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Beyond New in the Teaching Profession

James Paterson

Success with a new concept requires understanding the teacher first.

There probably are few phrases more troublesome for busy people in the teaching profession than these: "We're going to be trying something new this year …"      

Education is always awash in new concepts and initiatives – it's a field where people are dedicated, energetic and creative, and always hoping to find new ways to help their students learn and develop. That's the positive side of all the change.

But some would say that, on the other hand, the steady stream of new initiatives in the teaching profession can be a problem: They become confusing or sometimes redundant and often the initiatives are gone by March because no one has opportunities to implement them over time conscientiously or check to see if they are working.

In one survey in 2014, Scholastic and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reported that while teachers liked their jobs (perhaps better than what other research has found) and want to make a difference, they do have complaints – big class sizes, not enough time to collaborate, and poor pay all were mentioned by about half the teachers.

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However, the biggest complaint, with more than 80 percent of teachers listing it: "Constantly changing demands."

Both formal research and anecdotal information gathered in the lunchroom will tell you that teachers are frustrated by student behavior and the lack of parental involvement, but often the talk turns to the new approach they are supposed to implement in the classroom or data they are expected to record. One survey showed teachers had a high sense of well-being overall, compared to those in other professions, but teaching was 8th out of 14 professions when it came to the workers' satisfaction in their environment – and some experts say that has to do with their feeling that there are too many new responsibilities and ideas to absorb.

So while education should change with shifts in the culture and to absorb fresh new ideas, how can it help teachers find the time, energy, and interest in new approaches?

Michael Horn, a fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and the author of several books on educational reform, along with his colleagues, think an effort to introduce teachers to a new approach should start with the premise that their thinking about it needs to be considered first.

"So-called education reformers -- myself included -- constantly propose new plans, programs, and policies to fix whatever supposedly ails public education," Horn says. "These ideas often fall flat because teachers aren’t buying what the reformers are selling."

Horn and his associates in a recent white paper, “The Teacher’s Quest for Progress: How school leaders can motivate instructional innovation,” develop four ways that teachers approach change. They refer to them as "jobs."

"By understanding those jobs, we can design much better solutions to help everyone make progress in schools incidentally," he says.

The four surveyed teachers to find out what was wrong with the familiar top-down approach, primarily talking to those who had successfully made substantial changes in their classrooms.

"If school leaders took the time to consider where their different teachers were at the moment and what they were trying to accomplish, they could approach this in a far more nuanced and sequenced way by appealing to different groups in different ways," Horn says. "A lot of times we see school leaders decide that they are going to embark on a new initiative and then figure out how they will sell it. They marshal all their teachers through the same professional development with the same messaging and totally ignore that teachers, based on their particular circumstances at that time, are going to see it incredibly differently."

Horn notes that they often "Found that the teachers making changes were doing so for reasons quite similar to the motivations for why the education reformers had designed an idea in the first place." But because reformers and school leaders haven’t taken the time to understand why teachers undertake these efforts or make their thinking a priority, they miss an opportunity to support and collaborate with them in a better way.

They conclude that it isn't so much the quantity of support that is the problem as so many experts suggest, but the quality – and whether it specifically addresses different needs.

"Conventional wisdom holds that many good initiatives fail because they don’t give teachers the amount of training and support they need to transition successfully to new practices. In contrast, Jobs Theory shows that it’s the type of support, and not just the quantity, that matters.

Thus, Horn and his colleagues found, teachers approach these new initiatives with mindsets that can be described by these positions:

Help me lead the way in improving my school: The white paper describes a specific teacher in this category. She is "Ready to embrace a change because of a desire and ability to contribute to the broader school." These teachers aren't so much excited about a specific initiative, but interested in the school getting better overall, and supervisors and others promoting new thinking should understand their motivation and guide and use that teacher's energy. They may ask teachers like this to participate in a pilot programs, for example, or be mentors for others.

Help me engage and challenge more of my students in a way that’s manageable: These teachers are "On the lookout for new ways to deliver the curriculum so that more students would feel meaningfully challenged" but want practical results from change that improves the work of their individual students. The main challenge is helping these teachers see why new school-wide practices are preferable to other new approaches teachers might pursue on their own. They aren't as interested in school wide goals as they are in maintaining student interest in learning and making enhancements to their teaching.

Administrators should provide professional development and opportunities for other training, but these teachers don't want to reinvent their work. "Overall, they are happy with how their classrooms operate. If a new practice – such as replacing direct instruction with student-led learning – makes teaching feel foreign, these teachers will likely steer away.

Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student: These teachers see a "Wide variety of achievement levels across their classes and find it hard to keep up."  They often work hard at teaching but it doesn’t help. Students are idle and disengaged and achievement is not improving and the teacher is frustrated by not being able to meet all student needs. This is one example they give: "Mike was at a breaking point. After 15 years teaching high school math, he was seriously contemplating a career change to life on the road as a truck driver. Year after year he had witnessed a parade of new 'best practices' pushed by his district’s leaders. But as he tried out these ideas, none seemed to make any real difference in meeting his students’ individual learning needs." Unlike the teachers who want to improve whole school or want to improve things for their classroom, these teachers aren't particularly interested in new strategies and they should be given an opportunity to work on new ideas at their own pace or on a limited basis – in an after-school program or elective.

Help me to not fall behind on my school’s new initiative: In this case they describe a teacher who decides to leave the profession. She loved teaching, but when she learned she was going to have to use computers to do blended learning she backed away. "She went through the motions and had her students use the computers a few times a week. Needless to say, this is not the enthusiasm nor execution for which one would hope when implementing something new."

The three note that when an initiative is not going well school-wide, they should treat others the way they would this group – backing up and considering what will work with them rather than pressuring them to perform when they are at their limit for additional thinking.

Horn also notes that while changes have to be thought out in advance and implemented in a way that suits teachers with different attitudes toward change, they sometimes also need to be done slowly.

"Teachers who want to better engage their students don't always have the time or energy to overhaul their classroom completely. If you try, it'll fall flat. Incremental changes are what they want – changes that don't upset how they already teach. That doesn't mean they can't make progress -- they would love to. But it has to be smaller steps, not huge projects.