Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

The Need for Crucial Conversations

Becky and I recently participated in a VoiceThread hosted by our talented colleague Bill Ferriter. Educators from around the country asked questions and shared their experiences with implementing the PLC concept (you can hear the conversation here). One of the most frequently raised topics dealt with the challenges of working with colleagues. One participant expressed frustration because his teammates didn’t agree with him, and he wondered if he should retreat to working in isolation and do what he felt was best for his students. Another participant asked why educators are typically so unwilling to challenge the beliefs and behaviors of colleagues. Yet another argued that such challenges are detrimental to a team and would be viewed as an attempt to impose our view on others.

So let me ask which if any of the following scenarios you would feel compelled to question or challenge a teammate:

  • A colleague suggests student achievement can’t be improved in your school because of the increase in students who live in the trailer park.
  • A colleague opposes a SMART goal of increasing the number of female students in higher-level math classes because girls generally don’t do well in math.
  • On the third day of school, a kindergarten teacher recommends a student for special education because he is far behind the other students and his older siblings were all in special education.
  • A colleague gives students the option of not completing assignments the team has deemed essential. He gives those students a zero and argues that by allowing a student to be irresponsible (not doing the work), he is teaching the student to be responsible.
  • Your team attends a workshop to learn new strategies for assessing students. Your colleague ignores the presenter and works Sudoku puzzles all day.
  • A colleague opts not to give the team’s common assessment.

Not one of the scenarios presented above is fiction. I am convinced that until educators are willing to question such behavior, to challenge the assumptions behind those behaviors, and to offer evidence to support their challenges, we will continue to be a profession characterized by isolation and fragmentation. 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; e.g., "I need only concern myself with what happens in my classroom"), 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.

I understand that it will be difficult to initiate these conversations in a traditional school culture, but until we do, the culture will continue to support the status quo rather than the PLC concept. For tips on how to engage in a crucial conversation, I recommend you review the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson and his colleagues.

So, here are my questions: Do you feel any obligation to urge a colleague to question his or her behavior or assumptions when you believe he or she is not acting in the best interests of students or what you regard as the standards of the profession? Can you cite examples of when you have done so?


Crucial Conversations ARE necessary « Balancing Acts

[...] if difficult questions aren’t encouraged and explored. One of Rick DuFour’s colleagues, Bill Ferriter, described very well… I can remember several times where conflict felt like failure to our [...]

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I teach fifth grade in an inner city school in Cleveland, Ohio. I run into situations like this often. I do feel that I question other teacher’s behavior or comments when they are negative or discriminatory. I feel that I do it in a non-confrontational manner. I often ask teachers to explain themselves or give examples. I than make them listen and analyze what they are saying.

There is one aspect of speaking up that I do not feel comfortable with and this includes speaking up to administration figures. Many times in our weekly meeting us teachers are holding tongues. I think this makes the situation worse and is placing a barrier between the teachers and administration. We all know that we need to work as a team to teach the students.

Thank you for the words of wisdom!

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Hey Rick,

First, thanks for the kind words. I enjoyed our Voicethread as much as you did! Y'all were amazing.

Second, 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 never goes well---even when I remember to use my favorite Crucial Conversation 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 about practices and believe that everything we were building was coming to an end. Worse yet, we didn't have the skills for conflict resolution AND we were fighting against a constant barrage of "be a team player" messages that 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 that we drilled into our heads: "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 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 was only when we take the focus off of the person that questioning became safe on our learning team.

Any of this make sense?

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