Sunday, November 30, 2008

Teachers and Change--Part II

In my previous post I suggested that a part of teachers' notorious reluctance to embrace change in their schools and in their practice comes from having experienced a surfeit of "new ideas" and initiatives that have meant a great deal of professional sound and fury--workshops, seminars, committees, planning sessions, new lingo, new gadgets--but that have in the end signified little in terms of real, substantive school change. There has been a whole lot of stress, in other words, but often very little to show for it.

Not to contradict myself, but I think that in many ways this explanation is too easy, even a cop-out. "We tried this back in 1985, and it didn't work," or "We heard this all before when they told us that [name the practice or idea] was going to change everything, but we're still pretty much doing the same old thing; somehow it just disappeared, or the administration just forgot about it" are too glib, too simple. Sadly, excuses of this nature allow teachers to sell themselves short by positioning themselves as passive-aggressive warriors (!) standing firm against the ill-considered whims of administrators and educational thinkers. At its worst, it's a pathetic stance.

The other day a teacher returning from an exciting presentation by one of the foremost gurus of our time complained to me, "Why don't the administrators ever talk about this stuff when it's over?" It is a fair question, and one that demands an answer if we are to understand the relationship between teachers and change clearly.

Like teachers (which many of them once were), administrators are besieged by good ideas; because their work often requires delving into professional literature and discourse, administrators are probably exposed to even more of them. They, too, have memories of guaranteed paradigm shifts that never happened and painful, fizzled experiments in their classrooms and their schools.

To bring a powerful new idea back into a school and to sustain discussion of it presupposes the presence of a number of relatively unlikely circumstances. One is that there is a critical mass of people within the school that know about and understand the concept to start with. The second is that there exists the likelihood that a groundswell of interest and support will keep the concept moving forward. And finally, the idea, whatever it is, must be consonant with well-understood and agreed-upon ideas of the school's own mission and values; it is especially important that the school's governing body could be conceived of as seeing an organic, natural relationship between the new idea and the ideals and identity of the school.

Another friend suggested to me this week that in the past four decades there have only been a handful of true paradigm shifts with the force to engage (and to frighten, it must be acknowledged) all independent school educators. The first of these is the movement that can be described in most general terms as being about diversity and multiculturalism. The second relates to the whole matter of learning styles and learning differences. The third, just emerging but potentially the grand-daddy of them all, is the impact of technology, in particular "Web 2.0" in all its manifestations, on the way we think about curriculum and the role of schools.

Multicultural education and increasingly diverse educational settings have demanded that an overwhelmingly white independent school population of teachers to think in new ways not just about daily practice and relationships with students but about themselves, and about their role in a society characterized by a history of racism and the granting of unearned privilege to people in certain categories. The challenge of the work for many teachers has been to keep their own understanding evolving as theory becomes more sophisticated in an endless but necessary course of soul-searching and self-education. Those of us who were told in the 70s that "color-blindness" was the key have had to learn that acknowledging and understanding difference is truly the path toward understanding and efficacy, for example, and that becoming that "all-terrain" teacher is hard work that has no end. As even the most conservative of schools took on the challenges of becoming more inclusive and diverse, teachers could not in the end resist this change.

In some schools there has never been an aversion to acknowledging that students' minds come in many flavors, but in many established independent schools teachers have struggled with the notion that some students might learn differently not because they are lazy or stupid but rather because they are wired differently. When issues of learning style or accommodation were first raised in such schools, there was often a sense of disappoint or failure--that somehow that school's "greatness," as reflected in the intellectual quality of its students as measured by traditional standards such as college or next-school lists and standardized test scores, was threatened, or lost. Teachers were often quick to blame the administration or the admission office for "lowering standards," for admitting students whose need for extended-time testing or extra help was a sure sign of their deficiency and the admission office's lazy willingness to "accept anyone" in return for suspect pay-offs--athletic skill, perhaps, or development potential. It has been hard work for leaders in schools undergoing this transformation--or rather, doing the hard but necessary work of understanding the nature of intelligence and the complex business of learning and thinking--to give faculty first the understanding and then the tools for working in "cognitively diverse" classrooms. Of course, classrooms have been cognitively diverse all along, but what was missing was schools' and teachers' commitment to learning how to help ALL students succeed and not being satisfied that a bell-curve grade distribution represented a kind of natural educational morality.

