7 Questions I Ask Myself When Working with Educators Resistant to Change
When I facilitate professional learning for educational leaders at a conference or a workshop, I usually leave time for questions at the end.
I’ve started documenting these questions; here are a few:
“How do I help a teacher become more independent when they aren't being open-minded about where they might grow?”
“How do I provide actionable, helpful feedback for content experts in their subject area?”
“What do I do when I go into a classroom and I feel unwelcome? This makes me not want to go in there even though I know I should.”
What I’ve learned is, these inquiries are all different versions of the same question:
“How can I reduce educator resistance to improve?”
It’s the most common concern for educational leaders across all positions.
And the concern is not exclusive to teachers. I hear frustration from them in their principal, district administrator, coach, specialist or interventionist. Resistance to new ideas and critically examining ineffective practices is observed across the profession.
This is a schoolwide problem because their rigidity creates a bottleneck in the school culture. These new ideas get questioned without consideration, even when supported by research and evidence. They become an obstacle in the proliferation of promising practices.
The result: a school never reaches its true potential.
So how do we approach these situations?
I used to only feel similar frustration or resentment. This is not helpful. These thoughts go nowhere and sometimes stay in my head to rattle around as I try to go to sleep.
Now I try to approach these situations not viewing a person as an obstacle, but rather as a person experiencing the obstacle. I look to support rather than simply supervise. Just as important, I own this challenge as much as them.
Here are seven questions I sometimes ask myself to help position me in a more compassionate and curious stance.
1. Do I know them as a person beyond their position?
We are in the people business. That means relational trust is paramount if we want to guide a school toward literacy excellence for all students.
We don't have to be on their Christmas card list to have a positive relationship. A simple approach suggested by Heather Fisher (Choice Literacy) is to go through your list of staff members and write down next to each name one thing you know about them from outside of school. What do their grown children do for a career? What non-educational hobby or interest do they pursue? These nuggets of knowledge serve as talking points during informal conversations. They feel noticed and you come across as more humane and caring.
2. Am I consistent between what I say and what I do?
Similar to how students pay attention to how their teacher conducts themselves in the classroom, our colleagues pay attention to the ideas we express and whether our actions and decisions align with them.
For instance, do you share how you value students as readers and writers? Then some of our building funds should be allocated to classroom libraries and to spaces for kids to write. In fact, you don't have to say anything at all. Our values are made evident in what we prioritize within the school.
3. Am I engaging in conversation with this person from a stance of curiosity?
Reflecting on my past confrontations, a common culprit was a lack of understanding around what the other person was saying and doing. We make assumptions based on our previous knowledge and simple observations. Believing I always have more to learn, demonstrated through genuine questions and requests for clarification, avoids creating more problems.
4. Have they been offered opportunities for input around our schoolwide literacy work?
100% commitment toward a schoolwide professional learning initiative is not possible. We will never get total buy-in.
What we can ensure is that everyone had an opportunity to voice their opinion and to offer their ideas for our direction as a school. This is where an instructional leadership team comes in; they have collective authority to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the faculty about next steps in professional learning. These decisions are based on current data, shared beliefs, and what research is finding to be most effective for literacy instruction. If someone is not happy with a decision, I might invite them to apply to serve on the instructional leadership team.
5. Is it clear for this person what we are working toward and why it's important?
Just because a focus for professional learning was written and shared doesn't mean everyone understands the what and the why. Just as important is conveying the larger vision for this work.
Better student test scores are often the reason for adopting a new literacy curriculum program. I realize these outcomes can't be ignored. But what if you unpack the results, locate the specific areas in which students are struggling within literacy, and connect these findings with lifeworthy knowledge and skills? Now it's not about the test; the results are merely a measure to indicate work in this area is needed so students become independent readers, writers, communicators.
6. Have I recognized this person for their strengths and successes prior to communicating feedback?
If the first communication I have with an educator is about how they could improve, what I am also potentially communicating is "You are someone who needs improvement." or "You need my support to be successful." It should not be surprising when resistance arises.
First affirming people's strengths is not just about building trust and relationships. Noticing their strengths and then associating new practices with where they already thrive is also more effective.
As an example, if a teacher is a great relationship builder with kids, and a schoolwide goal is implementing conferring with readers and writers, we can help a teacher see the connection between their strengths and using literacy tasks as a talking point. The change now feels smaller.
7. Is the feedback I have communicated a reasonable next step for this person?
I've been guilty of offering an idea for improvement without considering whether it is within their current abilities. It might seem like a "next step" for me, but from their perspective it is leap that feels too far with too much risk.
When that's been the case, I've asked, "What's safe enough to try?" (Kim & Gonzales-Black, 2018).
For example, if the schoolwide expectation is that students participate in co-organizing classroom libraries, and a teacher is struggling to let to go of all that control, I might follow up with, "What part of the classroom library would you be most comfortable with letting the students organize and manage?" Maybe it's a single bin of nonfiction. The next time I come into the classroom, I can ask this teacher how the experience went for them (hopefully well, and okay if it didn’t), celebrate their efforts, and help them reflect on the process that led to the results.
You can start doing this work on Monday; here are the 7 questions in an easy-to-reference list:
Do I know them as a person beyond their position?
Am I consistent between what I say and what I do?
Am I engaging in conversation with this person from a stance of curiosity?
Have they been offered opportunities for input around our schoolwide literacy work?
Is it clear for this person what we are working toward and why it's important?
Have I recognized this person for their strengths and successes prior to communicating feedback?
Is the feedback I have communicated a reasonable next step for this person?
These questions are aligned with the pathway I provided for leaders in my book Leading Like a C.O.A.C.H.: Five Strategies for Supporting Teaching and Learning. You can purchase it on the publisher’s website, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. And if you’ve already read it and found it helpful, please consider giving it a rating and review in these spaces and on Goodreads!
Last month was our first article study. We read Part 1 of Maren Aukerman’s three part series on The Science of Reading and the Media (Literacy Research Association). You can find links to the discussion thread and recorded conversations here.
This month, we are reading Parts 2 and 3 in the same series. Full subscribers will be able to comment in the discussion thread (February 14) and have access to all content from the real time Zoom conversation once posted. See below.
Text: “The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research?” and “The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?” by Maren Aukerman (Literacy Research Association, 2022)
Discussion Thread (to be posted February 14)
Virtual Conversation (Zoom, February 21, 5:30 P.M. CST)
Podcast (recorded conversation to be posted February 28)
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Update: Maren Aukerman will be joining us in the Zoom conversation!
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