Teachers don’t want to change. Or. Is it about trust?

Ask any teacher to make radical changes to their practise and they will likely feel threatened. Change of any kind threatens to upset the proverbial apple cart and take our lives out of balance. As we increase the size of the risk we increase the potential fail. As we increase in teacher years, we increase the investment we have put in to creating balance. I will go out on a limb here and generalize that a large part of the reason real deep change does not occur in our schools is teachers do not fully trust the culture they work in sufficiently to take large risks with their reputations and practice.

I am going to go further out on the limb to say that I believe that many teachers are in fact looking for ways to transition from a teacher centered classroom, and it is not that they do not want to change; it is that they feel it is too risky a proposition. When someone (usually an expert from out-of-town, who you have never met before) comes along and suggests new practices, whether it is, PBL, inquiry, or modeling (insert your favorite educational flavour of the month) , the roadblock is the perceived risk and the lack of a “safety net” below.

In the chapter “The Emergence of Trust”, in Start with Why, Simon Sinek, describes it like this:

“No matter how experienced, no matter how proficient, a trapeze artist will not attempt a totally new death-defying leap without first trying it with a net below him. And depending on how death-defying the trick is, he may insist on ALWAYS having a net when performing the trick.”

Now I know I am not a trapeze artist, nor do I perform death-defying acts, however my brain does not differentiate. Risks to my brain are just that: risks. As we move into risky situations, we move from acting out of our thinking brain to the more primitive protective and reacting brain.

I have puzzled over why I found the making and archiving of videos in the flipped classroom to be so freeing and transformative. Why did the flipped classroom paradigm move me forward, when I have tried dozens of different techniques over the years? I have imagined the flip class as a strong bridge transporting me safely into the future. I still find this metaphor useful. However it did not fully explain why I found re-defining my role in the classroom, the taking of a large risk, acceptable and doable within the flipped classroom. Whereas in the past I was only willing to make small timid changes (that never produced any real traction).

I think it comes down to simply this: if I was going to change, risk it all and go all in, I had to feel I had a safety net to catch me if  I fell. The skills I had developed over my teaching career became that net. I knew I could rely on these, fall back on these so to speak and I knew from past experiences they would keep me, my practise and my reputation, safe. I used these skills I trusted to make videos, to build a figurative safety net for myself, so that if  I fell, I would have something to fall into.

So are videos just lectures in a video format as some critics of the flipped class say? Yes and no. I see it almost like an optical illusion, yes they look like lectures,  but they are not the show. And they are ALSO…my safety net.

And who knows, as my skills and confidence increase I may even be able to “perform” without them. I may consider, the explore-flip-apply model, I may do all kinds of things! But please, please understand that I will do so when I feel safe.

As Sinek describes:

“The system thrives….but not without trust. For those within a community, or an organization, they must trust that their leaders provide a net – practical or emotional. With the feeling of support, those in the organization are more likely to put in extra effort that ultimately benefits the group as a whole.”

So what do you think? Is it that teachers don’t want to change? Or is it about a lack of TRUST?

14 thoughts on “Teachers don’t want to change. Or. Is it about trust?

  1. I feel that you hit the nail on the head. There is so much at stake for any teacher in any school, anywhere. Teachers are afraid of REALLY trying new things because they don’t trust the system to support their efforts.

    • Hi Kate, Yes, although the system “says” sure go ahead and take risks, we, in the trenches intuitively know that there is a very small margin for error. How do we change this culture? Not easy, but I think social media is helping to build a community in which risk taking is encouraged. How then do we bring this mind set into to the physical buildings?

  2. I would argue that teaching IS a death-defying act.

    The good teacher helps breathe life into students, not just a living.
    The good teacher instills confidence and resiliency, independence and self-knowledge, to prevent the individual inside the student from dying away.
    The good teacher feeds the soul and the mind so the spirit does not wither and die.
    The good teacher helps students find the passion in themselves so that, on their death bed, they will utter in reflection, ‘that was a life.’

    As Socrates said, the teacher is mid-wife to the soul. Life has no ultimate safety-net, but the result of averting all risks is only to die before one’s death.

    • Hi Mark Yes, I have often imagine teaching a walking a tight-. I really like knowing though that I have a safety net below, and as I get used to the feeling of high risk change, I get used to the feeling of fear that comes along with it, but it definitely takes getting used to. I love your Socrates quote, that nails it perfectly! Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Really brilliant examination of a phenomenon that reverberates throughout education. We will change practice when we are confident we can discuss progress in a new way with parents and students. We will do it when we know the administrators will back us. We will share it when we have the language and the depth of understanding to describe to our colleagues why we think the work is important. Thanks for writing this!

