Recovery Plans for Change Resistors
Leadership Skills and Implementation

Principal as Instructional Coach: Using Your Recovery Plan to Work With Resistors

By Terry Wilhelm

In my previous post about recovery plans, I discussed the importance of teacher ownership (as opposed to “buy-in”) of new initiatives and the benefits of team-developed plans for when inevitable setbacks occur. It is human nature to become discouraged and overwhelmed when we are faced with changes that present challenges to us.

Teachers might express anxiety about new initiatives, but what about outright resistance?

I’ve also discussed the reasons new initiatives can be difficult for teachers, including their perceptions and prior experience of change.  These were termed “second-order change” by Robert Marzano, Brian McNulty and Timothy Waters in School Leadership That Works: From Research to Results.

Now let’s consider the one — or few — teachers who might become outright resistors. These individuals may have gained a reputation for resisting any change that comes down the pike, but it’s never as simple as a difficult personality. Something highly individual and very personal is behind each such person’s resistance to this particular change. The research mentioned above was very clear in its findings that a change that is first-order for one teacher may be second-order for the teacher right next door.

Parsing resistors’ motives for opposing change

Think about your chief resistor. Nothing can replace one-to-one conversations with a resistor to determine what is really behind his or her behavior. Here are several angles to consider:

  • Is it simply that this change (let go of other moments in history for now, please) is really a huge paradigm shift that threatens this teacher’s belief systems about schooling, teaching, learning or students?
  • If there is more than one resistor, is there a group norm — unwritten and perhaps not even spoken — that mitigates against it?
  • If so, does that norm arise because the change is viewed as coming from administration (rather than from the grassroots work of shared leadership with the site’s teacher leaders), and historically, this group exerts internal peer pressure to resist anything administrators require?
  • Or is it just that the resistor(s) view the change as such an extreme break from past practice that they cannot even conceive how it fits into their world?

Obviously, these reasons overlap. You may know from experience that while you need to have individual conversations with resistors to learn what is behind their behavior, you will most likely waste your breath by trying to win them over with logic or reason.

Issues may arise when teachers don’t know something

The fourth category, resistance due to a person’s perceived lack of skills and knowledge to implement the change, is often masked because of fear of exposure in front of peers. A colleague often said, “We always say kids misbehave to cover up what they don’t know or can’t do. Adults do it, too.” You probably have some assessment of the teacher’s ability to implement, but it is helpful if you can effectively communicate and problem-solve with the resistor to agree that she or he needs support and assistance if that is the case.

Anticipating difficulty: Questions and considerations for recovery

Now consider your recovery plan. Arguing with resistors is futile, but the recovery plan should have reasonable accommodations for difficulties. Questions might include:

  • Did all the materials and equipment arrive on time, and do people know what to do with everything?
  • Do some people need additional coaching?
  • How can you accommodate individual learning curves while ensuring that the initiative moves ahead?

Remember that only administrators can require anything of teachers: attending professional learning; working with a coach; allowing new equipment to be installed in their classrooms; submitting data on student use of materials and equipment; submitting finely-tuned data about student learning in the area of the initiative from the outset.

Teacher leaders, who are peers of the resistors, can only offer help and support, collect data on the impact of the initiative for the leadership team to discuss and troubleshoot as needed, and help present a united front about the change to their colleagues. Fortunately, once a person has had some positive experiences with the change, it is typically embraced, which is why your ability and courage to require specific behaviors from the resistor are so critical to your recovery plan.

Essential recovery plan additions: Responsibility and celebration

I recommend that as you and your teacher leaders develop the recovery plan, include, for each element, who will provide it — teacher leaders, administrators, or both. And don’t forget to build in mini-celebrations, another sorely- neglected step in implementing change. Just as we celebrate the pounds slipping away at each weigh-in on a new diet, we need to celebrate the quick wins during the early phases of a new initiative so that everyone can see that this can really work to improve student learning!

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