The latest disruption in teachers' working lives seems to be coming from the role that new technologies can play in teaching and learning. The educational blogosphere is abuzz with commentary, for example, on the brilliant and controversial insights of Clayton Christensen and company in their 2008 book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Within a very few years, Christensen and his fellow authors say, schools will have moved to learning models in which curriculum and instruction is drawn largely from highly customized online sources. Schools will be very different places, and the role of teachers will be very different, too. Teachers will have to embrace the new paradigm, and there will no longer be places for those who do not or cannot do so.

(I might add that I love what Disrupting Class has to say, as in many ways its thesis and content support the "New Progressivism" ideology that I have espoused for some time, and it suggests how the equally disruptive ideas of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind can become not just aspects of but the basis for real educational practice. But I digress.)

Here are changes that teachers have largely been unable to ignore or resist, regardless of the nature of the schools in which they might work. When it comes to changes that matter, and that truly benefit students, even the most jaded teachers are likely to come around in time; if they don't or can't, they leave the profession one way or another. I'm not so naive as not to know that readers are thinking of a teacher or two in their own schools who are still unreconstructed on these matters, but for the most part the resisters have either gone or have so marginalized themselves within schools (who should be finding ways to either help or remove them, because they truly are dead weight that harms kids) as to be functionally invisible.

The answer to the original question, Why are teachers so reluctant to change? seems relatively simple, but the power of simple answers is always in their essence. Teachers can and will change when the new ideas and ways they are being asked to embrace are absolutely and fundamentally connected with serving their students in ways that are profoundly better. Change is no harder and no easier for teachers as a group than for any other slice of humanity, which history shows us has been extraordinarily slow to give up such things as slavery, sexism, capital punishment, and war.

The challenge for administrators, educational thinkers, and other would-be agents or cheerleaders of change is to connect the "new" approach, whatever it might be, with fundamental values and fundamental value, and then to work like crazy to see that the message is never lost and that the training, reflection, and professional conversations through which teachers process change in their professions (as they process change in their personal lives by sustained conversation and reflection) never end and are never diverted from the primary purpose of helping teachers accomplish hard things--hard things, yes, but great things!

In the end, ineffective ideas and clearly outmoded ways cannot resist good ideas. Even the best of those "great ideas" that I once pushed so hard but saw being ignored wound up taking root, not because or in the ways I espoused them but rather in better ways, mediated by the daily work and earnest reflection of teachers themselves.

What we cannot forget is that teachers tend to be born optimists who believe in children far more deeply than they believe in schools or educational ideologies. When ideas come along that are good for those children, teachers will, in time, accept, embrace, and then incorporate those ideas, not to please enthusiastic administrators but to serve their students.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Teachers and Change--Part I

Wherever people who see themselves as innovators or who are indeed designated agents of change gather, there's always talk of how resistant teachers are to change. Whether they are tech people charged with bringing a school full of teachers into the next, or rather the current, millennium, or whether they are administrators filled with the zeal of curriculum or assessment reform, the chatter--some of it not very sympathetic--is about how teachers' reluctance to incorporate new ideas and new ways into their practice is "hurting kids." Why, the question is asked, can't teachers see that the new way will be better, and that in the end it might even make their lives easier?

