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Solving problems as you go along

With any luck, you will be engaged in probing discussions of complex work that you care about. Would you expect such interaction to be trouble-free? Probably not. Here we discuss some general forms of normal trouble, trying to base our suggestions on "hard facts" that many people will recognize. The following essay addresses these syndromes:

Avoiding trouble. Perhaps one or both partners think there is some kind of trouble in the working relationship, but so far they have avoided saying so. Maybe the situation should stay that way because trying to fix it could be worse than the problem itself. But you might also consider trying to make this line of agreements: (1) Blaming is a pretty useless activity; (2) We don't have to announce a problem to work on it; (3) We agree that both of us always will be responsive to this request from the other: "I would like to get clearer about...."

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Normal trouble, but it still hurts or embarrasses. Everyone (with half a brain) knows that trouble is the normal condition of the beginning teacher. This is because teaching is complex, subtle, difficult work that requires a big raft of habits which we begin to form when we start the work. So, for a period of years, trouble is the normal condition of the novice teacher. Telling each other that trouble is normal could help. The mentor teacher could help by most pointedly telling stories about her/his own screw-ups in the distant and recent past. Let's get a sense of humor about this fact of life.

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Analyzing the teaching cuts the teacher. When we care about our work, and when we use ourselves as instruments of the work, as in teaching, and when we're just starting to expose our teaching to each other, it can be very hard not to "take it personally" when the other analyzes or assesses a bit of our teaching. What can be done? First, perhaps, agree that we must analyze and assess the teaching if we are to accomplish much. Second, agree that we are talking not about persons and their competence, but about practices and their consequences. To keep this agreement, you might want to go so far as to speak of whoever taught as "the teacher," to remind each other that it could be any teacher, and that the comment is about the teaching, not about the teacher.

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Friendly but unproductive. Perhaps the partnership is friendly enough, but it's not getting any work done. It's always fair to say, "I'd like to get clearer about what we are trying to accomplish, and how we will go about it." Consider possibilities: Partners aren't getting anything done because they are trying to avoid potential differences of opinion, trying to avoid saying anything that would sound evaluative, trying to avoid hurting each other's feelings, trying to avoid dipping into each other's buckets. But notice this: The wanted relationship calls precisely for dipping into each other's buckets--looking at each other's practices. And this: Hurting a teacher's feelings is not the worst thing you can do to her: You can waste her time. So the practical questions are, "How will we handle differences of opinion," and "How will we comment on each other's materials or teaching.

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Differences of opinion seem to lead either to conflict, or, potentially worse, to avoiding a topic or issue altogether. Maybe it has to stay that way. But here's a potential line of agreements that might help: (1) Each of us is the teacher of record for her or his class, and properly makes the decisions about what goes on there; (2) Both of us recognize that, for a wide range of issues in teaching, it is possible for two reasonable people to hold, and act on, different opinions; (3) We can work better together and contribute to each other's thinking by listening carefully to each other's position on the issues and agreeing that we might disagree.

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Hurt has been done. One partner has hurt or offended the other, but maybe doesn't know it. Maybe you just let it pass on grounds that the same situation is unlikely to arise, so the hurt is unlikely to be repeated. But you also might consider making an agreement like this: Human beings hurt each other all the time without intending to, particularly in important, close work like mentoring teaching. We will agree to say "ouch" when we hurt, calmly report why we hurt and adjust our working procedures. "Ouch. That made me feel incompetent. I'd like to get clear about how we offer each other feedback."

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A burdensome relationship? Perhaps one partner finds the relationship burdensome, or worries that the other does. Maybe terminating the relationship will be the wise course of action. But you have the alternative of saying, "I'd like to get clearer about how both of us could gain as much as possible from our work together." As indicated above, this question must always be treated as a fair question, because it points to the heart of the working relationship.

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