Questioning Practice in a PLC

PLC expert Rick DuFour has started an interesting strand of conversation over at the All Things PLC blog this morning.  Referring to some of the interactions that we had in our recent Voicethread on professional learning communities, Rick wonders why teachers are unwilling to question colleagues engaged in questionable practices. 

He writes:

Not all behavior is professional. Not all ideas are of equal value.

If the very essence of a team is people working interdependently (rather than in isolation) to achieve common goals (rather than individual interests) for which members are mutually accountable (rather than every man for himself…then we must have the courage to engage in crucial conversations with one another.

The culture of every organization is determined to a large degree by the worst behavior people are willing to tolerate.

Now, I agree with Rick completely that questioning colleagues in a PLC is a professional responsibility.  Professional learning communities are defined by a collective commitment to ALL students.  No longer are teachers interested only in the 50 kids on their class lists.  Instead, they’re interested in identifying the kinds of practices that can result in learning for EVERY child.

But questioning colleagues is still really, really difficult in most schools!

I know that in my years as a member of a learning team, I’ve worked to question more than once and it rarely goes well—even when I remember to use my favorite Crucial Conversations tip:  Asking why a reasonable, rational person would act in a way that runs contrary to my vision of what is "right" or "should be." 

I think the barrier is that PLC work—especially in the early stages—is really, really difficult.  Teachers and teams wrestle with new practices and processes far more than ever before, and that wrestling can be completely exhausting.  It can also cause teams to question themselves.

I can remember several times where conflict felt like failure to our learning team.  We’d have intellectual disagreements (read: borderline brawls) about practices where feelings would get hurt and doubt would seep into our meetings.  Honestly, we got to the point where we didn’t even think PLCs were even possible.

Worse yet, we didn’t have the skills for resolving our conflicts—preparation  for collaboration consisted of nothing more than crafting a set of norms and a template for meeting minutes—AND we were fighting against a constant barrage of "be a team player" messages that still surround schools. 

It felt like everything we were doing was "wrong"—and  because other teams weren’t having powerful conversations, they weren’t having conflict, which looked "right" to us. 

Crazy, huh? 

Luckily, we stumbled across a phrase—I think my friend and mentor Nancy Flanagan said it first to me—that we made our PLC mantra:

"Questioning isn’t about the person, it’s about the practice."

By remembering that simple idea, questioning became safer for those doing the asking AND for those being asked.  It served as a constant reminder that we valued one another as individuals even when we had disagreements about our course of action.  It helped us to pose questions—and to be questioned—in a neutral, dispassionate way. 

And it worked.

Teachers are so wrapped up in our practices—we own them, we craft them, we believe in them—and in the nobility of our work that being questioned can be one of the most painful and personal "offenses."  It is only when we take the focus off of the person that questioning becomes safe on a learning team. 

Any of this make sense?

8 comments

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Simon wrote:
    Since teachers are their own ‘instrument’ in a way, it becomes very difficult to separate person and practice.
    This is a brilliant comment Simon, and one that I’d never considered. It makes perfect sense, though, and explains why teachers are so committed to our practices.
    Thanks for changing my thinking this morning…
    Bill

  2. Paul Cancellieri

    My own respect (fear?) of my more seasoned colleagues make it very difficult for me to cross the barrier and push for change in my PLC. I’m starting to realize that this is a problem with ME, not with THEM.
    Thanks for the push, Bill.

  3. Simon Oldaker

    Thanks for once again writing so well on a topic I’m thinking a lot about. Since teachers are their own ‘instrument’ in a way, it becomes very difficult to separate person and practice. Since we (most of us) feel imperfect ourselves, we are often hesitant to criticize others. This may be grounded in a real fear of being criticized or attacked onself.

  4. Bob Heiny

    How do you see prospects of pay for performance and other benefits distributed to individual teachers (individual professional evaluations, special assignments for extra pay, easier class load assignments, etc.) affecting professional development teams? Or do you think teachers give up those options for the sake of the team?

  5. mmwms

    Reminds me of a wise-for-his-years young colleague who once said “I wish we could just have a huge blow up, get over it, and get on with what we need to do” The culture indeed prevented that blow up from happening in any constructive way, but that test of relationship trust is crucial to true team building. And doesn’t it stand to reason that in some fashion, that has to happen with our classes as well?
    As usual, a though-provoking post. thanks!

  6. Andrew B. Watt

    I’d also say that teams usually have to go through some Forming, Norming, and Storming before they get to the Performing.
    Any team has to go through the ‘nice’ honeymoon when everyone’s trying to get along, before they get to the part where they set the boundaries and rules, to having a big blowup over those rules and assumptions. A lot of teams don’t get past this point, because there’s such a culture of “let’s get along” in our schools… But if you can get through the storming part, you can actually build a high-performing team.

  7. dave

    Reminds me of a blog post I read yesterday: “How to keep your mouth shut” http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/2009/how-to-keep-your-mouth-shut/
    The author talks about going from a work environment where everyone was encouraged to constructively criticize and voice their disagreement to a work environment where no one was willing to ask or answer the hard questions.
    I think his point is strong: before you stir things up, think about what the odds are that enough people will agree that you can actually accomplish a change.

  8. Dan

    some of what you talk about reminds of the book The 5 dysfunctions of a Team by Lencioni – it talks about all the “things” teams have to get past before they can really function. I like the phrase your colleague used, very appropriate when we get so close to the work we do.