I spent fifteen years as a teacher-leader and then an administrator working to promote fundamental change in our own faculty, and in my work with other schools change of some sort is almost always at least a subtext of what I might have to say about professional culture or curriculum. I can say with embarrassed assurance that I too have shaken my head and probably banged my fist over the apparent conservatism of my peers as they dragged their feet in implementing great ideas that would indeed have served kids better, improved teaching, and in the end even made their work just a tiny bit easier. I'm not proud of all my past behavior in that regard, and over the years I have tried to think long and hard about change in schools.

Let us be clear: I like change, but what I am trying to do here is think out loud about why so many teachers seem not to. The sad part is that this conversation echoes what so many people in American society at large seem to think about teachers in general: that they, particularly the ones in public schools, are a vast monolith, nice enough in their way as individuals but collectively committed by their politically powerful unions to an hysterical defense of the status quo. Not only do these people have their summers off, but they also refuse to make important changes--i.e., to revert to the ancient practices and rigorous standards that would instantly make our schools what they were 60 years ago. Whichever the type of change teachers are reluctant to make, they're seen as wrong: reject traditional ideas, bad; reject progressive ideas, equally bad.

The careful reader will have noted in the second paragraph above the lethal phrase "great ideas," and therein lies the rub. By the time the average teacher enters the second decade of a career, he or she will have heard or read about so many great ideas about teaching, learning, and curriculum that his or her head ought to be spinning madly. Much has been written about the educational research or its lack, but the sum total of all the breakthrough ideas in education in the past twenty or thirty years, plotted on a continuum of "this way is better than that way" might be close to zero; for every new idea about pedagogy that demonstrates that student-centered teaching is better, along comes a study of the KIPP schools that proves the absolute superiority of direct instruction. My mailbox fills up each month with printed magazines that tout the value of computer-based instruction, but I can read dozens of blogs on line whose theme is worry that printed text is dead and that children are becoming stupider by the day in a digitally driven world. Whole language, or phonics? Math wars, anyone?

While the scholars, gurus, and school administrators with enough time and need to "keep up with the profession" consume their journals and blogs, classroom teachers barely have time to teach their classes, evaluate their students' work, and plan their next set of assignments. Where these tasks are no longer done in isolation for an audience of the teacher and his or her students only, there is the added anxiety of doing in semi-public what teachers long did in private; on-line gradebooks, assignments, and class notes add elements of external review to these aspects of practice, and the slowly evolving trend toward more professional conversations in school forces a new level of intentionality upon teachers' work. For many teachers, even these seemingly innocuous structural changes are difficult enough. Toss in the long-overdue movement toward consistent and thorough teacher evaluation, and it's not too hard to see those elements of change in the landscape of teaching that dismay many teachers when even more "great ideas" appear on the agenda. They know they will be held accountable in the end, but in the beginning they are scarcely able to see what it is that they are supposed to do, much less understand how to do it well. As one frantic teacher once said to me in a meeting, "What's the expectation? What's the expectation?" My expectation was that whatever the great idea was, it would make her work ever so much more simple; getting there would be the easy part. She, on the other hand, wanted to know where "there" was, and it was unfair of me to assume for all that we would know our destination when we saw it just because I was certain that I would.

The educational consultant Jacqueline Smethurst once cautioned the administrators at our school against falling victim to the "tyranny of good ideas"--being seduced by so many of the wonderful ideas that would emerge as we entered a process of curriculum review and development that we would soon be distracted from our main path. Wise leaders will consider this, but experienced teachers understand it instinctively, as it represents what they fear most about institutional change: a headlong and higgledy-piggledy rush toward not one clear goal but a number of obscure ones. At best, the purposes of the work become confused. At worst, all goals are forgotten, with only the unsettling memory of the "initiative" remaining; things might have changed, but to little purpose and in unintended and perhaps even unrecognized ways. Initiatives that have blossomed and then died on the vine are surely the sources of much cynicism and inertia among teachers today.

(In Part II we will look at how schools can effectively manage change and mitigate its deleterious effects on the morale and efficacy of teachers.)

