Nancy E. Brune, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities and Alex Bybee is the State Director for Teach Plus Nevada.
To improve educational outcomes for our students and ensure every child has access to a high-quality education, collaboration among those advocating for, voting on and implementing education policies must be central to our approach. And yet, it is important to recognize that in interactions between human beings, there are several elements that must precede successful multilateral collaboration including trust, strong interpersonal relationships and a shared vision.
If trust is a condition that must be established prior to building strong interpersonal relationships, and strong interpersonal relationships must be established prior to successful collaboration, then the foundational question that must be answered is in what ways can we build trust between leaders across organizations?
In pursuit of this endeavor, Teach Plus and the Guinn Center partnered with The Frontline Research & Learning Institute and The Line to bring its Civil Discourse Dinner series to Las Vegas. Hosted at the Springs Preserve, more than forty local education leaders came together to break bread and participate in a facilitated conversation about education funding and equity in Nevada. Around the table were leaders from the left, right and center who are education advocates, students, teachers, union leaders, philanthropists, government officials, parents, business leaders, policymakers and researchers.
Of the lessons that were most valuable, perhaps one stood out most: in a world where problems are complex, sometimes we complicate the solutions. The answer to better schools and happier teachers may not lie in a new innovation or complicated strategic plan. But rather, the answer may be doing something already intuitive to us – breaking bread at the dinner table. After all, “there are few more effective ways to promote tolerance between suspicious neighbors than to force them to eat supper together,” writes philosopher Alain de Botton.
Following the dinner, many of the participants expressed sincere gratitude for being included in an opportunity to gather, break bread and engage in conversation around challenging topics of equity and funding. This prompted a moment of reflection: many of the education stakeholders who participated in the dinner meet frequently with each other. However, many other key education stakeholders – including school building leaders, teachers, students, advocacy groups, and nonprofit leaders – do not have the same level of access or opportunity to engage. As we move forward, we remain mindful of this and plan to seek out and create opportunities where a broader group of stakeholders is included in conversations about education in Nevada.
Conversely, what also surprised us was the realization that even though many of these same education stakeholders are often in the room together, they have not frequently had or created the opportunity to connect and engage in safe, informal conversation to explore their positions and interests. At our table, two individuals, who have been on opposing sides of our state’s teacher evaluation system, engaged in a very frank conversation about their concerns. Positions, and interests. The guests at the dinner table were surprised to learn that despite the months of legislative and committee hearings and testimony, these two individuals had never spoken directly and candidly. At the end of the dinner, the individuals representing opposing opinions expressed gratitude at having had the opportunity to talk about their concerns in a frank, but casual manner.
Our hope is that the participants in this dinner will move forward with a continued willingness to engage with each other to have difficult conversations. We hope they will leverage good will to identify areas of common ground; we hope they will more actively listen to better understand each other’s interests and concerns that lie behind stated positions and platforms.
In a community that has a lot of individual and organizational will to improve outcomes for kids, we intend to leverage that to achieve successful multilateral collaboration across organizations. As we continue to break bread across a series of civil discourse dinners to build trust and relationships among a network of education leaders, we hope to move closer to collaborating around a shared vision, ultimately accelerating the pace of improvement in our schools.