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Tending to the "Deep Rules" of Teacher Collaboration

by Paul Sutton & Andrew W. Shouse - June 03, 2019

In this commentary, authors argue that the “deep rules” that exist around how teachers accrue status and use that status to wield power and influence, also exist in teacher collaborative groups and can greatly impact the extent to which those groups can be productive.

Walk into just about any public school in any district in the country and you will find teachers working in professional learning communities (PLCs). Buttressed by decades of research documenting the potential of PLCs to improve teachers’ practice and, in turn, student learning, schools and districts have institutionalized their use throughout the educational system (Cochran Smith & Lytle, 1999; DuFour, 2004; Grossman, Winebrug, & Woolworth, 2001; Hargreaves & Fullan, 2010; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006). However, ask any teacher or school leader to assess how effective PLCs are in practice, and you may be as likely to hear about experiences in which PLCs have struggled, as to hear about productive outcomes. Schools and districts are awash with tools and protocols that help guide how teachers work together, yet variability in the productivity and success of PLCs remains.

Given this conundrum, we ask experts in the field the following question: If just about everyone agrees that PLCs have the potential to transform teaching and learning, why do so many PLCs continue to struggle? To answer this question, we draw from our ownresearch as well as other relevant research to suggest that more often than not, PLCs succeed or fail based on teachers’ ability to surface the “deep rules” (Allen, 2004) of collaboration that exist between them so that they can negotiate more equitable and egalitarian norms and routines within their groups.


Like any other social group people find themselves in, PLCs are ruled by tacit norms, routines, and procedures that are deeply social and cultural in nature and that are many times specific both to the teaching profession (Lortie, 1975; Ingersol, 2003) and to the specific characteristics of a school. While protocols can help provide structure to some of the routines and procedures teachers use in collaborative settings, protocols do little to penetrate the “deep rules” that exist between novice and experienced, male and female, high status and low status teachers. Allen (2004) describes “deep rules” as a social and political order that “prescribe specific interactions among citizens in public spaces…where they make decisions about their mutually intertwined fates” (p. 10).

As noted by Grossman and colleagues (2001) in their study of teacher community, more times than not, those “deep rules” in teacher collaborative groups are extensions of the social and teaching hierarchy and culture of a school and include such things as who sets the agenda, who gets to talk, who gets listened to, and whose opinion matters when decisions are made. In many cases, adherence to those “deep rules” can accentuate and sustain rather than diminish established hierarchies between and among teachers and may frustrate novice or marginalized teachers’ efforts to become full members of the school and collaborative group (Wenger, 1998). Allen (2004) suggests that when communities surface and confront the “deep rules” that govern them, they become stronger and more capable of solving the chronic problems they collectively face. While challenging, Allen claims this process is essential to establishing more democratic communities.


These “deep rules” (Allen, 2004) in schools can sustain tacit hierarchies that are derived from differences in status and standing between teachers (Anderson & Kilduff, 2009; Sutton & Shouse, in press). On the one hand the teaching profession is shaped by the egalitarian norms of teacher culture in which “a teacher is a teacher is a teacher” (Lortie, 1975). On the other, over time differences among teachers become obvious (Horn & Little, 2009), especially in more intimate collaborative settings. Those differences are derived from the relative status individual teachers have accrued based in part on how many years of experience they have, the extent to which they are perceived as either content knowledge or pedagogical experts, and the extent to which they have held formal or informal leadership roles either within the school or within their department (Little, 1982; Lortie, 1975; van Maanen & Barley, 1984). The following are status markers that can impact how productive and successful PLCs can be.


In our research of teacher collaborative groups, it was common for us to observe that the novice teachers in PLCs would many times listen more than they would talk. While one of the novice teachers we interviewed described their role in meetings as sitting back and learning from her more experienced colleagues, another novice teacher told us that “sometimes I’m kind of scared about saying something because I don’t want to get shot down.” In smaller collaborative settings where differences in status and power can be accentuated, novice teachers survey the social terrain within the group and can become hesitant to make substantive contributions. When working in PLCs, it is crucial for more experienced teachers to be intentional about establishing and sustaining group norms that empower novice teachers to become more engaged members of the group (Sutton and Shouse, in press).