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Job descriptions

Periodically one or another of the independent school teaching listservs and networks will light up with queries about job descriptions. Sometimes these are quite specific; someone at a school will want to know about the title and responsibilities of his or her counterparts at other schools. Occasionally the queries are about structure, accountability, and reporting status.

About once a year, however, the question is more general, relating to the nature of a "full-time job" description--how many classes, how many students, how many hours, how many extracurricular responsibilities? The inquirer may have been commissioned to survey the field, or perhaps he or she is taking it upon himself or herself to find answers.

Those who have been through a full-blown discussion of this at their own schools will recognize in the question a generalized anxiety that goes well beyond "job descriptions." No one asks this question out of idle curiosity; there is almost always something deeper, and more difficult at stake.

Working from a fairly small sample of schools I've worked in, colleagues' schools, and schools where I've been asked to speak about professional culture, my observation is that these discussions grow out of a certain sense or undefined worry that responsibilities and rewards at the school are not evenly distributed. Often, it seems that conversations about these issues arise fairly early in a time of institutional transition: a change of leadership, the announcement of a new initiative, or a sudden economic downturn.

Even the most carefully managed and comprehensible changes in many schools create uncertainty. Whether teachers are inherently skittish and conservative or whether the traditional isolation of classroom teaching creates its own kind of solipsistic anxiety--I tend to favor the latter explanation--teachers, like cubicle dwellers or prairie dogs (the comparison has been around for a while), react to the winds of change by popping their heads up and nervously sniffing the air to assess their own situation vis-a-vis their peers.

Concern in the face of change is not unreasonable. Will the new leaders appreciate me? Will they favor someone else? Will they understand what I do, and why? Will they recognize and reward my work as has been done in the past? Will I be able to adapt and fit into the new kind of work I am being asked to do? Will my position survive in hard times?

What begins as individual concern, however, can snowball into something corrosive in the presence of more serious concerns. Has the previous administration played favorites in a way that is likely to be undone or--worse--sustained by the new arrivals? Are there unspoken rivalries and resentments within the school community--between divisions, or departments, for example--that have people suddenly asking those "will I be valued" questions in terms of "them versus us"? Are there real or imagined systemic inequities that are part of the shared experience of the teaching faculty? Are their programs or positions that don't appear to justify their existence as programmatic "value added"?

The change, whatever its nature, thus creates an environment in which faculties may display some of their least admirable traits: mistrust, self-protection, and resistance. Even with relatively cool and rational teacher-leaders in the vanguard, the pressure to explore "job description" in an atmosphere of fear or mistrust is generally too strong to be resisted, and thus the queries begin.

Of course, the real question at the heart of the matter is, Are all teachers at our school acknowledged and valued equally for the hard work they have been doing, and will equity be a hallmark of the new regime or new system? Corollaries include, Will existing areas of relative unfairness be corrected? and, Is my continued employment, assuming I continue to do all that I am asked to do, going to be assured?

For administrators, these conversations, vexing and acrimonious as they can be, should be regarded as golden opportunities to respond to teachers' concerns proactively. If salaries and their determination have historically been a mystery or a closely guarded secret, there might never be a better time to engage faculty in developing a scale of some sort. If a new administration discovers inequities, a rapid effort to remedy these will be much appreciated. If a new initiative might conceivably have serious repercussions for some teachers, then serious efforts must be made to mitigate these where possible, perhaps through professional development, or at least to make clear the real nature of the issue. If tough times may indeed force cutbacks, make clear the risks and the ways in which staff reductions will be determined.

The trick, I think, is for administrators to help faculties get beyond issues like class loads and minutes spent leading clubs or coaching teams. I like to think that at most schools, and certainly virtually all good and happy ones, there is essentially just one "job description": teachers arrive in the morning, work hard all day in the service of students and the school's mission, and go home in the evening, even when home is a dormitory; dorm work is part of the job description for many independent school teachers, and they are compensated for this work in some way. Good and happy schools make certain that equal contribution is rewarded by equal compensation. (Schools are not rich, and sometimes the coin of the realm in faculty compensation is not take-home cash but rather benefits--housing, insurance, and even time.)

