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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Getting Genuine Commitment for Change

How can leaders communicate in a way that moves resistant teachers from grudging compliance to true commitment?

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Resistance to change is a natural human tendency. We get comfortable with our routines, and it's hard to muster the energy to change something when we don't feel the urgency or need.
This reality presents a problem for educators who are responsible for leading a change initiative in their schools. Many wonder how they can get teachers to connect with the work with enthusiasm, energy, and effort.
The role of a change leader isn't about "buying" or "selling" an idea—it's about generating commitment. This can be really challenging work, especially at the beginning of an initiative. When a few teachers openly resist change, it can be very frustrating. Their resistance feels personal and hurtful. This feeling sometimes leads leaders to resort to strategies that actually work against moving teachers toward the desired changes.

The Many Ways Teachers Resist

I recently asked several learning coaches I work with to tell me about difficulties they encountered in getting teachers to implement changes like using differentiated instruction. Here's some of what they shared:
My biggest problem is with a teacher who says, "Why do I have to change my teaching? It's been working just fine for 25 years now." I can't get commitment because the majority of her students are proficient.One teacher resists making—and keeping—appointments with me! There's always some "good reason" why he has to delay our work together.Some teachers act as if I'm too young to know anything about teaching. I may not have [a particular teacher's] length of experience, but I'm good at connecting with students using these new instructional strategies.One teacher dismisses ideas I suggest by saying, "Oh, my kids could never do that! They can't even do the basics." And I'm thinking, isn't that exactly the reason to try something different?

… And the Ways Leaders Respond

Can you hear the angst in these voices? These coaches feel angry, frustrated, even helpless; they don't know what to do to connect well-intentioned teachers to something that could be very useful to them. You may have experienced such feelings yourself.
A leader's response to a teacher's reluctance to engage in change often follows one of the following patterns.
Using logic. In an attempt to put a face on the problem, a math coach might ask reluctant teachers to look at student achievement data, and then suggest one or two new strategies that could help them reach difficult-to-teach students—those whom the data clearly show are struggling. The problem with this approach is that the leader is talking from his or her head. For many teachers, the issue of underachieving students resides in their hearts. From their perspective, it's not that they aren't teaching well enough; it's that the students—whom they care about—aren't very smart, are lazy, or come from dysfunctional families.
Killing them with kindness. With this approach, a leader tries to be helpful in any way he can to build trust with reluctant teachers. This includes picking up materials for them, finishing their copy runs, bringing treats, and so on. This gets the leader points as a nice person, but won't help build his credibility as an instructional guide.
Negotiating. Often, a leader thinks that if she can just get teachers to try a new instructional practice once, they'll see its benefit and commit to doing it. So she bargains with them, perhaps cajoling a teacher into doing one part of a strategy if the leader will do the rest. This response will likely lead to compliance, but not ongoing commitment. Teachers' use of the idea depends on a leader being there to do some heavy lifting.
Coercing. When a coach or principal feels fed up with a teacher's reluctance, sometimes he or she pulls out the "power card." By golly, this is a district requirement and teachers don't have a choice. If they don't start cooperating with the change, it's going to show up in their evaluations. With this approach, you may get compliance, but at a minimal level. You'll certainly harm the relationship.

Three Leaders Who Took a Better Approach

What are some better ways leaders can help colleagues get on board with reforms? The following stories of how leaders turned resistance into engagement reflect five strong strategies.

Connect to the Heart: Use Positive Intent

John is a charismatic assistant principal in a high-poverty, diverse middle school. He's an excellent instructional leader and disciplinarian. Everybody knows John can turn around students who have chips on their shoulders and are always looking for a fight.
But John wanted his teachers to own their part in creating discipline issues in the first place. Yes, he could handle the kids teachers sent to the office. But he wanted to grow teachers' capacity to build caring relationships with these hard-to-teach students. He wanted these kids to stay in class and get the education they needed to move out of poverty.
John's approach was to use positive intent. Rather than pigeonholing teachers who at first seemed less willing to change, he assumed all teachers (and students) would be willing and able to alter their behavior.
In one-to-one conversations, John began sharing with teachers some of the difficulties the toughest students were facing. ("Did you know that Antwon's family has been sleeping in a car for two weeks?" "Lyssa's mom just got picked up for drug charges.") He then reframed the concept of toughness into one of resilience and modeled how to show kindness for these "tough" students while maintaining the belief that they could meet school expectations.
John said things like, "Think of Antwon as a survivor, not a troublemaker. When he is participating, what are some of his strengths? How might you connect with him when he makes an effort in class?"
John assured teachers that students facing challenges at home still had to follow the rules. But he suggested ways teachers might let a trouble-making kid see that he's wanted in class: "If you have to send Antwon to the office because of his behavior, let him know you are disappointed, but not angry—that you still see his potential and want him to make it." Most of all, John modeled speaking from his heart.
John also focused on helping everyone with whom he worked feel valued and appreciated, recognizing and acknowledging their strengths. Once he did that, teachers were more likely to listen to his new ideas—especially when he connected those ideas with things they cared about, chiefly, making a difference in the lives of their students.
John's approach called out the best in everyone. Most of the time, teachers and students at John's school now rise to the call, because they know they have someone who believes in and cares about them.

