Are Teachers Unwilling To Change?

When professional development and learning is imposed upon teachers, don’t expect much in the way of meaningful teacher growth..

This week CTQ bloggers kicked off a two week exploration of the theme: How Do Teachers [Really] Learn? We invite you all to join us with your thoughts and questions here on the blogs or on social media at #Love2Learn.

In several schools I’ve worked in, I’ve befriended veteran teachers on the verge of retirement. They counted down the days until lesson plans and stacks of ungraded papers would become a relic of their professional pasts. They scowled or ignored new mandates, the next best initiative, and bold calls for changing classroom practice. They had become jaded by years of promise coupled with little follow-through.

If I had endured thirty-or-so-years of mandates and initiatives–with the requisite professional “development” attached to these demands–I’d probably feel the same way. I understand their obstinance.

According to Judith Zimmerman, teachers may be unwilling to change due to the following reasons, among others:

  1. Failure to recognize the need for change

  2. Fear of the unknown

  3. Precedent of previous failed initiatives

  4. Threats to their expertise

All of the above seem to correlate with external forces too often making decisions for teachers–never a recipe for positive shifts in teaching and learning and school culture. Unwillingness to change or grow professionally in a top-down, coercive environment is unsurprising. Most teachers will, however, respond with willingness to explore new ideas and skills given a more healthy context.

If you want teachers to change, school districts must create conditions to elevate the profession. If you want teachers to change, consider adult learning theory when designing PD. If you want teachers to change, allow educators to address school needs and give them ongoing support.

I think about dozens of my students over the years. The kids who will not readily comply or change their attitudes when it’s a heavily teacher-centered lesson or unit. The kids who don’t see the point when they have no choice in the matter. Just as teaching can feel futile when we impose every decision, activity, and question upon kids, adults often respond the same way when ownership is absent.

So, yes, there are some teachers who are unwilling to change. But I don’t necessarily blame them. I blame a system of professional development and learning that has too often ignored approaches that lead to empowered teachers who are more apt to envision themselves and their classroom practices differently.


  • TriciaEbner

    External vs. Internal Locus of Control

    It seems to me this is a phrase that I heard frequently in my undergraduate days. What baffles me is how we know we need to move kids toward that internal locus of control, but yet somehow, we keep that away from teachers. 

    I was really struck by this:  All of the above seem to correlate with external forces too often making decisions for teachers . . .”

    When teachers are invited to be part of change, or even possibly lead change, the experience is vastly different. When change is instituted by teachers, it’s a completely different story. 


    • MegCarlile

      Instituted by Teachers


      I completely agree with your thougthts on change implemented by teachers. Yet, I have never been in a school or with a district that allowed that on a grander level. The principal will allow small changes and yet, time and time again, we come back to district, state expectations. There are too many barriers to entry. It feels while most know this to be true, the possibility of implementation and change coming from teachers isn’t feasible. 

  • ArielSacks


    I heartily agree with this; well said, Paul. We’ve ofte discussed in the Collab that effective teachers don’t do what they are told. They are effective despite the external mandates. These teachers will be understandably wary of PD they did not choose. And those who follow the mandates are in an even more precarious position, because said mandates have generally not led toward success. Unwilling to “change” is probably too vague an accusation, really. Unwilling to get enthusiastic in response to another imposed initiative is more like it. Great suggestions from our collective conversation to address this reality. I know it’s hard for leaders (teachers or otherwise) to shift away from authoritarian leadership… but if they are unwilling to make that change, then it’s also not suprising that they encounter the same in others. 

    • PaulBarnwell

      Hey Ariel,

      Hey Ariel,

      I think there are plenty of district administrators out there who want a culture shift and are now realizing that paying outside consultants and other experts is not the answer.

      It’s heartening to hear of the burgeoning teacherpowered school movement and other case studies where more trust is placed in teachers. Has to be one of the greatest catalysts for enacting positive change there is.

  • ReneeMoore

    The Compliance Culture of Education

    The nefarious charge that teachers are “unwilling” to learn is often misapplied, as Ariel points out, to those who are simply skeptical of yet another educational fad. It’s interesting that within education there is such a high premium on compliance and conformity—especially when working with students of color or the children of the poor. Yet we claim to be preparing the critical thinkers, problem solvers, and innovators of our future. Similarly, teachers are often expected to simply follow the directions on somebody’s packaged pacing guide.

    What is your take on the various PD opportunities teachers are creating for themselves (and how does the exponential growth of these square with the teachers-are-unwilling-to-learn myth)? I’m thinking for example of the EdCamps, Twitter chats, virtual conferences such as K12 Online Conference, and other teacher created and led learning venues.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Great post


    You succintly and articulately captured key challenges to change. While I agree wholeheartedly that systems need to model best practice and support change to allay teachers’ “Yeah, buts…” I also think we collectively have to be responsible for changing the way we think about change – especially with respect to #2: “Fear of the unknown.” Too often are fears keep us complacent and keep us from becoming vulnerable learners (the kind we want our students to be). Systems need to create conditions and cultures where it’s safe to take risks but we actually have to at some point swallow our fears and take those risks — otherwise I fear we can also be part of the problem and perpetuate the status quo.

    I agree with Renee’s point that we should promote critical thinking in our profession as well as our classrooms vs. “do” PD to teachers. But I’ve also seen practitioners shy away from critical thinking and challenging work with defeatist attitudes — I’m wondering more and more if the biggest hurdle to growth mindset thinking is our own learning journey outside of our classroom work….

  • JohnHolland

    PD or Training

    I still think we get to much Training and not enough Education in our Professional Development sessions. When was the last time you went to a PD that was meant to empower you? To strengthen the profession? If it was mandated, never. If it was a choice, then I have been to several but, they were mostly on my  on time and my own dime.


    • PaulBarnwell

      Right on.


      You’ve highlighted the major disconnect between traditional PD and the possibility that authentic professional learning can take place within more meaningful contexts and structures. PD has too often become synonomous with compliance and meeting the required hours to maintain certification. Not cool!

  • Katie Martin

    Start with the why

    Great article,  Paul! You nicely capture many of the challenges in changing practice and especially when it is top down and compliance driven. In my experience, I rarely meet teachers that are against doing what’s right for their students. When I dig deeper, I often find that when teachers are resistant, their experiences, beliefs and expertise are not aligned with the desired changes teaching and learning. 

    Skilled leaders make it a priority to help those who are expected to change their practice by communicating and developing a shared understanding of the why.  Teachers need to understand how new initiatives, devices, pedagogy (or what ever the change is) are aligned to a greater vision that is targeted at reaching better outcomes for their students.  

    In many cases, the PD procedures and practices still convey that we expect teachers to “learn and do” rather than engage in ongoing activities that foster learning as job-embedded or part of a teachers work day.    As many have mentioned, teachers need to be part of the process and involved in decision about desired learning and teaching. If we really want to see change and empower teachers to truly integrate new learning it is critical to carve our time to allow for trial and error, collaboration, coaching and feedback to allow educators to apply the learning. It is the application of the new learning that breeds innovative ideas and practices that work for your unique context and begin to make an impact for the learners across schools and classrooms.