Reflections On Sustaining Teacher Change
Teachers are often asked to adopt new teaching models or new curriculum that requires change and the learning of new skills. The discomfort many teachers associate with having to alter their perspectives or a strategy often becomes a barrier to learning or adopting the new methods. In my dealings with teachers, who I am usually working with for one to two days because their school district has adopted my company’s mathematics instructional materials, there is often quite a bit of resistance. The teaching models emphasized with our products are inquiry and cooperative learning, which for many secondary mathematics teachers causes discomfort because they typically are using a more direct teaching model. I believe what often happens are those teachers with the most resistance and discomfort are making both the following mistakes:
1) assuming that the models of teaching are fixed and inflexible and have to be employed rigidly, and
2) assuming that the learners have a fixed learning style that will not change (p. 391).These teachers get so focused on the discomfort and fear of trying new skills that the teachers either don’t attempt to change at all (complete resistance) or, try something new one time, and when it doesn’t work or go as expected, give up.
Professional development for teachers when new teaching models are being tried is certainly necessary. One of the biggest mistakes that seem to be made is to think that a one or two day training on new strategies is sufficient. As Joyce et al. (2009) state, “a major part of successful staff development is helping people deal productively with the discomfort….and to working their way to new levels of competence” (p. 393). Teachers are not always given the permission or time to fail, and by that I mean given the time and permission to try new teaching models and strategies with the knowledge that things won’t work perfectly at first, and that’s okay. What is missing is often the continued support and collaboration from administration and colleagues. Using peer study groups as a means of supporting teachers as they are working through new teaching models or working through the period of discomfort when trying to implement new district initiatives is one way to achieve sustained use of strategies. This peer collaboration and support is a necessary piece of helping teachers learn new teaching models and skills that will help their students.
I am excited to see that this idea of peer collaboration, or continued support for teachers and implementation change, does seem to be something district leaders are beginning to embrace. In the past year I have worked with large school districts that are trying to initiate district-wide mathematics initiatives. They realized early on these changes are going to result in teacher discomfort and resistance. Rather than doing the traditional professional development model of a few days of up-front training, these districts have implemented systemic change and support. Training on the curriculum and teaching models occurs throughout the year and includes face-to-face training, in-class observations, collaboration and modeling. There is the development of learning communities of teachers in the district by school and by subject, as well as online, on-demand support. Teachers are encouraged to try new methods slowly, get feedback and support from colleagues and administration, and are given the time and encouragement to slowly integrate strategies versus being expected to implement expertly immediately.
What I find as I continually go back to these districts to work with these teachers is that even the most resistant teachers, the ones who had the most discomfort, have tried things in their classroom and had some measure of success and are now more willing to continue to try. The team effort, the permission to fail and the ability to get constant support really makes a difference.