forget the people that we work with.
And leadership is about helping someone see something that they didn’t see in themselves before, helping them be a star in their role. I talked to you Ryan one time earlier about it before, not everybody can be the coach of the football team, not everybody can be the yearbook advisor. So what is it that that makes you passionate and how can you use that lack of a vision at this time, the first steps of the staircase aren’t there, but how can you use that inner conflict, like Dennis talked about before, to create the culture that you desire and create a way that you can contribute to the student experience to make it phenomenal for them?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: The other part about it is, a lot of times when you’re engaging in conflict, it’s a sense of loss that people are going to feel, and you’re dealing with that. And a lot of times the loss is so close to their belief system that it’s how you’ve identified yourself. It’s how you find value in the world that you live in. And it’s how you navigate the world. For example, you talk about some of the systems within schools. Sometimes the hard part is, “I’ve identified myself in this capacity and it works for me, but I’m not understanding the harm that is causing someone else. And how do we get people to understand all these different perspectives and that that’d be the impetus for change?” Because without that, what are we doing in regard to ensuring that our kids are going to be successful adults and prepared to be the leaders that the world absolutely needs?
RYAN ESTES: We’ve been looking at this from a pretty high level up to this point. And Dennis, you were telling me earlier that this is your first year at a new district. And I want to ask, how have you seen these things play out as you’ve worked in multiple districts, places with different people, different cultures, different ways of doing things? What does all this look like on the ground?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: On the ground, it gets very interesting. We all have this idea of what we think schools should be and we think that everybody thinks the exact same way that we think. And then all of a sudden you get started and you’re like, “Oh my goodness, we don’t think the same!” Or you read a vision or a mission statement and you’re like, “Okay, this is what we’re going to live by.” But then our actions don’t live up to it. And on the ground level, the very first thing that you can do is just take time to talk to people and get to understand what their hopes, what their dreams are. And once you know that, you can kind of start to understand the culture that you’re in.
But if I know what the aspirations are, then I can say— I’ve said this to Paul before. I ask people all the time before they engage in conflict to ask themselves two questions. Number one, is your vision of tomorrow greater than the conflict? If it’s not, don’t engage, because all you’re going to do is come in to some stumbling blocks. You’re going to stop and then the status quo is going to grow stronger. But if your vision is greater, go ahead and engage. One of the things that comes up all the time, and I’ll talk to Paul about this, is our idea of collaboration. My idea of collaboration is that we’re sitting down, we’re having a transparent conversation where I can show you what my data is. I can tell you my weaknesses and we’re going to help each other grow. Well, I had to learn as I was shifting cultures in the different schools that I worked in, that’s not true for everyone.
And there was a time that wasn’t true for me, where I was guarded with my data because I didn’t want to be the “bad teacher.” But how do we move beyond that artificial space that’s only created in our head, that we’re asking kids to do things that sometimes we’re not willing to do ourselves? It goes back to that whole team philosophy that how do we get everyone in the room to sit down, paint the vision, and move toward that vision and measure that vision? What are the actionable steps that we can come back to and look at every 100 days, if possible, to say, “This is what we’re doing to ensure that we’re going to get towards success?”
So… what does that look like?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: Here’s a good one. I’m really big into teacher collaboration around student data and I was told that collaboration was happening, so I’m asking, “When are the times that collaboration was happening?” And I was giving some times that it would happen, and I like to collaborate with people, I’m very hands on. I showed up and people weren’t there, so I’m thinking like, “Oh, it was the first time, not too big of a deal.” The next week comes, everybody didn’t show up again, and I’m scratching my head saying, “What does that say about our culture?” Because if we’re going to collaborate to ensure that students are succeeding, we need to meet. We need to share out that vision.
And it got to the point where I had the decision to make: do I go and talk to teachers and say, “This is the expectation. This is the room that we’re going to be in. This is what I want you to do around the data. This is what our PLCs are going to look like”? Or do I not say anything and just look at the terrain for the next two to three months before I decide to make a decision on what we need to do, when I’ve already gathered enough information? When you have people like Paul in your corner that you can call and bounce these ideas and your thoughts off of, you know what you have to do. And we decided to say, “Hey, on this day we’re all going to meet in our PLCs. I’m going to be there. You are going to be there, you’re going to look at this type of data. We are going to support each other. We are going to be transparent in our data.”
