Michael Cardona on the Civil Discourse Dinner at SXSW EDU

April 2019

…We have to be comfortable being uncomfortable…

My first experience with a Civil Discourse Dinner was akin to a roller coaster ride; I went through moments of anticipation, anxiety, surprise, joy, and ultimately satisfaction, and at the end I was craving to run and get back in line to do it all over again.

As a district superintendent, a position of great responsibility, I know that my words are closely scrutinized, whether spoken publicly or privately. Especially at a venue like SXSW EDU, with plenty of “heavy hitters” in the room, I was nervous about whether the dinner would be a space where I could speak my mind freely. My fears and anxieties quickly dissipated as I realized I could listen to opposing viewpoints and share my own. I was surprised by the candidness of how my tablemates approached the conversation. Our moderator skillfully got us digging deeply into the issues of equity gaps in preparing students for the future of work, and I could hear the tables around me getting into heated exchanges.

Group of people sitting at tables at Civil Discourse Dinner at SXSW EDU

Every day leading a school district, I fight the demon inside about whether I am doing enough to meet our students’ needs. A lesson reinforced by the Civil Discourse Dinner is that to address serious issues, we have to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and we need to hear what we sometimes don’t want to hear.

My career in education has shown me that we are always at risk of falling back to the status quo. Wherever I arrived as an administrator, I would hear the following phrase quite often: “We have always done it this way.” I started realizing that this was a phrase that was all too often a part of systems that refuse to change. I admit that I probably once said it as a teacher, but that time has come and gone. We need civil discourse because we need to change. Our kids depend on us to engage in difficult conversations. They watch us. They learn from us.

…we need to model and foster civil discourse for our staff and students.

As education leaders, we need to model and foster civil discourse for our staff and students.

In San Marcos CISD, I believe that just being transparent with our data has allowed all stakeholders to approach meetings ready to deliberate and dialogue about what is working and not working. Only by engaging businesses, non-profits, community leaders, and the school board—engaging in frank discussion and listening to their perspectives and historical knowledge—has our district as a whole been able to move forward to address change at a rapid pace.

Instinctively, I always enter a room seeking to engage in debate. The Civil Discourse Dinner was a reminder that a healthy debate should be just as much about hearing what others have to say as it is about sharing my own ideas.

In this day and age, we need to question respectfully everything, but we also need to listen. As dialogue and rhetoric in our communities and across our nation becomes more aggressive, we have to utilize civil discourse to solve hard issues. We simply cannot have the academic data that shows that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to finish a degree. We cannot have children and staff dying in schools. We cannot have kids committing suicide or becoming disenfranchised as they move through the educational system. Tough issues require tough conversations that will ultimately lead to solutions. Equity requires us to look at the entire system to ensure that we are addressing all students. Any imbalance can lead to consequences later, and civil discourse—fostered very effectively by this dinner—allows a topic to be viewed from many different lenses to explore solutions.

Tables at Civil Discourse Dinner at SXSW EDU

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that each of us at the table has our own story and much like our students, we need to understand those stories in order to grow and learn together. I always knew not to judge a book by its cover, but hearing each member of my table talk about their “book” helped me open my eyes and move away from pre-judging people’s intentions.

I plan to bring the Civil Discourse Dinner model back to my district, where there are many opportunities to foster more focused conversation about academics and equity issues while engaging different participants’ philosophies and values—including in my upcoming student advisory group meetings, cabinet meetings, and school board meetings. I encourage my fellow district leaders to continue to embrace the discomfort of disagreement if it means we can move closer to solutions for the issues facing our students and communities. And if you ever have the opportunity to “ride the roller coaster” of a Civil Discourse Dinner, by all means, hop on!

About Michael Cardona: Michael Cardona has served as the Superintendent of San Marcos CISD in San Marcos, TX since June 2016. A former principal, he also served as the Chief School Officer for Houston ISD from 2012-2016.

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