Resistant Teachers As a Force for Change

“We have met the enemy and he is us”

The problem of resistance to Essential school ideas, this group decided, takes place on two levels: institutional and personal. On both levels, it arises out of the same sources:

  • FEAR. What does “less is more” mean? What does being a generalist entail, and how will it interfere with the way I currently do my job?
  • DISTRUST. Resistant staff may be self-reliant, successful, recognized as good teachers; and their resistance may provide useful feedback. They may distrust authority (even if it is site-based and teacher-run, and distrust other people pressuring them towards new styles of learning, heterogeneous grouping, or alterations in their schedule.
  • TURF PROTECTION. On an institutional level, this may mean programs in competition with each other –a school within a school that gets preferential treatment, for example. Issues of power arise: who hires, who’s on what team, who’s telling whom to change?
  • TIME ISSUES. At an institutional level, time may be a big objection –will there be time to guarantee the coverage of subjects that teachers feel they need, to prepare kids for standardized tests? On a personal level, time is a factor too –time for classroom planning or for all-faculty meetings is scarce; and on a larger level, it takes time to make change happen –everyone seems to want change all at once! Time issues can create resentment if only some teachers are getting extra planning time for Essential classes or teams.

What strategies could work to break through these problems? The group suggested several:

  • Make people who feel left out feel unique instead. A home economics teacher, for instance, may be using exhibitions as an assessment measure already; ask her to share her evaluative techniques with the rest of the staff, or lead a discussion on how such methods might work in other disciplines.
  • Break out of the usual patterns of socialization among teachers within the school, such as by sitting at lunch with resisting teachers, or arranging interdepartmental events.
  • Invite vocal resisters to attend workshops at the school’s expense. Solicit their criticism and take it seriously. The resistant faculty member can help cut through jargon and analyze problems if his criticisms are treated constructively. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” quipped one group leader.

To explore this further, small groups took on specific problems at first the personal and then the institutional level. One group, for example, worried over how to address the problem of a teacher who resisted teaming. The strategies they suggested started with a personal conference with him, asking him about his concerns. A “shadow study” could be initiated, with the resistant teacher following a student through a typical day. Perhaps he could be invited as a visiting expert to address a class in another discipline on some subject they hold in common. Or he could be offered release time to plan for teaming, or to attend a conference at which he could gain new ideas.

So what effects would these strategies have on the resistant teacher and the rest of the school community? The group recognized that this problem has no surefire solution; “shadowing,” for example, could work well or it could backfire. Students could get to see the teacher in a different environment, to view him as a learner like themselves and to gain from his new viewpoint on their subject matter. Other teachers could be inspired to try a shadow study themselves or they could be threatened by having their classes visited by another teacher. In any case, the atmosphere of the school begins to change when teachers start visiting each others’ classes and sharing their expertise. On a personal level, everyone might start to know the resistant teacher better, and he may gain in self confidence and awareness of the possibilities of teaming. The shadow study could also demonstrate to the teacher a need for cross- disciplinary teaming.

The group considered the view that “resistance” is best thought of as a step or stage in the process of change –during which everyone can look at his or her own personal concerns about that change. The issue then becomes how to help everyone acknowledge their various concerns, and move on to thinking about how to carry out the program.

Another group worked on how to provide the time staff would need to work toward Essential School change during their regular working hours. Their strategies, they decided, could include:

  • Scheduling four day-long planning sessions, without students at school, per year –preferably at the end of regular breaks such as Thanksgiving and winter vacations.
  • Seeking support from community businesses such as ice rinks or movie theatres, who might schedule special programs for these days.
  • Including team-building activities for staff as part of planning days.

At an organizational level, the group suggested, this move would shift the balance of power within the structure toward teachers. With sustained blocks of time to plan, they reasoned, teachers would not feel as though more work were being piled into their crowded days.

What financial implications does this kind of change have for the overall school organization? Some money might be saved on busing, but the cafeteria could lose money; and any consultants brought in for the planning sessions would cost extra. Whether personal days or conference days would be used up by these planning days was another area to be decided, they agreed.

At the state level, legislators would get the message that teachers need professional time for planning; many states, they noted, already support such policies. The move could increase the school’s prestige and visibility with the state education department, making it more likely to get help in the future. And in the long term, teacher morale and student engagement should rise as new ideas make their way into the classroom.