The quotation above from the female novice teacher also demonstrates the role gender can play in PLCs. While it is true that teaching remains largely a highly gendered profession (Kaestle, 1983; Ingersol, 2003; Lortie, 1975), it is also true that social hierarchies having to do with gender, such as who has power and who does not, and who does what work within groups, also exist in schools and departments. For example, it was common for us to observe that the female teachers in groups, typically those who were also novice teachers, would be the ones to take notes during PLC meetings. Whether it is setting the agenda for the day or week, taking notes, or facilitating the meeting, teachers should establish procedures which provide shared responsibility for leadership within the group to allow for a diversity of voices and perspectives to be heard (Sutton and Shouse, in press).


Teachers also gain status based on the extent to which their colleagues perceive them to be either content knowledge experts or pedagogical experts (Ingersol, 2003; Little, 1982; Lortie, 1975). In many of the groups we observed, the teachers who other teachers perceived to have more content knowledge and/or a reputation as an excellent teacher were the ones whose contributions held the most weight in the groups. One of the novice teachers we interviewed described how she “usually just sits there” in PLC meetings and “takes everything in.” Another novice teacher described her hesitation to speak up in meetings because she “never want[s] to say anything because there’s so many…shades of grey that [she] just doesn’t know about yet.”

Both examples highlight the complex dynamics the high status, highly respected teachers in PLCs face. Novice teachers look to them to set the agenda and significantly inform the decisions the group makes. However, this can also be problematic because novice teachers can deepen their knowledge and expertise by routinely engaging in and contributing to PLCs in substantive ways. One of the high status teachers we studied positioned his novice colleagues as integral to the group by asking them to bring in and lead discussions focused on their problems of practice in their PLC (Sutton and Shouse, in press). He many times took a back seat in those discussions by offering to take notes and interjecting with questions from time to time to push the thinking of the group. In so doing, this teacher found ways to help the group balance the need to stay productive with the need to provide space for his more novice colleagues to learn more deeply from the experience.


Many teachers and school leaders acknowledge the promise PLCs hold for school improvement and increased student learning, but they also bemoan the wide variability by which different PLCs establish and sustain a productive collaborative practice. To many practitioners, the fundamental problem comes down to such things as “group chemistry” or interpersonal tension, which are many times impervious to technical fixes like tools and protocols. More times than not, the relative success and productivity any PLC can accomplish has as much to do with the kind of collaborative culture present as it does with the kind of tools, structures, and protocols a group uses.

Group culture, not tools or protocols, governs teachers’ collaborative work. PLCs and other teacher collaborative groups are extensions of, and not exceptions to, the academic and social culture that exists within schools. Just like in independent student collaborative groups, the more intimate, informal and largely unsupervised teacher collaborative settings, like weekly PLCs, are the very places where social and cultural norms and hierarchies come into clear relief. While tracking how status is brokered between teachers is time-consuming and challenging work, given the prominence of PLCs in the K-12 educational landscape, continued research on PLCs would be well spent studying their social and political inner-workings, to map how fault lines between teachers turn into chasms and what might be done to remedy those tensions before the success of specific PLCs are at risk.


Allen, D. S. (2004). Talking to strangers: Anxieties of citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. J. (2009). The pursuit of status in social groups. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(5), 295-298.

Cochran Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Chapter 8 in Review of Research in Education, 24, 249–305.

DuFour, R. (2004). What is a professional learning community? Educational Leadership, 61(8), 1–6.

Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., & Woolworth, S. (2001). Toward a theory of teacher community. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 942–1012.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Horn, I., & Little, J. W. (2009). Attending to problems of practice: Routines and resources for professional learning in teachers’ workplace interactions. American Journal of Educational Research, 47(1), 181–217.

Ingersol, R. M. (2003). Who controls teachers’ work? Power and accountability in America’s schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kaestle, C. F. (1983). Pillars of the republic: Common schools and American society, 1780–1860. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Little, J. W. (1982). Norms of collegiality and experimentation: Workplace conditions for school success. American Educational Research Journal, 19(3), 325–340.

Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

McLaughlin, M., W., & Talbert, J., E. (2006). Building school-based teacher learning communities. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.

Sutton, P. & Shouse, A. W.. (in press). Investigating the role of social status in teacher collaborative groups. Journal of Teacher Education.

Van Maanen, J., & Barley, S. R. (1984). Occupational communities: Culture and control in organizations. Research in Occupational Behavior, 6, 287–365.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 03, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22844, Date Accessed: 7/16/2019 12:43:10 AM

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