Which caused conflict for me, because initially the school that I was at, it happened at a couple of schools, we didn’t have transparency in our data across the school. So at your grade level you might have known how you are doing as a teacher, but you never knew how your school, how your peers are doing. So we shifted to, “Let’s show your data to everyone in the school, so that everyone can be informed, so we can all aspire towards our goals.” There was even a time I shared that data out with our parent community. Now, people didn’t talk to me for like two weeks after I did that. But it shifted our culture in such a degree that we became more collaborative. And I always ask myself, “What would have happened if I decided not to do that? What would have happened if I would have waited two or three weeks to make such a decision?” At the end of the day, initially it was harmful because people felt the sense of loss about sharing their scores. But once their belief systems changed around collaboration, it actually helped our culture.
RYAN ESTES: It helped your culture?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: Mm hmm.
RYAN ESTES: That’s fantastic. Walk me through that a little bit, too. As people’s beliefs shifted and things came around, what kinds of things did you hear from folks?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: All of a sudden, what started to happen is then initially people would say things like, “It’s not as bad as I thought it was. Coming with my classroom.” The would ask a coach to come help them. They would ask me to come see what they were doing in their classroom and they would want to share how it’s working. You would get people asking to go present at different conferences because they thought they really had some strong ideas that they want to share with others. It built this capacity within everyone that, we always talk about what teacher leaders are, but we really became a community of leaders versus having one leader that was really propelling our school in a great direction. And people started to hold each other accountable. There are certain organizations in sports that you go to that organization, you know this is how they do business.
That starts to become our culture where if you are new and you want to be a part of this, this is how we operate. We want to value your ideas, but do not come in and try to dismantle what we’re currently doing. This is the way that we’re going because we’re seeing our students succeed. And our morale is rising because I don’t feel alone. I don’t feel isolated. Paul always talks about this, and I steal his line the time, “Move beyond the artificial barriers of yours school,” and this is a conflict issue. So many times in our schools, we’re still siloed. It’s 2019 and we barely talk to the educator next door about what’s best practice or about what our data says or about how we can assist each other. How can I learn from you? We have to create those conditions and that’s conflict that we have to engage in.
RYAN ESTES: Paul, let me ask you to expand on that idea right there. The idea of moving behind beyond the artificial barriers and walls of your school. How has doing that helped you and your thinking about conflict evolve and grow over time? Obviously you and Dennis have worked together a lot, but where have you seen this be a help to you personally?
PAUL O’NEILL: I’m going to say something and it’s going to sound very dramatic, but I mean this with all sincerity. Twitter saved my life. You know, it changed my life. And the reason why it did was because for many, many years I would connect with educators in my schools, in the local community. But the conversations would always end the same way. You know, whether people felt they didn’t have enough time, they didn’t have enough resources. They didn’t have enough support and didn’t have enough money, whatever the case may be. And we ended with reasons why we were stage one thinkers. We would identify the problem, and why it was a problem, and we couldn’t move past that. So I started to write a little bit, and was doing some writing on LinkedIn and I just found that LinkedIn wasn’t the community that was right for me.
So I moved that writing to Twitter and published a few things on Twitter and did some educational chats. This was back in 2014 and I realized that I was amongst a community of other people who had either been in similar situations, or could relate the situations or maybe even, and this was the best part, maybe I was able to help somebody because they were in a situation I had previously been in. There’s this power of a PLN, of a professional learning network. It was so profound. There were so many people out there that were looking for reinforcement and support, that whole Twitter population is just explosively curious. People coming out, seven nights a week there are chats, there’s a lot of content being pushed out there. And I feel that that’s a great way to use conflict as a learning experience when you feel like there are artificial boundaries that limit you, speaking about what Dennis talked about before, your school building or your school district, if you never get out beyond those artificial boundaries and network with other people and have learning experiences with other people, then the lens that you’re looking through just remains limited.
The thing is, when people disagree, that conflict doesn’t always lead to growth. In order for that to happen, you need trust. You need to know that the other person, or the other people that you’re in conflict with, are actually on your team. So I asked Paul and Dennis, how do each of you personally build the kind of culture where conflict isn’t destructive, but leads toward positive change?
PAUL O’NEILL: Hey Dennis, I’ve been chomping at the bit on this one. I had an acronym written down and you know, we’re educators and we lived for acronyms, you know, ABC one, two, three. We’ve got an acronym for everything. Would you mind if I kick this one off? I’ll set it up and let you knock it down.
