In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, and Coaching, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will have presented at the conference, or those who will be presenting this year. The interviews will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, I hope they inspire, educate and provoke new thinking. I don’t agree with everything I hear in the interviews, but I am grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and I hope you feel challenged too. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.

John Krownapple specializes in helping organizations learn and grow in the area of human relations. His career has focused on education, diversity and inclusion, equity, and social justice. In his book Guiding Teams to Excellence with Equity, he provides a protocol for facilitating systemic, equitable change. His most recent book, Included through a Culture of Dignity, co-authoring with Dr. Floyd Cobb, concretely illustrates his mission to help each of us get in touch with our own dignity so that we can honor the dignity of others on structural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal levels. In doing so, John believes that we can grow as effective organizations, inclusive communities, and as a democratic society. Simply put, we can improve quality of our lives and the lives of others through dignity. An inspirational speaker and workshop facilitator, John is currently an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University where his coursework focuses on issues that emerge from diversity. He also serves as the Coordinator of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Howard County Public School System.

Jim: Do you want to start just by telling me a bit about what the work is that you’re doing? 

John: For the past 15 years, my work has focused on facilitation of educational equity, centered around cultural competence and proficiency, inclusiveness, etc.  My focus has shifted a little over the past two years, not away from equity, but toward the center of it – what we believe is the concept of dignity.  My thought partner and co-author, Floyd Cobb, and I have been busy developing a dignity framework for educational equity.  Through dignity, we think we can provide a frame that helps make educational equity initiatives for schools and districts more successful. 

Jim: Tell me a little bit about what dignity means. 

John: Dignity has been in the background of educational equity work, and we’re now trying to bring it to the foreground and make the concept actionable.  Dignity means equal worth and human value.  All of us are born with dignity because we’re human.  However, we’re extremely good at violating dignity, not only the dignity of one another but also our own dignity.  Take self-worth, for example.  When we compare ourselves to others to determine our worth, we are violating our own dignity.  

Donna Hicks at Harvard has done a great job of defining dignity using a two-part definition. The first part is equal human worth and value, and the second part is an inner state of peace, which comes with the recognition that all living things are valuable and also vulnerable.  That second part implies how we need to learn how to honor our own dignity if we’re going to be extending it to others.  Basically, you can’t give what you don’t have, so we need to do some internal work.  It’s an inside-out type of approach. The second part also helps us understand issues around social inequity and exclusion. Although we all have value and experience vulnerability, we are not all equally vulnerable at all times. It’s our social context and identities that influence the frequency with which we experience vulnerability or the luxury of opting in or out of vulnerability.

Jim: How do you see that relating to the way coaches connect with educators? 

John: I think there’s huge potential in this concept.  What I am primarily interested in is how we teach with dignity – better yet – how we teach with and for dignity.  I think your Partnership Principles fit well here, because if we’re teaching with dignity, we’re doing things like amplifying student voice and partnering with students and families; in other words, we are recognizing the ways that we violate dignity unintentionally and then correcting those violations.  When applying that to coaching, we are asking: How do we coach with and for dignity?  

This applies to anything we do. For instance, how do we lead with and for dignity?  How do we parent with and for dignity?  I spend most of my life thinking about this concept and creating resources to help others with it, but when it comes to working with my own children, it is extremely hard. I’m constantly tempted to pull power plays.  Actually, I think that’s kind of a fortunate lab situation for me, where I can try to apply these concepts to my life.

Jim: Has Paulo Freire or Marshall Rosenberg been a part of your reading?

John: Absolutely!  Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is core for me.  When we talk about teaching with and for dignity, those of us guiding professional learning have to break the cycle of exercising power “over” people. We have to focus on liberation.  We can’t take an oppressive stance in our equity work, although it’s quite easy to do. It’s as easy as slipping into the stance of a presenter or trainer and implicitly perceiving colleagues as objects.  Coaching is a great solution in that case, because it requires partnership, which can break the cycle of basically talking down to someone.  

Jim: Well, dehumanizing, treating as a stereotype or manipulating or using others, not honoring their autonomy – all those things are at the heart of the partnership approach. If I see you as an autonomous human being, then your brain, your voice, and your soul should all count, but I have never thought of the word dignity in that context before.

John: I never had either, until two years ago when I received a phone call from Floyd Cobb. We discussed our experiences with educational equity initiatives in different regions of the country, and we had noticed the same dysfunctional cycle over and over, where eventually people say, can’t you just tell me what to do?  Equity initiatives eventually fizzles out, leaving the status quo intact. Well, on this particular phone call, Floyd suggested that we could find heart of the matter as well as requisite action in the concept of dignity.

Jim: So, when I’m coaching another person, I work from a perspective that honors the dignity of the adults, but then I’m in partnership – to use the language I would use – helping them become aware of the importance of recognizing the dignity of children.  But how do I do that?  How does a coach provide support for educators to see the importance of dignity in education?  

John: First, the coach would have fluency with the language of dignity.  Floyd and I have been developing a dignity framework to help with that.  We have four core capacities that we need to develop within ourselves and our organizations: listening, empathy, openness, and patience. Our framework also offers four indicators that show how people should feel when their dignity is honored: People feel treated fairly, accepted, validated, and appreciated.  In addition, our four standards for dignity are building partnerships and community, repairing harm and restoring relationships, affirming differences and uniqueness, and presuming competence and positive intent.  