    • I really think, social media (Twitter especially) is helping to build a culture where risk taking and failure is encouraged. How do we grow a similar culture in our schools? Is it by making our practices completely transparent? It about get teachers connected? I am not sure. But I am sure that I have increased my tolerance for risk only by taking them and getting used to the scary feeling that comes along with.

  4. Carolyn, thanks for this encouraging and insightful post. Though I had never put a word to it, I now realize that my videos were/are my safety net, too. They are my way of keeping a little bit of control in the classroom. As I begin to “coach” other teachers in my school on PBL and technology integration, your words will always be in my head. Just because I risked it in my own way, does not mean that others are ready to do so. The challenge of “teacher coaches” and administrators is to somehow give those teachers a safety net and make them feel supported. It is almost a Catch-22, though. I feel that in order to fully impact students, a teacher should “go all in” with the flipped class or PBL, or whatever new method they want to try. I think if they just try one chapter, they will get scared and go back to the old method. But, just as you said, maybe teachers do need to do this so that they still have their safety net.

    • Hi Amanda, I was so excited to be able to articulate the function of the videos in my growth as a teacher. I could not completely put my finger on why they (the videos) gave me such a piece of mind.
      yes, i agree with you 100%, it is a catch-22 (I was thinking about the very thing when writing the post). To make any dent in the culture of your classroom, the teacher has to go all in and be fully immersed and committed to the change. I imagine it like going into to “deep end” of a pool 🙂 So that tells me that whatever we try to do in our schools we need big strong, sturdy safety nets built for teachers first and when we work towards change we need to go big, for it to make an impact. Sounds easy, but it is so not!!
      But do think for me, being on Twitter has normalized risk taking, and listening to other risk takers out there has made me braver 🙂

  5. I do believe that almost all teachers have the courage to make changes. They have such an immense lot of fascinating ideas. Forced changes have tough mostly been administered by people with far to little competence regarding the prerequisites for change. There exist a basis for a lack of trust in ideas developed for another situation, for another teacher.

    Teachers need more safety nets, possibilies for extra resources to address difficult situations and preventing them to escalate into something nasty, but this should primarily be to facilate for teachers to try out ideas that they themselves are convinced will be benificial.

    • I agree with you, I do think most teachers do have the courage within them. It is how to unlock that courage and make it OK to be courageous on a daily basis. Forced changes will never work, in my opinion. Teachers have to be empowered to choose to be the agents of change, just as we teachers, hope to empower students to be the agents of change in society.

  6. A really interesting and complex question. Here are a few reasons I think some teachers don’t want to change:
    -It seems to be human nature – most people seem to find change threatening at first.
    -The overcrowded curriculum and workload. Teachers have so much to do, and change in practice requires a lot of re-tjhinking, planning, learning or establishing new systems etc. Some teachers feel so overworked and overwhelmed by the curriculum that they don’t feel they have time to reflect, let alone implement new practices.
    -The current political climate across western countries, in which teachers are increasingly judged on superficial measures such as high-stakes, standardised testing. When people’s jobs are on the line they are more likely to play it safe rather than innovate.
    -Lack of a clear sense of purpose. This relates to point 2. I think that sometimes teachers can become so bogged down in the details and activities used to deliver curriculum that they forget its purpose. For example, many feel obliged to complete pages and pages of textbook work because the parents paid for them. They forget that its there to support learning, not dictate learning.

    • Thanks Corinne, I so agree with you that it is a very complicated question. I know too it is a tricky one, as I was that teacher too! I agree with your reasons, you have great insight into the complex situation. How do we get teachers to want to change? As I transition back to school and consider building a team with some other teachers who are wanting to change a bit, how do I reach out to them without overwhelming or threatening them? I still feel unsure as to how it will go but I will give it a whirl.
      I know though for sure that teachers cannot be forced to change and that top down approaches usually do not take root in the culture of the school. I also know that when you have big standardised tests looming at teachers, that they feel too threatened and worried about “covering” curriculum to imagine changing. In part it is a chicken egg question; would teachers change if the gov’t removed the exam?
      I especially like your last point and think it is one that is often overlooked. I know I do much better when I have a big and clear overriding purpose. Sometimes the details of our practice bog us down (as you mention) and we forget what really matters.
      Thanks again for sharing your insight!

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