TAMPA — It is, as they say in Papua New Guinea, the mokita.
It's what is not said. It's the conversation that never happens. The elephant in the room, as we call it here at home.
"We need to think about the missing conversations and the harm that those cause," Christie Gold told a roomful of Hillsborough County educators.
It was day one of "Fierce" training, carried out by a firm that, as its name suggests, is all about bold conversations for a more effective workplace.
Seated in two rooms during the third week in August were about 90 peer evaluators, foot soldiers in the school district's Empowering Effective Teachers program.
They're the difference between Hillsborough's education reform model, which is getting a $100 million assist from Bill and Melinda Gates, and others around the state that combine student test scores with the standard principal's evaluation.
Hillsborough's model has that third peer component, and some teachers have reacted angrily to the process.
A recent survey suggests most teachers find the peers professional and well spoken. But some doubt whether the teachers can help them improve.
At a workshop last spring, some School Board members suggested peers take on a more nurturing posture, much like the new-teacher mentors.
Ultimately, however, peers are not hired to make teachers feel better, but to have direct conversations about their job performance.
Even if it means asking a teacher: "Is this the job you really want to do?"
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Gold, a onetime Teacher of the Year who taught high school journalism before she entered the peer evaluator ranks, is a big believer in Fierce training.
She got hers in Atlanta, with people from law firms and government offices, Coca-Cola and the American Cancer Society. Communication is key, she realized, even on a personal level.
Trainer Deli Moussavi-Bock started the session with some basic concepts. Conversation is different from communication, she said. The first is interactive while even a billboard communicates.
Relationships happen one conversation at a time, and a single one can have profound consequences.
Conversational skills are put to the highest test when peers meet with teachers after they have observed them in class.
"We might hit the surface," said peer Eric Smith, who was hoping to leave the session with tools he can use to make those conferences more productive.
"Sometimes it feels like we don't get deep into the issue."
Some of the peers described conferences where the dialogue became unprofessional. Or a feeling of dread when visiting a school that is known to be cold to the peer evaluators.
Others acknowledged that, as teachers, they are trained to speak with children, and so they censor themselves in a way that inhibits their interaction as peers.
One defused a tense conference by asking the teacher what she had done to offend him — even though it was clear, and he later acknowledged that he was defensive from the start.
Moussavi-Bock explored the difference between knowledge and perception, saying conversations are more likely to succeed if the peer does not come across as all-knowing or arrogant.
"Leadership is not about having all the answers," she said.
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Hillsborough is entering year three of EET at a time when reform efforts are being challenged on several fronts.
The Florida Education Association recently prevailed in a legal challenge to the way the state designed the data portions of teachers' evaluations. That ruling does not necessarily affect Hillsborough, which is shielded from the state process because of the Gates-funded EET.
Locally, resistance to the Gates-funded program was a theme in several recent School Board candidates' campaigns.
District officials say they have sought feedback from teachers along the way and made adjustments as a result.
There are plans to give principal evaluations slightly more weight than peer evaluations, as there are areas where only the principal gives an assessment. Teachers will no longer be labeled "developing" if they have yet to master a skill.
An early plan to offer bonuses when reading scores improve on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is on hold. Officials realized a number of teachers can help a child become a better reader, making it hard to know who should get the bonus.
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Day two opened with a discussion of what Fierce calls the "mineral rights" conversation, structured to get to the heart of an issue and provoke change.
Strategies such as asking "What else? What else? What else?" can be annoying but effective, Moussavi-Bock said.
"Discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing."
Later, the peers practiced confrontational conversations based on real-life situations. They would learn to recognize the "deny, defend, deflect" response and how to diffuse it.
And they would critique one another on their style — whether their opening statement was too long, whether they used judgmental words or if their tone was off-putting.
Keep in mind, they were reminded, that teachers have a deep emotional investment in what they do.
"There is no trivial comment," Moussavi-Bock said. "So be really conscious of what you're saying and how you're saying it."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]