So I have an acronym written down. It’s TBA, you know, like To Be Announced. And anytime you see “TBA,” it creates uncertainty. We don’t know what it’s going to be. It’s going to be announced, wait for the time, wait for the details to come. But one of the acronyms that TBA also stands for is trust, belief and accountability. And I think that those three things work hand in hand, but it’s no coincidence that trust is first.
That’s the foundation that it has to be built upon. And I’m going to use an example from my current district from this past school year. I had been in this district since 2006 and I was transferred from the high school/middle school level as a supervisor of special ed and world language to an upper elementary school. It’s grades five and six, but we also service some adorable preschoolers as well. And I was given the opportunity to be a supervisor of instruction in this position. Now I didn’t know a lot of the staff very well, but at the same time, when you work in a district like ours — we have about a little over 4,000 kids in six schools, it’s not the biggest district, so word travels fast, and you only get one reputation.
And I was fortunate enough to have a good reputation through our work and good decision-making and collaborating. My reputation followed me. But I mentioned to the staff when I first got an opportunity to meet with them all together, I said, “I don’t want to come here based on my reputation and to have you think things are going to be a certain way. I want to build something with you. I want to build something special with you.” This building that I’m in has some very passionate educators.
But, Paul said, there had also been a number of changes in leadership over the past 10 years. That has meant a lot of different initiatives. And that led to some uncertainty.
PAUL O’NEILL: So trust is important and you’ve gotta be patient and willing to again, invest in people and be available. You know, they talk about availability being the best ability and it really is, it truly is. When you’re available for people, available to have conversations, available to listen, available to collaborate, that starts building the trust, because then you get to know people. And when you get to know people and you see again where they’re coming from and where their heart is and what makes them tick, then you get to start to know people that way. Then the trust can begin. And once the trust begins, now you start to have a belief. You have a belief in each other. You know that I know what you stand for and I know if I need you, I can come to you. And that that works both ways, from teachers to administrators and back and forth, and staff.
So another saying I enjoy is, “Belief is a competitive advantage.” And it really is. We see every day when we believe in students, how powerful that is, how that that allows students to dream bigger than their wildest expectations of what they can do or what they can accomplish or where they can achieve. Just because we’re adults, it doesn’t mean it’s any different. It works the same way. You know, when we’re believed in, it’s limitless what we can accomplish. And then once we have those two factors together, now suddenly we can look at holding each other accountable, because now we’re talking about rowing together in the same direction. Now we’re talking about what we can accomplish if we work together, and now we can start talking about who’s doing what work, by when. And when we hold each other accountable and we have trust and belief, anything is possible.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: Wow. I think you took care of it all right there, to be quite honest. And one of the things that I like that you did Paul, is that I often ask members of groups that I work with, “Let’s be careful to define what we’re saying,” because a lot of times we throw a word out there such as trust. Well, what exactly do we mean by “trust”? Do we mean, “I trust you to do your job”? Do we mean that we’re going to be transparent in regard to I can be open and honest with you and there’s going to be support rather than judgment? What exactly do we mean when we’re saying we believe? Like, what do you believe in? Because there’s a lot of times when we put words out there and they’re not clearly defined, and it creates a lot of gray space for everybody within the organization.
So by asking a lot of intentional questions, you’re able to help delineate for everyone exactly what you mean and exactly what the vision is.
Dennis said that since coming to Brown Deer a few months ago, he loves that he has been encouraged to ask a lot of questions. Why are things done a certain way? Why is there this tradition? Why is the culture this way?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: And by asking the questions, I’m able to understand the dynamics of our culture, and I’ve been encouraged to make it my own, to build a team and make it our own right away.
Well, there’s a lot of power in that. And I don’t like making comparisons between education and sports, but sometimes that’s where we go. Think about when a sports team hires a new coach. We do not expect that coach to go in and continue to do the exact same things that the previous coach did. If that happens, everybody’s upset. When you hire someone, you’re expecting them to bring you along in the change process and doing that, you know that there’s going to be a certain level of conflict that’s going to come out from that, because they are going to bring ideas and you’re going to have ideas and there’s going to be a collision of these ideas, and hopefully it turns out to be something great. If not, that’s when we go through this continuous improvement process of refinement and looking at the data to see what exactly do we need to do. But that competitive advantage piece that Paul’s talking about, if you believe in someone, there was no obstacle that can get in your way and that goes into your vision being greater than the conflict.
