Why do teachers resist professional development?

One of my best professional friends is Matt Townsley, a math teacher turned district level leader in Iowa that challenges my thinking time and again.

Recently, Matt wrote this post sharing his perspectives on driving change efforts from beyond the classroom.  At times, he sounds really frustrated with trying to elicit support and buy-in from the teachers in his district—and that caught me off-guard.

The good news is that understanding why teachers resist change efforts isn’t an impossible task.  In fact, most resistance can be tracked back to four basic questions that school leaders often fail to answer when choosing new programs for their schools.

I detailed those questions in a comment that I left on Matt’s blog.  Here’s what I wrote.

Hey Matt,

First, thanks for making your thinking here transparent. That was a pretty risky move and one that I respect. I think that teachers—who are constantly asked to ‘put themselves out there’ in today’s collaborative, PLC world—need to see more administrators who are willing to be intellectually vulnerable in public spaces.

Second, a few thoughts:

What role do you think differentiation can play in professional development opportunities for teachers?

I know that the times that I push back against PD, it’s because it really doesn’t align with the knowledge and skills that I know that I need in order to improve—which makes it a waste of time.

What role does/should teacher input play in the selection of district wide initiatives?

Here in NC, we do a bi-annual teacher working conditions survey. One of the most interesting patterns every time the survey is conducted is that teachers report receiving tons of PD, but that the PD doesn’t align with their area of need.

Specifically, teachers report GETTING tons of PD in their content area, but NEEDING tons of PD in meeting the needs of diverse learners.

How do we make sure that the initiatives chosen by administrators better align with the kinds of things that teachers really need?

How can we create more time for teachers to do meaningful work away from students but on the clock?

Your post is almost fatalistic in that it suggests that the only option for gathering more input from/creating more leadership opportunities for teachers requires teachers to give up more of their planning or personal time.

I think what I’d like to see is a third option—hybrid roles for teacher leaders.

What if a district created full time positions for a collection of teacher leaders who were interested in crafting district direction or policies. Those teachers would work together during traditional vacation times with other district leaders on PD initiatives and long term planning.

Obviously, not every teacher is going to be interested in giving up their summers to work on this kind of stuff—but those who do would have real input over the most important decisions and would become “seeds” in their schools and settings.

Are district level leaders doing enough to keep teachers informed about the “balcony view” that they are seeing?

Anthony Muhammad—who writes Transforming School Culture—describes 4 different reasons that teachers resist change in school. One really resonated with me.

He mentions that teachers resist changes that they don’t understand or see a purpose for—-and that once a legitimate purpose becomes apparent, they become supporters of the changes they once pushed back against.

That’s totally me. I resist. A LOT.

But it’s most often because no one can give me a real explanation for some of the programs that we’ve chosen to adopt. They’re all too ready, though, to tell me that “I can’t see the bigger picture” or that “this is a systemic thing that we need.”

What they assume, though, is that I’m incapable of understanding their “bigger picture,” and that drives me nuts.

If I were to make a suggestion to any district leader trying to drive change is communicate your purposes and intentions early and often and over and over again in as many public places—blogs, meetings, Twitterstreams—as possible.

Support your positions with facts, evidence and articles. Respond to pushback from teachers publicly—in discussion forums, in meetings, in the hallways between classes.

Doing so will win you the support of resisters like me who want to see our school improve—who are allies, but who have questions that need to be resolved before they move forward.

I think that’s an area of real weakness for district level leaders who are driving change.

Any of this make sense?
Bill