14 November 2008
16 Cheshvan 5769
This week many of us participated in an annual educational ritual that simultaneously highlights the ideals of our learning community and exposes our vulnerabilities: parent-teacher conferences. Conferences are brief but essential opportunities for parents and teachers to meet face-to-face and discuss our shared purpose: the education of our children. For some teachers and parents, these conferences might cause trepidation, whether because of the process itself or because of the substantive information that will be discussed. “Might I hear negative things about my child’s behavior or academic performance that will surprise me?” some parents might wonder. “How will this parent react to difficult information about her child’s academic performance?” a teacher might fear. These conversations can illustrate the best of the parent-school partnership: student learning at the center, mutual trust and respect, meaningful dialogue about students’ progress and challenges, and proactive strategizing about how best to position our students for success. Yet, as in all relationships, when conversations are difficult, they also test our capacity for trusting and open communication. Many of our unspoken hopes, expectations and fears are all wrapped up into one ten minute conversation.
As a Head of School, I find myself thinking a great deal about the nature of partnerships and communication, and in particular about difficult conversations. Every difficult conversation is both a challenge and an opportunity to live out our values and put learning at the center. I am drawn this week to the famous encounter, certainly a difficult conversation, between Abraham and God about whether God will destroy the city of Sodom. When God informs Abraham that he intends to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham negotiates with God about how many righteous people would need to be in the city in order not to destroy it on account of the wicked. But at the heart of Abraham’s argument is a profound challenge to God: “Hashofet kol haaretz lo yaaseh mishpat? – Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25) This line is charged with philosophical, theological and ethical dimensions, including the nature of God’s justice, the human-divine covenantal relationship, and human ethical responsibility. But I think this line also has much to teach us about interpersonal dynamics and difficult conversations.
It seems from the text that Abraham is challenging both God’s plan for Sodom and God’s character and values. However, how we choose to understand Abraham’s intention and his tone reveals different possible approaches to delivering difficult information. Perhaps Abraham’s tone is irreverent and outraged, accusatory and judgmental. “How can you call yourself Judge of the earth if you would do such a thing?” This reading portrays Abraham as suspiciously questioning God’s judgment and distrusting God’s intentions. Abraham becomes a kind of reverse prophet, full of righteous indignation, delivering an important and necessary ethical rebuke or wake-up call to God.
But perhaps Abraham’s tone is not one of righteous indignation, but rather of loving concern. Perhaps his difficult feedback to God emerges not from suspicion but rather from trust – in God’s character and His intentions, and in their shared mission and values. Rather than a tone of irreverent accusation, this reading portrays Abraham as directly and earnestly pushing God to manifest, in the oft-repeated words of our Dean of Students, God’s “best self”: “Surely You, my teacher and role model of righteousness and compassion, don’t really want to do this. Can we reaffirm our shared commitment to justice and look for a better way?” The beauty and ambiguity of the Biblical text reflects the complexity of human relationships and communication. The same words can produce two (or more) different interpretations; the same message can be delivered with different tones, different intentions, different stances toward the other.
Schools are wonderfully complex human systems – webs of human interactions and hotbeds of communication and emotion. Think of the number of daily opportunities for meaningful interactions as well as misunderstandings, for praise and encouragement as well as difficult feedback – between teachers, students, parents, administrators. The quality of our teacher-student partnerships and teacher-parent partnerships are essential to achieving our shared goals of developing our students’ minds, hearts and characters. At the center of these partnerships lies the quality of our communication with each other. How can a teacher, for example, share difficult information with a parent or student in a way that reassures, encourages and inspires trust rather than alienates or alarms? How can a parent express concerns or even disappointment to a teacher while honoring the teacher’s efforts and intentions to care for and educate her child?
What we say and how we say it shape our school’s culture and the nature of our discourse, and are the building blocks of our learning community. We need to preserve and explore both readings of Abraham’s challenge to God because different contexts call for different modes of communication. But perhaps this text’s most powerful message about interpersonal dynamics and human communication is the very ambiguity itself. This ambiguity invites us to explore how our tone and our intentions affect the impact and efficacy of our message. In this spirit, may we dedicate ourselves to a school culture in which we stay conscious of both what we say and how we say it; and may our difficult conversations produce stronger relationships and meaningful learning opportunities.
Rabbi Marc Baker