I would observe here that there is a slippery slope for schools in the establishment of compensation programs that use elaborate systems of points or stipends to "reward" teachers. Along with headaches for those charged with managing such systems, they also create and enshrine invidious comparisons. My suspicion is that not a few of such programs were born of "job description" kerfluffles in times of institutional stress or change; whether there is a way to reel them in to be replaced by more globally systems, I do not know, but I think it would be hard, even if the end result would be a more congenial professional culture.

In 2007 NAIS undertook a survey on teacher satisfaction. In the results (available to members here) there is a strong correlation in the areas of both compensation and professional culture that is based on a few basic things that make teachers happy. Key factors, not surprisingly, are
  • Transparency in decision-making
  • Involvement of teachers in both general decision-making and the design of compensation and benefit programs
  • Clear communication within the school, including of course but not limited to that between administration and teachers
  • Visibility of the school's leadership in the professional world of faculty
  • Recognition and appreciation of effective work
  • Opportunities for authentic growth
Administrators focused on creating or maintaining the "good and happy school" to which I have made reference understand these matters, and not just in the abstract. This school will already have in place a clear and consistently applied system of professional evaluation based on clear and well understood standards for effective teaching. It will be clear and consistent in the way that decisions are made and communicated, and there will be great opportunities for all teachers to learn and grow as professionals and as adults. Everyone will appreciate the efforts of everyone else and understand that each colleague, peer and administrator alike, is doing his or her best work, all the time, in a positive and productive atmosphere. It's not about job descriptions, but about the work.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Taming Families of Fury

Whenever I chat about my work with other school folks, particularly those having anything to with the college search-apply-choose process, I'm afraid that I rather smugly mention that I work in a school where families generally aren't crazy and where they already get the idea of a school matching their kids' needs; therefore, the large part of my role that involves college is not much fraught with angry or unrealistic parents and guardians.

I've been corresponding with a friend at another school who is ready to leave the chalk in the tray and walk away from it all; he calls himself burned out, a term that tears my heart out. Much of his frustration has to do with a steady onslaught of calls and communiques from truly angry parents who have lately been bedeviling his teachers and himself--something new, he says, that has reached an intolerable level. This is a really good guy whose ideas I have listened to and appreciated for 15 years, since the earliest days of something called "E-mail."

It's easy to find reasons to blame the current generation of parents for being entitled, self-absorbed, and over-involved. An article in the New York Times this July on summer camp parents presented a rogues gallery of unapologetically demanding adults who seemed to take delight in pushing camp directors and counselors around to ensure a "perfect" experience for their children: "helicopter parents" piloting Apache gunships. At my friend's genteel boarding school, it is likely that the wonders of email and cell phones have opened up channels of instant communication that are at best a mixed blessing and quite likely a shock to a system accustomed to distant parents and correspondence that proceeds at the stately pace of the U.S. Postal Service.

So the phenomenon is real. But the whole situation raises fundamental questions: Does this have to be? What are the sources of such parental fury? How can schools allay these anxieties and reduce emotionally destructive intrusions into the lives of their teachers and their students? In the most dire cases, how can a school protect its faculty from attack? (I will emphasize that I am presupposing here the absence of any significant or substantial issues of neglect, abuse, or professional failure.)

As I pondered my friend's case, it occurred to me that the answer may lie in institutional identity and mission and how clearly and proudly a school communicates these. In some way that surprises me a bit, it comes down to "brand," one of those marketing words that makes old teachers look for the exits but whose value matters most in situations like my friend's.

