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?

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