RYAN ESTES: When we think about conflict, oftentimes that triggers our fight or flight response, right? You have people who are right there embracing the conflict and going to get their way and you have other people, and I’ll raise my hand on this one, people-pleasers, let’s just all get along, I have a natural resistance to conflict. How do you bring people together in such a way that everyone is willing to do the hard work of engaging in healthy, productive conflict in order to grow together? What are the kinds of things that you have to do to lead people in that way?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: I think you model it. And I don’t want to make it sound so simplistic, but you honestly never know who’s really watching. People are watching if you walk past something and you ignore it. Because they see you walk past and ignore it here, and then you turn around and try to come say something to me about it, they’re going to have an issue with that. People watching your standards, your expectations, are you even living up to your own expectations? And it doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes, because a lot of times we confuse making mistakes with engaging in conflict. Everyone’s going to make mistakes. That’s where the support and the belief systems come in. But when we have this vision that we were all a part of and we built the relationship where I know who you are, I know what your goals or aspirations are, and you started to build a level of trust with me because I’ve extended trust first, and you see me and I’m able to provide feedback, I’m able to listen to you, and you’re able to give me feedback as well? People that you build strong bonds with, you never want to disappoint.
So one of the things as a leader, how are you building bonds that are so strong that people do not want to be disappointed?
PAUL O’NEILL: I love that Dennis. That’s a mic drop right there. I’m going to add on what Dennis said, and I really believe that coming from a place of care matters so much. And I’m going to use examples from multiple districts that I’ve seen, where teachers would go into a panic when they saw administration coming down the hall because they knew that either a) I’m going to get a pop in observation, and we know how those can be. Even the most seasoned teachers, even if your lesson is letter tight and it is fantastic, you start to get the sweats and you’re thinking, “Oh no,” and then you’re going through your head to make sure everything’s great.
But if educators are getting that feeling that every time they see an administrator come down the hall or come into their room, that something’s wrong, then we’ve done something wrong. It’s important for us to not only reach out to educators when we need something or we want to talk, but just to connect. Some of my favorite times happen after school. Once the kids are gone and they’re home and teachers are in their classrooms and they’re working and they’re putting some things together, I love just to pop in and talk and just say, “How are you doing? How are things? We talked about how your mom is sick, or we talked about that you had a big presentation that was coming up or your family’s coming into town. How are things going? How are you doing?”
We’re in a people business, right? So we ask each other how we’re doing very often, but sometimes we get so blinded by how busy we are that we don’t stay long enough to hear the answer or really to engage in a deeper conversation. So it’s so important to make sure that people understand that they’re cared for and they’re cared for more than just “What can you do for me? Or what have you done for me lately?” But I care about you as a person. I think when people feel cared for, and they feel appreciated and respected and acknowledged, that’s when you’re going to have educators that want to run through the wall for each other. And it has to go both ways. I don’t want teachers just to run through the wall for me.
I want to run through the wall for them. Then the last piece of that is, aside from being good at acronyms, we’re also good at buzzwords. Our industry is great at buzzwords, talking about different things that are hot topics and whatever the case may be. And I think we’ve got to put some muscle behind the hustle. You know the hustle is the buzzword, you know, is whatever the hot topic is these days, that’s the hustle part. But being able to put some action behind it.
Dennis talked about it before when he talked about, you never know when people are watching, but I disagree with that statement a little bit because you do know when people watching. They’re watching always, I mean they are watching all the time, no matter what you are doing. And that’s when your true characters revealed, when you think that nobody’s watching the things that you’re doing. The brave face that you’re showing, the difficult decision that you make, that’s really when you’re putting muscle behind the hustle and you’re modeling, like Dennis said, you’re modeling stuff. You’re not just saying, “Hey, do this, do that.” But you’re showing that you walk your talk every day.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: Now, Ryan, this is what we go through when we talk on the phone, okay? Paul’s right. But sometimes you get so caught up in the work that you’re doing, you forget people are literally watching what you’re doing. And I’ll throw in an example, real quick, if you don’t mind Ryan. I never ask anyone to do something that I’m not willing to do myself. So when we’re talking about building trust, I remember I wanted educators to record themselves teaching and then share it out with the staff. And everyone says that’s like this high level of trust. I thought it was just best practice. I mean, even athletes go back and watch their game tape. But the very first time that my staff saw a video, I played them a video of my first year of teaching.