Most independent schools have had some ups and downs, and in some ways it's easy for schools in tough times to be over-accommodating to the customers. There's a temptation, possibly encouraged by development offices and anxious boards in hard economic times, for schools to try to present themselves as all things to all people; if admission numbers look shaky, then perhaps a little lowering of standards here and there might be necessary. After all, it's just temporary. A few compromises in the admission office, and a faculty may be teaching a few more kids with learning needs they aren't trained to meet or coping with students whose behavior leaves something to be desired. Morale dips, rumors fly, tempers fray. In the meantime, all students' needs are met less well, and academic and discipline decisions are made in greater haste. Things get a bit raggedy, and good students look on and report home. The spiral may be slow, but its direction is obvious.

I think schools' response must be precisely the opposite, and no school should wait until tough times to formulate it. Trying to be all things to all people is guaranteed to disappoint almost everyone in time. Instead, schools need to define themselves with simplicity and clarity and to be assertive in saying, "Here's who we are, and if you're not really looking for the kind of school we are, please go elsewhere." In an age when almost every other product and service occupies narrowly defined niches, parents and kids are actually likely to be craving schools that present themselves (and their "brands") in precise and even narrow terms.

A few years ago our school started asking applicant families to write a little essay on why they were looking for the kind of school we purport to be, actually giving them a couple of specifics to which they might make reference. The difference in the applicant pool after a couple of years of this is palpable, and it has even become fairly easy to recognize those essays in which a family is just telling us what they think they want us to hear. We also stress our "uniqueness" not only at admission events and accepted-student events but even at Back to School Night, where parents experience in-depth "demos" of a few classes and advisories rather than shuffling from class to class.

There is tremendous importance and value in letting families know as much about the school, its values, and its practices as possible. The essay our parents/guardians file with the application, the relentlessly on-message aspects of our admission and accepted-students events, and the mission-driven focus of our publications, paper and digital, all serve this purpose. (I guess I should add here that we're a progressive school, and proud of it.) Applicant and current families and students know what that means.

I'm not even sure that our whole faculty appreciates the degree to which these events help families understand what we do, probably forestalling any number of querulous emails and phone calls. Crudely put, every bit of authentic branding and mission-focused marketing we do helps "keep parents off our backs" and instead puts them in partnership with us (assuming of course that our practice matches what we preach, which we try like heck to make happen). As our head related to me when I was discussing this with him the other day, "The highest compliment we've ever had from a parent was when one of them told me, 'I don't always agree with what the school does, but I always understand it and why you do it.'" That's a parent whose conversations about his children's learning don't start with verbal attacks on some teacher or administrator.

As I think about my friend and the constant tension between what his school's families think they want in the moment and what they believe the school is giving them instead, it seems clear to me that a big part of the solution for his school--and for all schools--is not to hunker down in defensive agony but to treble their efforts to make clear to families from the moment of inquiry who they are, what they stand for, and what they do.

For my friend and his administrative compadres, this means leaning into the discomfort for a while as they whittle down a tightly focused set of values, ideals, practices, and purposes that is the school's brand. They might also look for opportunities to engage the parents in the mission and work of the school in ways that lessen the teacher-parent schism and at the same time empower the administration and faculty by defining with clarity and strength the work they are doing and the nature of the institution to which they have given their hearts and sweat. They might also ask faculty to consider the powerful role that being on-message might play in helping parents understand and appreciate on both intellectual and emotional levels what the school does.

It will take time and hard work, but after a while people will begin to "get it." Confident, assertive promulgation of the school's values and program philosophy will translate into an increasingly benign and positive climate vis-à-vis parent-faculty relations. The stance of parents and guardians relative to the work of the faculty will shift. Parents will understand what the school stands for and is trying to do and will refrain from panic or anger when they don't understand something or when something doesn't go their kids' or their own way. The cranky phone calls and messages will decrease, the pain will lessen and the old inspiration and fire will return.

I keep reflecting on our Back to School Night, when we invite our families not just to hear about but to experience what it means to be a student at our school--even though those parents and guardians are having supper with their students every night and getting them off to school each morning. How hard the teachers who run those workshops work, but how much easier their efforts make all of our jobs!

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