Changing the day-to-day culture of schools from one in which adults work solo in silos has been a focus of the many leaders and researchers who understand that professional learning is the key to student learning, and that professional learning requires collaboration. Yet, the schedule in the vast majority of schools leaves minimal time for teachers to study and improve their practice together. Real, sustainable, change in any organization must address the cultural norms and interactions that prevent improvements. Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast everyday.” Translated into education, this means that, without an emphasis on teacher learning, none of the new materials we buy, none of the new programs we implement, will have real impact. As Michael Fullan writes in Choosing the wrong drivers for system wide reform (2011), “The right drivers…are effective because they work directly on changing the culture of school systems (values, norms, skills, practices, relationships).”
In this post, I’m going to focus on effective communication as a key lever for cultural change, drawing on my work in schools, and within the remarkable learning community at Metamorphosis. Why communication? Because, as the anthropologist Edward T. Hall famously noted: “Culture is communication, communication is culture.”
My experience has lead me to this hypothesis: The frequency and focus of adult communication—by which I mean the degree to which adults are speaking regularly, routinely, and non-defensively; visiting each others’ classrooms; and publicly refining their craft with one another to grow their individual and collective practice—largely determines the likelihood that these adults will grow as professionals. In turn, the extent of effective adult professional learning profoundly impacts the degree to which students will become learners.
The Legacy of Culture and Hierarchy
Unfortunately, the factory-model structure and scheduling that endures in the vast majority of schools isolates teachers from one another and leaves little time for collaboration and learning. The long history of entrenched hierarchal relationships between school administrators and teachers, and the hear-no-evil-see-no-evil loose coupling pact between administrators and teachers that Richard Elmore describes in School Reform from the Inside Out, has bequeathed us a culture in which dialogue aimed at improving teaching and learning across roles is rare, and difficult to cultivate. Teachers often fear and/or resist collaboration, and are reluctant to invite colleagues to engage in inter-visitations and candid discussions about improving practice.
While many schools and districts have instituted weekly grade level meetings, department meetings, professional learning communities, or other opportunities for potential collaboration, the inherited culture almost always reasserts itself. Time is often constrained, the focus is often unclear, and the agenda is often coopted by school/district mandates or other external non-pedagogical concerns. There is little room for engaging in the complex communication that cultivates the trenchant intellectual relationships among colleagues, and between teachers and leaders, that foster professional learning and shifts culture.
It bears repeating: Teaching is hard. Teachers in our schools are often inadequately prepared. All too often, they are deposited in classrooms with little support. They are forced to develop their practice in isolation. Unsurprisingly, they become deeply invested in their specific pedagogy, and define their personal and professional worth by this specific pedagogy.
Transformation: What we need to do
Learning to engage in diagnostic conversations centered on the complexity of teaching well means changing this dynamic of learned (and, it should be said, earned) defensiveness, so that we can improve our own and each others’ practice. If culture is our biggest enemy in this pursuit, teachers are our greatest asset. In my experience, the vast majority of teachers care deeply about their students and are invested in their learning. What we need to do is to make it safe for individual teachers to communicate about their craft with colleagues in ways that challenge the status quo and build the collective knowledge of the profession. Teachers in several of our partner schools, with the support of their principal, are beginning to carve out dedicated time and create a welcoming environment to delve deeply into the study of teaching—to learn how to be learners.
This is not easy. At first, teachers react personally and defensively when existing practices prove ineffective—a very human reaction, heightened by the specific pathology of our school culture—but over time teachers become invested in authentic professional learning. Like all successful learners, they work to be able to hear criticism without taking it personally. A lesson that may have misfired becomes an opportunity to think more deeply about how to improve the lesson design or the relationship with students. This is a critical transformation if we truly wish to improve our practice. “Practice” being the operative word. Teaching, like medicine or ballet, is too complex to ever be perfect. Our willingness to strive toward perfection nonetheless is what keeps the learning flowing.
In addition to learning to hear criticism non-defensively, learning how to be learners requires us to treat significant differences in beliefs among teachers as opportunities to identify those beliefs that are validated by evidence of student engagement and learning. We naturally think that what we believe is right and that those who disagree are wrong, and they believe the same about us. Well, we can’t all be right, and this binary formulation sets us up for conflict. Which most of us want to avoid. So we shy away from conversations that might surface differences, pretending instead that we all agree, or agreeing to disagree, without resolving the merits. This ensures that that we do not grow and that our students do not learn as well as they could.
