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?