What's teacher resistance really all about?

By Karen on October 10, 2015
Posted to Leadership

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Bag and hands

No-one likes change like a baby with a wet nappy!

I really wish I could remember who told me this, I have quoted it in so many contexts since I first heard it. 

It’s very true, that babies are keen to be changed when their nappies are soiled. The rest of us vary in our responses to change.

No more so than teachers. In education, there are change-leaders, the change-ready, change-acceptors and the change-resistant in every setting. 

Having been a change leader myself, it has taken some time, and a number of leadership roles, to sort out what change resistance is really all about.

There is isn’t one simple answer. I have worked with many educators who have been resistant for each of the following reasons:

Misunderstanding the need for change - not surprisingly, I’ve worked with teachers comfortable with the status quo, and the way life is moving along. They’ve often not read a lot professionally, had few professional learning or conference experiences and are in their comfort zone. Why would they want to change or even see the need for change? Videos like this gem are great tools for supporting the school community to understand the need for change.

Invested in the old ways of doing things - similar to the first motivation, I’ve worked with pretty successful, if not traditional, teachers who have been acknowledged by parents and others enamoured of the idea that their child’s education should be like their own. Unfortunately these teachers, and their fans, have failed to see the freight train bearing down on didactic, teacher directed approaches. Some have been very charismatic, traditional teachers and loved by the broader community. Again, why would they want to change or even see the need for change?

Change weariness - many experienced teachers, who decided early in their careers to stay in the classroom, have seen a lot of fads, ideas and waves of innovation and curriculum change passing by. I can still hear the collective sigh these people exhaled as change became the topic of discussion again. Alarmingly a couple of the teachers in this group were nearing the end of their career and wanting to dodge the last change before retirement. Tricky to support, they could go either way: change-acceptance or change-resistance. Leadership and well managed change processes were essential.

Fear of the unknown - this group can be tricky. Because they are often unwilling to admit to not knowing how to implement a new approach, they may fight a change on a range of unrelated grounds. Uncovering the true motivation is helpful in getting to the bottom of the resistance. Addressing ‘not knowing how’ in a respectful and collegiate culture works wonders.

Lack of competence - in my experience, this one isn’t as common as the media and our politicians might like have us believe. Incompetent teachers have complex needs and are often already stretched, not surprising that they might then resist change. 

Poor decision making processes - I have learned the hard way that the proposed changes have to be understood, accepted and scaffolded and that the needs for each stage become clearer through consultation, communication, sharing and learning together. All stake holders need to be part of the decision making, and ownership of the change is the goal if it is to be successful.

Different priorities - a big ah-ha came for me when I sat with a teacher who was loudly resistant, to a literacy change proposed for the whole school, in meetings and professional dialogue. During our conversation, it come to light that he was in fact, much more concerned about his student’s thinking skills and problem solving and wanted to prioritise his time on that issue. Literacy levels were going okay in his room. I had cause to reflect on the fact that I strongly promoted student led learning and support of student initiatives, but here I was, expecting my staff to travel a journey together. My thinking was valid I thought, the variation between classrooms is a huge issue, but this necessitated all being on the same journey and that was inconsistent with my beliefs. This conversation led the whole change process off on a slightly different path, thinking and problem solving were made priorities in one team addressing the literacy change and the whole staff learned from their reports back to the group. My resistor led that group and did a mighty job of it.

Ineffective professional learning opportunities - this was actually the story for almost a whole staff in one of my schools. They’d been told about changes and new initiatives frequently, but had had very little time to talk, reflect, investigate, implement and learn from each other. Resistance was actually quite passive, voting ‘yes’ and doing little was a way of being. The rigours of professional dialogue, the challenge to incorporate new ideas and the demand to actually do things in classrooms in order to report back to colleagues had a big impact.

Tired, unappreciated, unheard and unacknowledged - unless they are on a managing poor performance system, every teacher has skills, things to offer and an opinion to have heard. Many teachers I’ve come across are worn down by the constant need for change and feel that their efforts to date, are for nought, because change is coming again. In this group have been a significant percentage, strongly invested in teaching and making a difference early in their careers, but worn down by the relentlessness of the work, rate of innovation and thanklessness they experience. School cultures must address this, or we lose potentially great people from the profession. Opportunities to share, observe others, be observed, debate and have rigorous dialogue, learn together and celebrate together are crucial for ‘feeding the soul’ and acknowledging effort, input, risk taking, successes and challenges. A young teacher recently told me that she only stays in the job (and she’s in a tough site) because of the interaction with other teachers, professional sharing and chances to teach and learn from other teachers. 

So, what have I learned?

Firstly, understand what is motivating each person’s resistance. Different actions are needed in every example above. There is no one reason and one answer. 

Secondly, be willing to hear what the resistance is about. Who says I am right? I cannot possibly think of all permutations and possibilities, there are many useful thinkers in our schools, use them! Develop a culture of trust, be willing to have the debates, be willing to not be right, be willing to change. 

Steven Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people includes: Seek first to understand, then be understood. He talks about ‘moving toward the danger’, deliberately seeking out opposing views. Great advice I think.

Thirdly, there are many possible paths. I have learned to be clearer about the principles I want to adhere to, and to be flexible about the ways of getting there, actions undertaken and processes implemented. Many paths lead to a desired state, no one path is right for everyone.

Fourthly, don’t assume that all staff know how to debate and dialogue. We can all assume that we are under attack when closely held opinions are challenged. Separating people from ideas, respecting opinions, dialogue processes and responding to research are all skills we benefit from learning and practicing. 

Fifthly, expand your leadership repertoire to include a range of processes for structuring dialogue. I am known by many as The Process Queen, and can only reinforce the idea that processes work!

Lastly (for now), make it okay to disagree in your site’s culture. Ask for those disagreeing to have reasons, evidence, research and an explicit motivation for disagreeing. Call it, name it and include it. I used DeBono’s ‘black hat thinking’ label to describe critique and the questions that led us to be more critical of our own thinking. Group think isn’t necessarily right, and it is important to deliberately consider opposing views and possible objections/issues in order to plan for them in advance. We don’t want to make predictable errors, we’ll make enough unpredictable ones if we are effective risk takers and learners.

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