So, using the framework, coaches can easily recognize the manner in which they’re engaging with colleagues. Are they honoring dignity in the process of coaching? How would they know when they are falling short? Well, there’s also a flip side to the framework, which illustrates dignity violated. When that happens, people feel othered, dismissed, marginalized, and mistreated. The four incapacities prevail: denial, apathy, intolerance, and judgment. Behaviors are aligned with dominance, blame and shame, presumed incompetence, and degradation of differences. 

Once coaches are fluent in the language of dignity, they can better recognize how they can effectively engage with their colleagues. They’ll also have better clarity in regard to what’s going on in the classroom. For instance, they’ll more clearly see dignity violations and then engage with their partner in a way that helps him or her see more clearly both healthy and unhealthy relational dynamics.  

Jim: What is a metaphor for your work with dignity?

John: An optometrist. Someone who can help someone else see more clearly the essential humanity and personhood that they’re either affirming or denying.

Jim: What would it look like if you had a district where everybody has embraced dignity – teachers using it with students, students using it with each other, administrators using it with teachers, the superintendent doing it with administrators? 

John: Quite simply, it would be a district where every person has belonging and access. It would be a culture of dignity, which would offer the conditions for true educational equity.

More specifically, the superintendent and the board would be re-evaluating their mission, vision, values, etc.  There’s a big misunderstanding about the word respect even though I now see it everywhere.  Donna Hicks shed light on it by comparing respect to dignity. Respect is something that’s earned.  It’s conditional.  It can be gained; it can be lost.  You can respect someone one instant and in another lose respect for them. Dignity, on the other hand, is completely unconditional.  It’s intrinsic.  You can’t lose it; you can’t gain it.  You can only do one of two things: honor it or violate it.  Going back to the district leadership, I would encourage a more nuanced understanding of the language that they’re using in terms of their vision, mission, and values.  

In writing about dignity, it has become clear to me is that education as we know it was never designed around the concept of dignity.  Just the opposite, in fact; it’s been designed around indignity –  having to achieve (academically and socially) in order to belong, for instance. A culture of dignity would of focusing on ensuring a strong sense of belonging in order to achieve, such as the progression within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  

Recently, I led a high school assembly.  Afterwards, I met with a group of student leaders, and one of the students came up to me and said that my presentation had described their school – one of the top-performing schools in the United States.  She acknowledged that the school had some problems and that the language of dignity was helping her see it more clearly.  What she said really stuck with me: “Secretly no one wants their friends to be higher than them in the class rankings, so it’s not even safe to study with your best friend.”  

Something is truly sick – unhealthy – about how we are creating these types of outcomes through our values and beliefs, our practices and policies. In this kind of hierarchal institution, students’ self-worth is based on how they are achieving academically, which would not be a system that honors dignity.  It’s dehumanizing.  In a school or a district where dignity was central, you’d see something different in terms of the way students and teachers are engaging.  For example, there would be more competency-based types of evaluation systems.  You’d see a lot of different practices and policies in terms of things like student groupings.  Labeling practices would be quite different, if not totally gone.  After all, labeling is another way of otherizing students and dehumanizing them.  

The simple answer to your question of what it would look like: You would see practices and policies that embrace humanity instead of reducing it.  

Jim: Where are you with respect to what you’ve published and what’s coming?  

John: I’ve written a book called Guiding Teams to Excellence With Equity, published by Corwin.  It’s a guide designed to help schools and districts approach equity in a practical way, so it’s focused on facilitation. Right now, I am working with Floyd Cobb on a book called Included Through a Culture of Dignity: The Key to Equity in Education, published by Mimi & Todd Press.

Jim: What are you planning to present at TLC?

John: My focus will be an introductory session on the dignity framework.  I’m going to introduce the language and help folks develop dignity literacy and dignity consciousness within the context of doing their jobs in support of equity. For instructional coaches, that means thinking about coaching with and for dignity.  So, the session is basically going to help them relate to and support teachers and, at the same time, help teachers relate to students. My hope is that the session will people change their lives for the better, which is what Floyd and I have been hearing since we have been field-testing the dignity framework over the past year.  

Here is a list of some people you can expect to see at #TLCKC19 this year! If you’d like to review some of the work they’ve done, you can click on each name to learn more about them. To learn more about the  Teaching Learning Coaching Conference, or to register, click here.We hope to see you in Kansas City!

Rachel Lofthouse
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Jamie Almanzan
Linda Cliatt-Wayman
Kristin Anderson
Ellen and Bruce Eisenberg
Rebecca Frazier
Michelle Harris
Jan Hasbrouck
Ann Hoffman
Darnisa Amante
Kathy Perret
John Campbell
Marshall Goldsmith
Jim Knight
Nathan Lang-Raad
Nancy Love
Alisa Simeral
Tricia Skyles
Bill Sommers
Bradley Staats Sharon Thomas
Christian Van Nieuwerburgh
John Krownapple
Tara Martin
Crysta Crum