I had on a DVD and said, “This was me back then.” And I said, “I want us to get to the point that we can share videos too.” What I didn’t know, and this speaks to the point that Paul was talking about, that people are always watching, people came up to me afterwards and said, “Hey, can you tell me more about why you did this or why you did that?” And they started to incorporate that into their own classrooms. As the administrator, I was able to see it because I was always visible. I was always in classrooms. And I saw it continue to happen as we were sharing our practices and recording ourselves teaching. I also recorded myself teach. But sometimes the communication of, “Hey, I’ve learned this from you,” doesn’t happen in the conversation, so we feel isolated. There were times where, as Paul was saying, you have to get to know people and care about their needs, their desires and families.
As an educator, we have families, but we can’t always attend events that our kids are having at their school during the day because we’re teaching. I want people to keep their families first. I need to do a better job of putting my daughters first, but I’m willing to cover a class for a teacher to go spend an hour at their child’s school and then come back. Think about what that does to the culture of your school, that you’re putting the personal in front. Now you can’t do it for every single event. I’m not saying that, but the mere fact that you’re willing to do that… there was a time where we had a situation, Ryan, and I had shared this with Paul, we had a few teachers that didn’t make it to the end of the school year. Every school at some point in time deals with this and we, you started the year, it’s hard to find that replacement educator.
And I remember everybody was looking around asking what we were going to do at a particular grade level and the teacher that was there, she had experience, but she was still in her first year at the school. And I remember going to her and saying, “I had this crazy idea.” And she was like, “What’s your idea?” I said, “I’m going to be your teaching partner until we find someone to be your partner.” And she looked at me in shock, and think about the pressure that comes with that because now the person that is your teaching partner is also your principal. And I’ll be honest, Ryan and Paul, I told you this at some point, every teacher in the building walked past to see how I was as a teacher.
They “just happened” to walk past. They just happened to walk past, but when you’re willing to do those types of things… was my life tougher for that period of time? Absolutely. We had a sub that would come in and cover the room for when I had to go take care of administrative things. But I did a lot of my principal work at the end of the day or after school. But I valued the relationship with this educator so much and I would have done it for anyone in my building because I never want people to feel like they’re alone. There’s nothing worse than feeling isolated in a place that’s supposed to be about community.
RYAN ESTES: As we think about the mentality of this is the way that things have always been done, and people being averse to change and averse to conflict, something that can contribute to that is simply not having a vision for how things could be different. Maybe it’s fear because you don’t know what will happen if you switch things up. Or maybe it’s because you’re afraid of what people will think. Or maybe you’ve been in the same place, at the same building, same department, same classroom for years. What would you say are healthy ways to invite people to challenge our own thinking about whatever it may be?
PAUL O’NEILL: That’s a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is a brief story that happened to me two summers ago. I came into the high school and used the back door because I wanted to bring some books into a classroom and I encountered a teacher who was in there setting up his classroom and I noticed on his wall he had student goals and he had a bulletin board that students were going to pull up their goals, whether they were personal goals or academic goals. And I said to him, “You know, reflection is such an important part of what we do.” And he said to me, “Yeah it is. I wish I had time to do it.” And it was heartbreaking, because I said to myself, “Wow, imagine feeling that way, that one of the most important parts of what you do, you don’t feel like you have the time to do it.”
So I said to him, “You know, we have to stop looking at reflection as separate from what we do. That has to be something that’s live and something that’s, that’s real time because reflection is what’s going to help you shatter the status quo.” And I’d like to use that term shatter because it’s a ceiling or a window, a limitation that we have to break. And it’s funny, when I first met Dennis, he had put out some blogs and he was talking about the superhero Batman. And he was talking about why he identified with Batman and how that was a daily part of his fabric and how he used teachings from Batman and situations from Batman to genuinely help kids and to answer the call to use conflict as an opportunity for growth. So Dennis Griffin, Jr. does with Dennis Griffin, Jr. does, and he doesn’t just put something great out there, he challenges others to put something great out there.
