I’ve been going to a lot of conferences lately, and watching a lot of video clips, about how leaders can influence change in teacher practice. Mostly they are full of big ideas about collective inquiry, distributed leadership, forming relationships, using evidence-based practices, learning goals and success criteria, etc. All of these big ideas are true. But they are big ideas and sometimes big ideas are overwhelming to implement.
So I’ve been thinking what are ways of engaging teachers in changing practice which are not overwhelming but do lead teachers to changes in practice. In the end, my experience is that teachers are learners and do want to do their very best for their students. I do not adhere to the notion that we have great numbers of teachers who are resistant to new ideas. I believe that the great majority of teachers walk in the school doors every day believing that they are teaching the best way they know how. But I also believe that there are many teachers who are clinging to very traditional practices, probably because they appear to be working. How does teacher practice change?
Teachers change their practice when they see that their students are successful or more engaged in learning after implementing change in practice. When a teacher tries something new, and the lesson is successful, the teacher feels good. The teacher goes home feeling like “this is the profession for me”!
However, often we ask teachers to change practice in ways that are not successful or make no difference. Without a belief that the change will make a difference for an identified problem, teachers are most likely to simply comply:
- Asking teachers to change assessment practices without changing pedagogy might mean they rename their quizzes formative assessments.
- Asking teachers to have lots of anchor charts, without teachers understanding how the anchor chart scaffolds learning, results in lots of pretty anchor charts that rarely change.
- Asking teachers to post learning goals and success criteria, without teachers actually changing how they plan, results in learning goals and success criteria that are often just the recipe for the day’s lesson.
Compliance is not change.
On the other hand, when teachers feel empowered to identify changes they’d like to make and try new ideas that they have identified as possible solutions, then they are more likely to change their practice. Now, I don’t suggest that teachers who decide that the solution to a lack of student engagement is to feed them chocolate cake! However, when teachers work collaboratively, with their principal at the table as an interested learner, identify aspects of their practice they’d like to change, look at some of the research or resources that might support that change, and then have the freedom to try it out, I’ve never never met a teacher who isn’t interested.
These conversations can come out of conversations which begin with: What do you wish your students could do better? Most teachers can identify an aspect of their course where students don’t seem to do as well as they’d like. It might be a curriculum need or a behavioural/attitude need:
- I wish my students knew their math facts.
- I wish my students would persevere on challenging tasks.
- I wish my students would write with more voice.
- I wish my students thought critically about their reading.
- I wish my students took more risks in solving problems.
The next step is to assess what the students are actually doing now, usually by looking at student work or by observations and conversations. And then, teachers need to be empowered to try something new without feeling they are being judged, have timelines, or that there is a “right” way to do this. But it is key that the teacher feels supported in the implementation of this new practice. And this is the role of the principal as instructional leader; the principal needs to be interested in what is happening in the classroom, ask how the new practice is going, and be willing to offer suggestions and ideas as an interested co-learner not as a boss.
When teachers “play” with their practice and engage in thinking about what works, what doesn’t and what solves the problems they notice, then they change. Success breeds success. We need to be careful that our professional development ideas don’t bog teachers down to the extent that they comply rather than change. If what teachers are asked to do, doesn’t have a fairly immediate effect on their practice, they aren’t likely to engage. Who would? But, when teachers implement ideas that they understand, that they choose, that they believe in, then their students will be successful. Teachers change their practice when their students are successful.