Are teachers change resistant?

One of the assumptions in schools is that teachers are resistant to change. I hear it often; I have even caught myself saying it. Change is a pretty hot topic these days. There are three things we often hear: kids are changing, the world in which we are raising them and for which we are preparing them is also changing, and recent research is compelling us to make changes. So we look around, and we wonder – are we changing? Are we changing fast enough?

The fact is this – schools are changing. They are kinder places, where differences are not only accepted, they are celebrated. They are more community focused where children are taught to be good and respectful. I would also argue that there is more joy on a daily basis in today’s schools. And most notable is this – they are definitely more engaging learning environments. There is not a school – public or independent – that is allowing students to spend their days sitting in rows and memorizing for the sake of it. Walk any school hallway and you will see unique artwork and evidence of stimulating ideas and interesting opportunities. You will see active students who may be gathered around technology or interacting in teams on projects or working independently. That consistent variety in approaches to learning did not exist even 10 years ago.

But here’s the thing. I also believe that schools could be more aggressive with change. The proliferation of online learning can open up a range of new ways for students to learn together. I want to focus on two possibilities:

  1. The Who

If you think about it, who is in the room plays a major role in learning.   We can now access the world’s best teachers by watching them online. But let’s think about the students and new opportunities when you diversify the classroom. I was an English teacher, so I like to think about how much richer my discussions of To Kill A Mockingbird would have been, in real-time, if I had a more diverse set of viewpoints, including students who are living in less tolerant or different socio-economical environments. The Connected North Project, which brings together classes in the north and south, is one great example of the reciprocal benefits of how students benefit when technology is used to diversify the students “in the room.” In our office, we use GoTo Meeting so we can see each other in staff meetings. We debate and laugh as if we were sharing the same room. Students will argue that the only difference between virtual and real face-to-face interaction is that they cannot smell each other!

  1. The When

I believe – more than anything else! – that the best learning comes from experience. When I think about what I did in high school, I think about three musicals, a service-learning trip, and my exchange to Switzerland. I’m hard pressed to think about content I learned in class (with one exception: I was once asked to guess at the definition of labyrinth and I was yelled at when I was wrong. I will never forget that definition but it was actually the experience of being humiliated that taught me more.) My point is that our current schedule of classes all day can be re-imagined. What if students could take an online course in the evening, and spend the daytime outdoors? Or what if students could work through content online one week, and spend the next week doing co-op or traveling or simply pursuing an individual interest?

The kind of shift we are hoping for will require teachers to think creatively and embrace change differently. But here’s the thing. Today’s teachers are not all that’s holding us back.

Teachers are asked to do more and more. I see CAIS teachers who care so much about students and learning that they give up their weekends and summers in addition to working long hours for today’s students. Additionally, teachers face a strategic tension – if they focus on new and future strategies, the students in their care may get less of their time and attention. If we all agree that great schools have great teachers, and what makes them great is their unrelenting focus on today’s children, then we need to consider ways to better support them.

So the real issue is not that teachers are change resistant, for their job is to focus on the here and now. The challenge is that if leaders focus on the same, then who is looking after the future? More than ever, today’s leadership teams and Boards cannot succumb to the danger of “short-termism”.

I believe that the real shift in education will require leadership teams and Boards to research new models, invest in new programs, and be more open to risk. We hope our CAIS 2051 Project, which includes finding models of learning and business innovation around the world, will act as a catalyst for this kind of action in our independent schools. But then equally important steps come next. Once leaders have developed new strategies for schools, we also need leaders to mindfully manage a change process that is done well and not rushed, including a robust evaluation of the learning experience to ensure it is more effective than that which it is replacing.

The good news? Our CAIS schools demonstrate a commitment to being hungry, humble and nimble, and they are full of great leaders – and teachers! – chomping at the bit to do an even better job for students, both today and tomorrow.