So he says to the group, he’s in a Twitter chat and he said, “What superhero do you identify with?” So I’m thinking, “Oh man, I’m not a superhero guy at all.” You know, Dennis knows all the stories, he’s got all the gear, he’s seen all the sequels, my man, his superhero game is tight. Now me on the other side, I am the polar opposite. It’s just not my thing. So I stay quiet in the background and I’m like, “Alright, you know what? There are plenty of people in this chat. I don’t need the answer. You know, he’s not going to notice.” And low and behold, Dennis noticed and then he’d say, “Paul, we haven’t heard from you. What superhero do you identify with?” And as I started to think, what’s so important to me, one of the things that’s important to me is the status quo and not accepting the status quo unless it’s the best thing we’re doing for kids.
So I thought, how powerful would it be to shatter the status quo through the power of reflection? You know, and the power of inquiry, being willing to ask questions. Dennis talked about that before, being given this new opportunity, he’s encouraged to ask questions. And I can only imagine, I don’t see Dennis on his way to work because we live far apart in New Jersey and Wisconsin. But I can only imagine that Dennis drives to work very quickly, and Dennis drives to work with a big smile on his face and Dennis drives to work and gets out of his car and that smile continues and it’s contagious because he’s being inspired to be his best self every day. To shatter the status quo by asking questions and through reflection. So long story longer, my answer was Thor, because Thor swings the hammer. And in my mind, Thor swings the hammer at the status quo and that’s what I aspire to.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: Like I said, Paul, he’s just far too kind. Can you repeat the question for me one more time?
RYAN ESTES: Sure. How do you help people get out of the mentality of “This is the way things have already have always been done”? Whether that’s fear because of just inertia. What are healthy ways to invite people to challenge their own thinking?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: The first thing is to create the space where we can really engage in deep critical thinking. In our world, we place limits and we place labels on ourselves and on others so that we can be safe, so that we can define our surroundings. And the reality is, when we do that, the only people we truly hurt are ourselves.
And there was a time I didn’t always listen to my elders in regards to things I should aspire to be or things I could accomplish because they saw the talent within me. But I was so afraid of failure. I didn’t pursue certain things.
And what happens is, after a period of time, you sit back and you start to reflect and you ask yourself what would have happened if you would’ve just tried? And the greatest regret that we end up having is the fact that we didn’t try. And that we’ve passed the period of time where we can go back and do it all over again. Think about how many times you are engaging with conversations with people and you made the comment or someone will make, “If I would have known back then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done this, I would’ve done that.” The real question is, what stopped people from trying? Was it the fact that you were so afraid of failure? Was it the fact that you didn’t have a support system? I don’t want that to be my life and I don’t want that to be anybody else’s because if we can remove these limits, if we can plant the seed of belief in people, who knows what they can become, who knows what we can create, who knows how quickly we can borrow the hammer from Paul and destroy some of the status quo and marginalized systems that we have in our society?
But we can’t do that as long as we allow ourselves to be protected by resistance and fear. It’s 2019, we’re going into 2020, the only thing that’s holding us back in our world now is us. And I think it’s time that we start making the next steps and truly aspiring achieving what we aspire to be.
Paul and Dennis would be the first people to tell you that they’re always learning. That they don’t have all the answers. That on this journey of thinking about conflict, they have a lot of road ahead of them. But they’ve also done a lot of reflection about conflict and leadership. So, for you, our listeners who are leaders in your schools, and in your districts, I asked Paul and Dennis for any parting thoughts. What’s the question I haven’t asked, that they’re dying to answer?
DENNIS GRIFFIN: A question I’ve always asked myself, and I reference this a lot when I talk to Paul, probably once a month and I reference it to other people as well. So I’ll share with you and I’ll share with all the listeners, because for some reason this question, I can’t escape it, because I haven’t found the answer yet. I haven’t found the solution.
You think about leadership. Leadership has been around since the beginning of time and Tony Dungy in his book on mentor leadership said “There will never be a time where there’s an absence of leadership.” Someone’s going to be appointed, someone will be selected, someone will nominate themselves. There will always be someone to fill that leadership role. And when you think about the literature on leadership, it’s massive. When you think about the literature on change, it’s massive. Um, you can go to so many different people, Fulling, Covey, Heifetz. When you think about all the literature is out there on leadership right now and you think about how much we talk about it, the question that I ask myself all the time is this: “If we go on to different colleges and study leadership, if we read similar books, if we make action plans and everything else, what stagnating our society? Why aren’t we leading? What is it that stops us when we know what we need to do to make our world better?”
