Speaking Up for Better Schools - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

April 1, 2015

Speaking Up for Better Schools

Teachers can bring about meaningful change if they enlist the support of their principal. Here's how to speak up—and be heard.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Speaking Up for Better Schools - Thumbnail

Over the past two years, as I interviewed hundreds of accomplished educators for my new book The Cage-Busting Teacher (Harvard Education Press, 2015), I was struck by how often even terrific teachers see their schools and school systems as obstacles.

Teachers often respond to obdurate administrators, inane work rules, and ham-fisted policies by taking refuge in their classrooms. Terrific teachers can grow so used to the way things are that dysfunction comes to seem normal and hardly worth worrying about.

This approach might pass muster if teachers were independent operators. But classrooms are part of a larger system, and what happens beyond their door has a profound effect—for good or ill—on what happens in their classroom. If teachers don't do something about that, the good things that happen in their classroom will stay in their classroom—if they're even permitted to happen there.

The thing is, teachers have it in their power to bust out of that classroom cage and help forge schools and systems in which they can do their best work. It all starts with more disciplined and constructive communication.

Be Concrete and Offer Solutions

It's easy to mistake grumbling for communication. Insinuating that someone's a tyrant, that his or her ideas are idiotic, or that he or she hates teachers and students is not likely to elicit a satisfying response. On the other hand, offering concrete solutions for improvement and having a little sympathy for the other person's position can go a lot further than you think. In fact, doing this can make it possible to speak bluntly without picking fights.

In Influence Without Authority (Wiley, 2005) and Influencing Up (Wiley, 2012), Allan Cohen and David Bradford explore how even junior employees can get things done. As Bradford explained,

In most cases when people say they have an impossible boss, on examination, we find that they may be difficult, but really aren't impossible. There is the tendency to give up too early …. For example, we raise a question about an action our manager is considering and the response of, "I think you are wrong; what's your evidence?" causes us to back down …. The mistake is seeing bosses as impossible when they really aren't. (Freedman, 2013)

Speaking up can sometimes be enough to solve a problem. Michael Dunlea, a 2nd grade teacher at Ocean Acres Elementary in Manahawkin, New Jersey, says,

I used to think you should just stay in your room, but I kept feeling pressure from local policies that didn't make sense. The district mandated giving all our students the Developmental Reading Assessment three times a year. Now, the DRA is a really valuable one-on-one assessment, but it takes 30 to 45 minutes per kid each time. Let's say you have 20 kids—that's 10 or 15 hours of instructional time gone each time you administer it. We've got a 90-minute ELA [English language arts] block, so I told the administrators, "That's basically seven weeks that I'm not teaching. How will that improve outcomes?"

Dunlea told the administrators that he didn't need the assessment for kids who were on-level because he had other ways to track their progress. "It was just a blanket policy," he says, "and no one had bothered to calculate how much time it would take. When I said all this, they said, OK, and then they made adjustments. Sometimes it's as simple as having the numbers in hand and a ready answer."

Plenty of leaders welcome constructive criticism. Louisiana state superintendent John White says,

A huge percentage of our [Common Core rollout] strategy was due to a teacher pointing out a flaw …. There's no area where I've benefited more from teacher perspectives than on tests, standards, and alignment. Teachers are so close to this. They can show us the problems and how easy it would be to change.

Make Your Principal a Great Principal

It seems like empowered teachers always have great principals. What's easy to miss is the role these teachers play in helping to make their principals into great ones. Teachers do this by flagging problems, offering solutions, being responsive, and making it easy for the principal to get on board. Try that first, before concluding you need a better principal.

After all, lots of administrators are themselves frustrated and are plenty eager for colleagues to help figure things out. As one award-winning principal noted about the effective teachers in his school and their desire for greater freedom around professional training and scheduling, "If they've got better ways for me to handle this, I'd love to hear them."

Jeffrey Charbonneau teaches high school science in Zillah, Washington, and was the 2013 national teacher of the year. He thinks teachers have more potential to persuade their administrators of their ideas than they might realize. He muses, "As educators, we'll work tirelessly in our classrooms to help students get it. If they don't get it the first time or the second time, we rework the lessons. That's what we need to do for administrators, too."

Charbonneau says,

If I suggest something and they say "no" the first time, that's just another opportunity for me to try to teach it better. My biggest piece of advice for cage-busting teachers is to look at administrators and policymakers like they look at students. Just like with your students, the better you know your principal, the better you'll be able to teach him.

He also suggests that "the more you understand why someone is saying 'no,' the more adept you are at seeing possible solutions." By listening carefully, you can pick up the knowledge needed to turn no into yes.

It's simple, really. Treat your boss with the same understanding you show your students.

Ask, "How Can We Do This?"

Stymied by a culture in which they're accustomed to asking permission before doing what they deem right for kids, teachers often do one of two things: They either don't ask and don't do, or they adopt the philosophy, "Ask for forgiveness, not permission." Cage-busters prefer an approach that can win support and create new possibilities for everyone. The biggest step is to stop asking, "Can I do this?" and start asking, "How can we do this?"

This simple but important shift does three things. First, it changes your mind-set. You're no longer asking for permission to freelance. Asking, "How can we do this?" forces you to explain the benefits clearly enough so that others will want to help make it happen. Second, it changes your effort from a solo endeavor to a team enterprise and invites others onto that team. You're no longer asking them to just trust you and your big idea; you're seeking input and suggestions. Third, you're signaling that you're flexible. A lot of times, school and system leaders say "no" not because they hate the idea, but because they feel the idea isn't workable. This shift offers a chance to address that concern.

Starting small makes it easier for leaders to give the go-ahead. In 2008, Jon McIntosh sought to start a speech and debate club at his New York City middle school. In pitching the idea to his principal, McIntosh says, "I told him I wasn't going to ask for his attention, for any money, or for any connections." That kind of ask makes it easy for principals to give an initial yes.