Reframe Resistance

Terry is a veteran elementary principal in a high-poverty, rural school district. His school has consistently been recognized for its success in student achievement, yet a few years ago, Terry realized there were pockets of children who weren't learning as much as the majority were. Terry wanted teachers to push themselves to meet the needs of all students. Yet when he urged them to try new strategies, teachers protested: "Hey, we just got Blue Ribbon status. Why do we have to change anything?"
Instead of trying to bargain with or coerce teachers, Terry used the strategy of reframing complaints to understand what people care about. As change researchers Kegan and Lahey explain, people "wouldn't complain about anything unless they cared about something. Underneath the surface torrent of complaints … there is a hidden river of passion and commitment." If leaders listen deeply to complaints, they'll understand what people care about and can then speak to that underlying issue.
Listening deeply to his teachers, Terry realized that they were very proud of their teaching skill. He suspected that their complaints about reform reflected a fear that trying new things would make them feel less competent. So he reframed their perspective by rallying them to a higher value.
He began saying, "We are a Blue Ribbon school, but we don't take our success for granted. We're the kind of teachers who are always looking for best practices and pushing to be continuous learners ourselves." Terry bragged to parents and the community about all the new programs the school had implemented over the past two years and how that work had paid off for students. At every opportunity, he spoke about how teachers were always seeking to learn great instructional practices and bring them back to the school. Gradually, he changed the way teachers interpreted their work and their success.
Notice that Terry spoke to his teachers' emotions—their sense of competence and their fear of losing it. Whether or not our coworkers' emotions seem logical, they're often what stands in the way of engagement. Consider how a leader might respond to the emotions underlying these common complaints:
  • "I'd never have time to try that!" Knowing there is a lot of material to teach, this teacher may be afraid she won't get through it all if she adds something new. A savvy leader would brainstorm with her about how she uses her time and how they might tweak the new strategy so she can adopt it without slowing the pace of instruction.
  • "Things were better the way they used to be." This teacher could be feeling like he's losing competence and relevance. He used to think he taught students well, but now kids seem needier and parents more demanding—and administrators are always giving him more to do. Your role is to listen to his feelings of sadness and being overwhelmed. Acknowledge the many changes, but remind him of the legacy he wants to create before he leaves the profession. Stepping up to learn these new strategies, with your full support, could help him regain his sense of efficacy and meaning. This powerful reframe communicates that you believe in him.
  • "My kids could never do this. It's too hard." This teacher believes that a main reason her students are hard to teach is that they face such weighty problems outside school. She has compassion for them and fears that more rigorous instruction will just be "piling on" these poor souls. A strong coach might reframe this teacher's perspective by speaking about how important education is to help children climb out of poverty, suggest that going soft on students only keeps them trapped in the cycle, and help her see the potential in her students. The coach would then help her plan ways to teach that will open doors for struggling students.
Change research indicates that only a few will jump into change work at the beginning. Let these pioneers on your staff chart the pathway. The "settlers" will follow as they see the unknowns get worked out.

Don't Be the Expert—Be Curious

Amelia was getting pushback from her efforts to suggest new teaching ideas and bring in schoolwide professional development. She was a new principal in a school whose previous leader had been a good manager but who was uninvolved in instruction, so Amelia's approach was quite a change for teachers. She turned to a strategy that seems counterintuitive, but serves change leaders well. She gave up being the expert.
It may be a leader's job to help implement an important change initiative—and that leader was probably hired because of certain expertise—but showing up as the "expert" may intimidate teachers. Instead, Amelia began to look for bright spots already happening in teachers' instruction. In one-to-one conversations, she asked these teachers questions like, "Your cooperative learning activity went smoothly this morning. What things did you plan that made it go so well?" or "How do you 'cement' the learning in follow-up lessons?"
Later, at faculty meetings, she recognized these teachers and gave them an opportunity to explain their ideas to colleagues. This strategy enabled Amelia to spotlight the best practices she wanted teachers to use, improved her rapport with staff, and helped teachers become more intentional about things they were already intuitively doing well. It also helped her develop a core team whom she could encourage to try other "stretch" instructional ideas. This core team within the ranks had more credibility with the faculty.
People are not inclined to follow along if they feel devalued. Wise leaders see themselves as learning partners. Such leaders have things to teach colleagues but recognize that their colleagues also have knowledge to share. These leaders are willing to share publicly what they've learned from teachers about instruction and classroom management.
It's freeing to be able to say, "I don't really know the answer, but I bet together we can figure it out." This requires faculty members to engage in solution thinking with you and makes them more likely to step up to their responsibility of making new ideas work.
When you give up being the expert, you give the work back to the people who are truly responsible for making it happen in the classroom. Only then will the change bring about schoolwide achievement.
Note that Amelia also used—and modeled—the strategy of being curious. The best way to build trust and rapport is to get to know the people you work with: Find out what they care about, what they see as their strengths, and what they do when students don't learn something the first time around. Then connect some aspect of their beliefs and current practices with the new ideas you want them to try. Speak as if you're standing in their shoes.
Amelia's refusal to confront resistance with power reflects one final savvy practice. When individuals dig in their heels and you begin to feel a power struggle, let go and ignore it, at least momentarily. Don't spend your energy trying to change those who resist working with you. Instead, devote your time and talent to those who are engaging in the change. Notice what's going well. Recognize and share the results that teachers who are moving along with you get with students. As more people adopt the changes, naysayers will become less influential.

Trust and Listen

Getting genuine commitment from teachers to make major instructional changes can be fraught with daunting challenges for those who are responsible for leading this work at their school. Teachers who are reluctant to change can give many reasons why they aren't engaging in the work; and logical arguments, unfocused helpfulness, negotiation, or threats of sanctions usually won't move them. A better approach is to figure out what these people care about and engage them from that perspective.
In the end, trust your staff and treat them as if you truly believe in their capacity. Listen, listen, listen—not only to the content, but also to the feelings beneath what they say. By understanding what people care about and speaking to them from that point of view, you can usually bring even the most reluctant teachers on board.
End Notes

1 Sparks, D. (2002, Summer). Inner conflicts, inner strengths: Interview with Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. JSD: The Learning Forward Journal, 66–71.

2 Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

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