It perplexes me. I’m continuously trying to learn and build teams because I know there’s this fear of being isolated. But is that fear worth the detriment of others? A lot of times when we’re talking about equity, even when we’re talking about equity, someone has to lose initially for the greater good. Equity doesn’t come from nothing, but in order to ensure, “Hey, we need leaders that are willing to take the next steps to create that future.” Well, what’s holding us back? And that’s really where this whole concept of, without conflict, there can be no leadership, really spawned from.
PAUL O’NEILL: Dennis. I love it. I love it. I’m going to just say something really quick before I get to my question. You know, it all comes from a place of care, what we talked about before with conflict and conflict being received well, and I want to talk really quick about how you know when someone truly cares about you. And I learned that Dennis truly cares about me as a person, as an individual, and you know, cares about my family, cares about me personally and professionally. And how I really learned this, how this was reinforced for me, is Dennis gave me a gift very recently. It was an actual physical gift, but it was something that was so much greater. The significance of the gift was greater than the gift itself. So what Dennis did is, I told you this is a superhero guy… that’s his jam.
Dennis bought me a watch, a really, really nice watch. And it’s one of those big watches, that gives you carpal tunnel if you wear it, you know, too long into the evening. And on that watch has, it’s a Thor themed watch. One if those Invictus watches and it has the hammer in there. It’s really great. And I was touched by it, but like I said, I was touched more by the message behind the gift. And I got on the phone with Dennis shortly after I got home. I gotta tell you, this box barely fit in my mailbox. That’s how big this watch was. And I don’t have a small mailbox. So I called him and I said, “Dennis, why did you send me this watch?” We’d actually talked about it prior a little bit and he said, “Do you wear watches?”
I’m like, “No, I’m not really a watch guy, I use my cell phone.” So again, Dennis Griffin Jr. does with Dennis Griffin Jr. does he? He’s a different thinker. And Dennis felt that despite me being a person who doesn’t wear a watch, that I needed this watch as part of my life as a reminder that every moment counts. And that was just so powerful for me, because I’m a big believer in the fact that we are legacy changers. We use growth mindset to change legacies. And the question that I have is, what are the long term effects of avoiding conflict, and how do they impact the individual as well as the collective whole?
When you get the secret, it’s so powerful. I just think there’s a multiplier effect there because going back to Dennis’s “every moment counts,” if you miss a moment with somebody, if you miss a moment for a learning opportunity, you don’t know what the world is going to be robbed of, because obviously that significant moment with somebody is going to change the world. It’s like paying it forward. Dennis gets me this watch and reminds me that every moment counts. And it’s not that I didn’t know that. Of course I knew that. I think that that’s a common philosophy, but it just now serves as such a strong reminder that I really need to make sure there are no wasted steps in my process.
I can’t spend time doing things that I know aren’t good for growth. Now, does that mean that we’re about work all the time? No, you’ve gotta have fun too, and work can be fun, but you’ve also got to have work outside so, so that that piece counts so much. And Dennis said in the beginning about many conflicts begin on the inside. How do I give so much to others while caring for myself? Because you can’t pour from an empty cup. So that that’s a conflict. Dennis and I are very similar in this way. We both work very late into the evening. We both require a very short amount of sleep, and I’m getting older. I’m the old man here. Dennis is significantly younger than I am. For me, I need a little more sleep than he does. But at the same time we’ve got to make sure that we care for ourselves so that we can care for others as well.
RYAN ESTES: Paul O’Neil and Dennis Griffin Jr. Thank you. This has been a great conversation. I really appreciate your time at the end of what I’m sure has been a long day. Thanks again.
DENNIS GRIFFIN: No problem. Hello everyone out there. We hope you enjoy and look forward to connecting with you on Twitter.
PAUL O’NEILL: Totally. Ryan, thanks for the opportunity. Definitely look forward to connecting with you on Twitter. I’m @pauloneill1972 and extremely grateful for the opportunity.
Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline partners with education with industry-leading school administration software. We also bring a sole focus on K-12, an award-winning client success team, original K-12 research and insights, and free resources for education leaders. Find out more at FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
And by the way, we release new episodes of this podcast every other Friday. Click subscribe, and you’ll be sure to get new stories on your device as they come out.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.