Using ThoughtExchange for the Harder Conversations

Senka Kovacevic

We’ve had the opportunity to work with districts on some memorable engagements – ones where groups with vastly different values were able to find common ground, and others where communities were able to come together during very difficult times and find positive ways to move forward.

Topics like mental health and bullying, or initiatives that contradict a particular group’s fundamental beliefs are challenging to talk about because of the stigma or other risks associated with speaking out.

With these kinds of conversations, the ability to provide thoughts privately, and still see them recognized and heard by the community, can have a transformational effect.

Mental Health Wellness

The stigma and complex emotions associated with mental health make gathering input from students, and the parents and teachers affected by these issues very difficult.

“There can be a tokenism around student voice that limits the process. Having a group of high-performing students come and talk to the board about an issue doesn’t really give you the best possible, representative understanding of your student population.”

– David Keohane, Superintendent, Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools

Superintendent Keohane’s district instead asked students and other community members one open-ended question to start the conversation about mental health:

What are your thoughts or questions on how student mental health is supported in our school district?

“We heard from over 2,000 participants, 50% of which were from our student body. Our board is very pleased with that.”

– David Keohane, Superintendent, Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools

From this question, Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools was able to come up with eight, mental health wellness, district-level initiatives and determine the effectiveness of their school-level mental health programs.


Two of the other questions that Greater St. Albert asked in its ThoughtExchange were about bullying.

What are your thoughts on our rules about bullying and the ways that we address bullying in our school district?

What are some examples of other ways we could address bullying and build a compassionate student community?

From these two questions, the District discovered misconceptions about the protocol they use to deal with incidents of bullying. The community believed the District’s approach was about zero tolerance and high consequences when in fact it centered on zero avoidance – a guarantee that reports brought forward anonymously or personally would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and guided by the principles of restorative justice.

“We were led by this information to communicate more effectively about restorative mechanisms so that our community could understand why what we are doing is different and why we believe it is more effective at keeping children safe in schools.”

– David Keohane, Superintendent, Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools

Breaking Down Communication Silos

“I initially turned to ThoughtExchange for a bond issue. But, as an 18-year resident of this community – who has raised his family here and whose children will likely live in this community – I’m finding that ThoughtExchange is improving our community as opposed to just getting me what I wanted as a superintendent. It’s actually becoming a way for us to talk to one another.”

– Dr. Randy Zimmerly, Superintendent, Westview School Corporation

Identifying common spending priorities in Westview School Corporation is particularly challenging because its two very distinct community groups have drastically different values and traditionally have had very little interaction with each other.

About 50% of students attending class are from conservative Amish families. Half of the student population leaves the system at grade 8 and needs to be ready for the world of work by the time they are 14 years old. The remaining half, referred to as ‘English’, go on to high school and have a greater interest in technology, higher education and global issues. Accommodating these two very different trajectories within the same school system is one of the District’s biggest challenges.

Including both of these groups in the same conversation had proved almost impossible in the past. Traditional engagement tools like online or even phone surveys cannot reach Amish households where families maintain a lifestyle without electricity or electronic devices. Even with paper and pencil versions of these tools, none had the ability to create a conversation between the two groups. As a result, the District would engage each group individually, making informed, though ultimately best guesses as to what the common ground between the two groups would be.

ThoughtExchange’s Star step – where participants see their own thoughts surrounded by the thoughts of others – allowed Amish and English thoughts to appear together for the first time.

The results of their first ThoughtExchange not only created “an enthusiasm and a motivation to keep things going” but also allowed Westview to create a scope and sequence for the appropriate use of technology in their classrooms.

“We were holding back on technology implementation, afraid of what attitude our community would take. But, through the weather report, we were able to see that there was a distinct point where the sentiment for the integration of technology would be positive.”

– Dr. Randy Zimmerly, Superintendent, Westview School Corporation

The District has since implemented a one-to-one Chromebook program for its high school students, and received affirmation for the initiative from grade 9-12 students, staff, and parents.

Moving Forward After Tragedy

Marysville School District in Washington first partnered with ThoughtExchange in 2013 with the hope of developing a culture where the current and future needs of students directly shaped district strategic planning.

It was in this aspirational year that tragedy struck – a popular boy took the lives of several students, injured others and then took his own life. In that moment and the days that followed, the students and teachers of Marysville’s Pilchuck High School felt their campus change from a place of connection and specialized learning to a place of deep sadness and shock.

Immediately following the tragedy, providing support for the campus community became goal number one. It quickly became apparent that the emotions surrounding the event were complicated, with no easy path forward.

Dr. Becky Berg and her leadership team knew they needed to offer the school and community an outlet, a concrete project to talk about and get their feelings out. The future of the cafeteria – the site of the shootings – became that project.

“The value Marysville and Tulalip community members placed on the integrity of the engagement process – the sense it was rooted in true caring – was a powerful insight for District decision leaders. It demonstrated the importance of authenticity, and that genuine two-way dialogue transforms engagement into an essential act of responsive leadership.”

What sensitive topics have you approached with your community? What strategies have been effective in creating productive dialogue?

About the Author

Senka Kovacevic

Senka is a Writer. She has interviewed superintendents, communications professionals, business and thought leaders across North America and is passionate about bringing their experiences to wider audiences that can benefit from their learnings.