Transformation: What is the framework?
The framework for adult communication is exactly the same as the framework for student communication. And we understand the framework for student communication well. In fact, most of the conversation about improving discourse in schools revolves around accountable talk in the classroom. In the words of the Institute for Learning’s Accountable Talk Sourcebook:
We want students to dig deep, to question their underlying assumptions, to evaluate the adequacy of their evidence, and to see things from a variety of perspectives. Explicating one’s reasoning in words or in writing makes it public and available for others (or oneself) to assess, critique, question, or challenge. (p.6)
In other words, we want to teach students to be able to do that which we as adults are reticent to do, and often unskilled at doing. At how many meetings of teachers does a teacher actually assess, critique, question and challenge another teacher’s thinking, beliefs or practice? And, when she does, how is that challenge or critique received?
To productively challenge ourselves and our colleagues in ways that stimulate growth rather than avoidance; to engage in difficult conversations without causing conflict or animosity; to develop professional discourse that is rigorous, compassionate, thought provoking and informed, we should look to the same principles that we use with our students. Acting in accord with these beliefs will catalyze student learning, because our students tend to reproduce the behaviors they see in us. Moreover, modeling for students the behaviors that we expect from them shifts the entire school culture.
A True Story
Recently, I questioned a teacher’s practice of providing a specific estimation strategy prior to giving students a chance to estimate in their own “unskilled” ways. The teacher, who was part of a “select teacher leader” group that had volunteered to be “lead learners,” experienced my questioning as a personal attack.
When I discovered this, I apologized, and worked to repair trust. The teacher shared that she felt unsafe in sharing her practice going forward. She also told me that she had spoken to colleagues to rally support for her (op)position, and had registered a complaint with the administration. This struck me as an unsurprising reaction in a culture that views professional challenges as personal attacks. Though the teacher had stepped forward to be a lead learner, the culture was not yet a learning culture. She did not yet have the capacity to hear comments about teaching choices as simply comments on teaching choices.
As I reflected, I recognized that I had tripped over many of the pitfalls that lay hidden on the path as we navigate the road from our existing school culture to a culture that engages in crucial conversations without blame, shame or judgment. For example:
- I misjudged the readiness of the team of teachers I was working with for the first time to challenge their own practice.
- I mistook the group’s camaraderie for evidence of their trust in the process of investigating their practice.
- I failed to recognize that while they valued the routine I had shared with them and pledged to use it in their classes, they saw me as an outsider and did not fully trust me.
After thinking about how to repair the damage, I chose to address the incident directly, rather than avoiding it, and explicitly posed the question of how we could make it psychologically safe to question and challenge one another. This turned out to be remarkably effective. Discussing trust, and inviting all participants to speak to their need for psychological safety, increased trust. In addition, predicting the emotional responses and pondering how best to handle them helped me in building a skill set for having challenging conversations. I also learned that by having an explicit conversation up front, I could have saved everyone a lot of grief, while establishing the necessary trust to engage in real communication that leads to real growth.
A Few Concluding Thoughts
Each of us needs to learn to question our own beliefs, practices and ways of handling challenges. Complaining to others in order to rally allies to our cause is divisive, and impedes collaboration and professional growth. Similarly, asking for the outsider to be removed is a fearful response designed to perpetuate the status quo. How might we respond as learners, instead?
- Don’t take it personally. Professional Development is about interrogating the work. Remember that you are being supported, not attacked (even though it takes a while to feel that way).
- Approach the work with humble questions in your head:
- How might I be wrong?
- How might I express my vulnerability and fear of criticism, so that I can learn to work with other teachers and leaders in a productive and fruitful manner?
- If you have a conflict with someone, talk to that person directly. You are an adult, and this is the adult and constructive thing to do.
- Commit to co-creating a trusting learning environment, and cultivate skills and beliefs that minimize drama.
Finally, remember, communication is powerful. It encompasses all of culture. It includes what we express, how we choose to express, even what we choose to withhold. Think about all the communications that we do not handle well, or address to the wrong people, or avoid altogether. Think about how these communications are preventing us from stepping back from the personal. Think about how we can instead use the power of communication to step up together to fashion the culture of learning that we sincerely desire.
*All personal pronouns in this blog post refer to Lucy