What Schools Can Learn from Resistant Teachers

A persistent issue in any school change effort is teachers who do not support the changes. Unless a school has the luxury of choosing its entire staff from the start, such a problem is virtually unavoidable. Some resistant teachers are opposed from the start — they question the need for change, worry about losing their jobs, or just plain disagree with certain Coalition principles. Others start out uncommitted but lose heart as they discover how difficult and draining the change effort can be, often reverting to their old ways to reduce the stress.

But rather than treat such resistance as a major stumbling block, reform veterans suggest, schools should instead regard them as an opportunity. If they are to sustain any forward move, change advocates need to thoroughly understand and respect opposing points of view, and then work together to resolve them so that each party can live with the results.

This has especially important implications for how schools go about their change process. For example, teachers might resist a move like integrating disciplines, either because they feel unprepared for it academically or because they resent the loss of autonomy it presages. Understanding this could lead a school first to afford all staff ample time to learn about the new ideas (including watching them in action), at the same time actively inviting their participation and input, however critical. Then, rather than dictate one path all teachers will follow (like team-teaching), the school’s leadership might encourage integration in small, less threatening dimensions that make clear its good points (and smooth its rough spots) more gradually.

Understanding the point of view of dissenting teachers can also prompt more explicit support, both internal and external, for the difficult tasks of change. This might include training in collaborative work (both in decision making and in an instructional context). Or it might mean more time, money, and effort put into helping teachers try out new classroom techniques.

“What really matters to your resistant teachers right now? How can you connect your reforms to where they are?” asks psychologist Robert Evans, a consultant to schools who offered workshops on resistant teachers at the Coalition’s Fall Forum this year. Change leaders need to listen carefully to resistant teachers’ concerns, he says, and revise their plans carefully on that basis. “You have to build bridges to the new ideas that have some foothold in the old ideas,” he urges. The “old ideas” often include values like academic rigor, he notes, which can only strengthen a movement toward improvement.

Ignoring resistant teachers, change veterans agree, only backfires, polarizing different factions and sabotaging the sense of teamwork crucial to success. “I continually prod them to dissent openly and respectfully — and then to participate in the process of gathering and sharing factual information about the change,” says Fairdale High School principal Marilyn Hohmann.

Even if a school’s dissenters resist passively through silence or “bathroom talk,” acknowledging them openly helps build an atmosphere of common cause. Citibank Faculty member Erin Hughes recalls soliciting feedback after a workshop she led, and finding that several teachers had not responded to her questionnaire. “When I reported back to the group on the survey,” she said, “I made very clear that this did not represent the entire group’s opinions — it was only part of the story.” Later, she said, several teachers privately thanked her for the acknowledgment, and joined more readily in the next discussion.

If they are to use dissent productively, then, schools do well to look hard from the start at why people object to their ideas. Using data gathered over five years from eight Coalition schools, ethnographers Donna Muncey and Patrick McQuillan have described and analyzed the following useful list of the chief reasons teachers oppose Essential School reform:*

  • Questions about the need for each particular school and individual to change.
  • Philosophical and practical difficulties with specific Common Principles, such as universal goals and teacher-as-generalist.
  • Incomplete socialization of teachers to Coalition programs, which resulted in inconsistencies and resentment.
  • Threats to elective courses and jobs perceived by teachers to accompany an intellectual focus and a rethinking of the notion of a comprehensive high school.
  • Political concerns such as equity, ownership of the change process and school, and the administration’s role in the reform initiative.
  • The emotional drain that teachers experienced as they personalized their classroom and dealt with opposition to their work.
  • The cumulative effects of the increased workload on teachers who were implementing reform.
  • The disillusionment teachers felt when students did not respond to their efforts and/or when teaming with other teachers proved problematic.

The most important of these by far, argues CES’s Chairman Theodore Sizer, is the first. “If teachers will come together to look critically at the quality of student work — especially the ‘best’ student work, from the honors classes,” he declares, “agreement will usually emerge that something requires serious change.” That step in the change process, he maintains, lies at the very heart of Essential School reform, and asking traditionally minded teachers to participate in it is the first step to the consensus a school must seek.

* This list is excerpted from Donna E Muncey and Patrick J. McQuillan, “Teachers Talk About Coalition Reforms at Their Schools,” Working Paper #7, the School Ethnography Project. For information about this and other working papers of the School Ethnography Project contact CES at Box 1969, Brown University, Providence, Rl 02912