You likely know an amazing, dynamic teacher who has made a difference. S/he may help with professional development, or use an innovation that most teacher peers do not. Kids enjoy that teacher’s classes, and administrators appreciate the scores that students in those classes earn on standardized tests. This presents a clear and present danger–to the teacher just mentioned.
What I consider to be a cycle of discouragement follows:
- Teacher A is a dynamic individual.
- S/he is driven by some factor to try an innovation or develops teaching in a way that does not follow the status quo.
- Students respond in some way, and test scores go up, or the class becomes a favorite.
- The administrator notices. So do others. Alternatively, some type of recognition at conferences or awards makes this educator stand out.
- The cycle of pushback begins. Singling out of the teacher through comments or avoidance begins.
- The teacher retreats to the classroom, but because s/he is genuinely trying to meet the needs of the students, energies get funneled into making a more dynamic classroom.
It’s important to realize that by demoralizing or isolating the teacher, there’s an effect on the entire staff. Each time we weaken one another by gossip or negativity, we hurt our staff by poisoning the culture, a little bit at a time.
The driver behind this cycle, in my experience, is a combination of jealousy, personality types, and fear. Jealousy is the least likely culprit, as districts have a long tradition of celebrating school victories when students are coached to a contest win or school championship. Personality type clashes among educators can lead to prickly conversations and conflicting goals, setting up teachers with deep district loyalties or a sense of tradition against others. Change is hard, and the resulting fear of innovation can lead to paralysis, frustration, anger, or sabotage.
Dealing with such a problem requires a system shift. Leadership teams must build a culture that allows innovation, change, failure, and reflection to happen. This is critical; instead of setting up a single staff member as a lightning rod for criticism, build relationships with one another as well as with your PLC or leadership team. Every teacher needs this. Celebrate small victories whenever possible. This must be a continuous and intentional process.
This is about personalizing the growth of teachers as well students. No one wants to be left behind in education innovations, but the flip side of that is that people adopt change at different rates. Early adopters may need to have support to give them a sense of confidence. A thick skin, and a ready sense of humor may also help, both in dealing with reluctant peers and the problems that arise with new paradigms. Educators who are more hesitant also need support and time to gain proficiency in any intervention.
What specific supports are worth considering to shift the system, unifying and celebrating all staff members and their educational innovations?