Dealing with Controversy Requires the Right Mindset and Temperment

As discussed in the previous post, large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

But this is one instance where ignoring the situation will not make it go away and will likely make it worse. What to do?

The first step is, to the greatest extent you can, to not take it personally. If you care deeply about your initiative, which is often the case when you play a strong role in designing or implementing an initiative, it’s hard not to take the criticisms and concerns personally, especially the ones that seem unrealistic and crazy or when the community member is so angry or forceful in their convictions. It’s almost impossible to avoid taking it personally when they make it personal about you (I once had a parent at a school committee meeting attack me by name and try to shame me for supporting our work).

It’s critical to remain calm. This is not simply an issue between you and the angry community member. There are others watching. Some will agree with the community member. Some will think that the community member is being unreasonable and will sympathize with you (perhaps feeling bad that you have to sit through this onslaught!). In many cases, you can simply thank them for sharing their perspective and let their comments (and how they were delivered) stand on their own.

If you respond too strongly, sharply, or angrily, no matter how justified you may be to feel these things, you are the one whose argument loses every time. It doesn’t matter that the community member thinks they are correct and is being angry or forceful, when you lose it, you lose your supporters. It is for them and for you that you remain calm, no matter what.

If possible, provide a counter example. When Maine decided to be the first 1-to-1 laptop initiative in the country (The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, MLTI) by providing all 7th and 8th grade teachers and students laptops, WiFi, and training (probably the largest middle school initiative in the country!), teachers, principals, and tech directors were highly anxious. At the time (2001), no other state was doing this. Few schools across the country were doing this. Then-Governor King got calls saying that if he wanted to improve Maine’s economy, he should give every middle school student a chainsaw, not a laptop. He even got death threats!

Even caring educators’ imaginations were rife with worries about all the bad things that might happen: students going to inappropriate sites, students being distracted from focusing on learning activities, equipment not working properly when needed, laptops going missing. As a new initiative, it’s hard to counteract supposition because there may be no counter-examples to point to. Fighting supposition with supposition is difficult (”My belief it won’t happen should be stronger than your belief it will happen!”).

But he had the advantage of having one middle school, Piscataquis Community Middle School in Guilford, Maine, who had initiated 1-to-1 laptops with their eighth grade earlier that year.

When a critic shared their worst fears about what would happen when every seventh and eighth grade teacher and student had an internet-connected laptop, Governor King could publicly turn to the Guilford teachers and say, “I see this person’s concern. Has this been an issue with your program?” The teachers could then state that it has not been, or if it had, what the scope of the problem had been and what their solution was. It also helped that the response came from someone other than the governor. It wasn’t just the program advocate’s response, but a response from someone who is already doing the work. Bottom line, those teachers, in this instance, had more credibility with the critics than the governor did.

Keep in mind, too, that your critics aren’t trying to ruin your day. Initiatives are “initiatives” because they are new. They haven’t been done much (if at all) before. They aren’t “tried and true.” And they are unlikely to be what your stakeholders and learning community have experienced in school. As I pointed out previously, all they have to work from is supposition and their imagination, both of which are charged by emotion. And without real counter-examples, you are fighting an uphill battle. Trying to debate an emotional worry without real counter-examples is simply a debate of opinions and in the end will simply give credence to the critic’s concern. I’m reminded of a Facebook meme: “That is a very well laid out rational point, but I will still hold to my emotional opinion based on no facts or evidence.” 

In such a situation, remaining outwardly calm and simply thanking them for sharing and letting their comments stand on their own is the only practical path forward for you.

That can be quite discouraging, feeling like you have no way to parry what you perceive to be an irrational assault on your initiative. Maybe this will help. I was working with a small group creating a career academy for challenging and at-risk students in a mid-sized city. It became quite a political hot potato, and, as the superintendent’s project, a pawn in battles between the superintendent and other groups (having little to do with the school itself). My colleague had friends–who were not connected to the school project–over socially one evening and was telling them about our challenges in that district. One of the friends was a veteran combat pilot now working as a commercial airline pilot. He told my colleague, “You know, they only shoot at you when you’re over the target.” It became a metaphor that has energized me through this and other initiatives since!

I also find it helpful to think of implementing an initiative in the midst of controversy a bit like chess, as a complex game of moves and counter-moves to win the game. I don’t so much want you to start thinking of implementing your initiative as a game or to turn this into another situation where someone wins and someone loses. But the framework of being intentional and rational about moves and counter moves is a helpful one. Remember, a confrontational and forceful community member perceives their job as saying whatever it takes to have you NOT make the school change you are in the process of making.

In the next post, we’ll explore sizing up the individuals expressing concern about your initiative.

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