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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