By the club's second year, the principal provided some funds and offered meals for the students from New York University whom McIntosh had recruited to help coach his team. Other teachers signed on as assistant coaches. Five years later, McIntosh wanted to take his students to the national middle school debate championships in Birmingham, Alabama. By that point, the principal was invested in what the teacher was doing, and it was easy to get the trip approved. McIntosh didn't sidestep his principal or try to do it all himself. He made measured asks and built his program one step at a time.

Push for Better PD

Teacher-driven problem-solving requires more than just better communication and well-intended teacher leadership. It requires rolling up one's sleeves and tackling the frustrations that push teachers to retreat to their classrooms. These include dismal experiences with data, soul-sapping meetings, and faddish technology adoptions.

Teachers voice a lot of frustration with professional development. Veteran math teacher Gary Rubinstein (1999) puts it elegantly: "School in-service classes are times of role reversal: Teachers become students (loud and uncooperative). Administrators become teachers (boring and demanding) …. In-service topics range from the utterly useless to the totally useless" (pp. 26–27).

Although teachers spend some 90 hours a year in professional development, the Boston Consulting Group (2014) reported that just 29 percent of teachers are highly satisfied with that training. Researchers (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009) have observed that the "training [educators] receive is episodic, myopic, and often meaningless" (p. 2). This is doubly discouraging because although teachers say that good professional development is valuable and energizing, bad professional development doesn't just waste time—it demoralizes teachers and undermines their sense of professionalism.

Asked about their experience with professional development, teachers can find it easy to swallow their concerns and voice hopeless resignation. This is true even of savvy teachers. Cage-busters reject that hopelessness. They don't do this through vague calls for professionalism but by confronting the problem, putting forward sensible solutions, and working to make those real.

Start by being honest. Although teachers privately express a lot of concern about their professional development, when given a chance to weigh in, they often say everything is fine (Markow & Pieters, 2012). Some teachers have gotten so used to the dysfunction that they just grumble, roll their eyes, and retreat to their classroom refuge.

Teachers can start getting schools to do something about lousy professional development by being precise about the problem. Is the professional development erratic? Poorly designed? Unproductive? And what's the cost of all this to the school or system?

Work with colleagues to propose solutions. Don't get stuck on what's supposedly permitted. Instead, ask, "What would help teachers in this building do our best work?" There are at least three basic principles to follow in pushing for more rewarding professional development.

Make feedback transparent. Schools and systems routinely collect surveys from teachers at the end of professional development sessions, but the results can go unheeded—which leads teachers to provide pro forma feedback. Ask school leaders to publicly discuss teacher feedback, providing a forum to address questions and concerns. If the results seem unduly positive, ask about that. Most important, if teachers see that their comments are taken seriously, this can be a powerful way to get colleagues to start offering serious feedback.

Seek responsibility for content and results. One-size-fits-all professional development rarely meets anyone's needs. Many leading organizations have developed customized offerings based on employee needs and job responsibilities, have empowered their employees to choose those they think are most useful, and have expected employees to be accountable for demonstrating improvement. Work with your district to embrace this kind of model.

Get serious. Sitting for a few hours while someone reads from a PowerPoint presentation is a bad way to get better at anything. We usually improve through mentoring, practice, and feedback. So push your school and system to take that seriously. Shift resources into high-quality coaching, boost the time devoted to a topic, and make sure teachers have the time to get their hands dirty.

Individual teachers can't do this alone. They need to connect with like-minded colleagues and reach out to administrators, asking, "How do we tackle this problem together?" If they're disappointed by the response, cage-busting teachers don't imagine that desultory professional development is inevitable or deem a pedantic professional learning community to be "good enough." Rather, they explore alternatives.

Know What to Say If They Say "Yes"

It's one thing to tell teachers how to speak up and be heard. We hear a lot about teacher voice. But it's what teachers say with that voice that really matters. Lynn Gaddis, a 20-year veteran teacher, tells an instructive tale. She recounts, "When I was [Illinois] teacher of the year, at the beginning I was pretty naïve about how to make things happen. I got a group of Illinois teachers of the year together. We said, 'We want to have a voice.'"

So they met with the state superintendent, who asked, "What can I do for you?"

Gaddis says, "We kind of looked at each other. That was an eye-opener, because we weren't prepared to answer that question. After that experience, I learned to come into any meeting prepared with a proposed solution."

So be sure you know what the problem is and what solution you're asking for. Far worse than being told "no" is having someone eager to tell you "yes," only for you to lose the chance because you're not sure what you want.

Yes, You Can Create a Better School

So long as teachers feel stuck in their classrooms, it's hard to get serious about creating a culture of excellence. Identifying problems, knowing how to present them, and showing up with possible solutions in hand are crucial if teachers are to shape schools in which they can do their best work.

None of this is easy. It requires teachers to leave the comfort of their classroom and speak up in ways that may be unfamiliar. It means empathizing with administrators, taking objections seriously, and offering solutions. It's a tough deal, but a good one. And it's one worth taking.

References

Boston Consulting Group. (2014). Teachers know best: Teachers' views on professional development. Seattle, WA: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from http://collegeready.gatesfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf

Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R. C., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, National Staff Development Council, and the School Redesign Network.

Freedman, M. (2013, October 8). David L. Bradford: How do you manage up in the workplace? Insights by Stanford Business. Retrieved from www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/headlines/david-l-bradford-how-do-you-manage-up-workplace

Markow, D., & Pieters, A. (2012). The MetLife survey of the American teacher. New York: MetLife. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED530021.pdf

Rubinstein, G. (1999). The reluctant disciplinarian. Fort Collins, CO: Cottonwood Press.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?