Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why the resistance?

When I became an instructional coach, eager and energetic and ready to change the world, I thought everyone would welcome me with open arms into their classrooms. After all, I was a classroom teacher too, just like them, and I was bursting with ideas to share. So I was understandably dismayed when no one came banging on my door begging me to come help them set up their room or read to their class or plan for their first writing unit. Some teachers were even actively resistant, turning down my offers with “thanks but no thanks” and a wan smile.

I was soon to learn that every coach deals at some point with resistant teachers. Many coaches have it even worse than I did, with folks who are outright rude about their desire to be left alone. Sometimes this resistance is due to the way coaching was explained to the staff – if teachers have the misunderstanding that the coach is there to “fix” them, or if in the past they’ve only known coaches to work with struggling teachers assigned to them by the principal, then they are understandably resistant to working with the coach themselves. Working with the coach then becomes an admission of incompetence.

But even if the idea of instructional coaching has been introduced positively to faculty members, coaches still often encounter resistant teachers. These are the teachers who sit inattentively in the back of professional learning meetings, if they attend at all, and then return to their classrooms to teach the way they’ve always taught. The temptation is to label them “afraid of change” or “set in their ways” and to inwardly feel like a failure every time you walk by their room.

However, in Jim Knight’s book “Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction”, he argues that may be the wrong perspective. Teachers are among the professions he calls “knowledge workers” and have a deep-seated need for autonomy. Knight quotes Thomas Davenport, an expert on knowledge workers:

One important aspect of knowledge workers is that they don’t like to be told what to do. Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they often take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.

People who think for a living. When I read that for the first time, a metaphorical bell went off in my head. Of COURSE that’s why some teachers are resistant to unsolicited suggestions or interruptions in their carefully planned day. Because teaching is about thinking, any unsolicited comment can become a judgment on the teacher’s thinking. Even something as simple as beginning a “no fake reading” campaign in every classroom can become, to some teachers, a judgment on the worth of their prior instruction.

The key, then, is to create a nonthreatening coaching partnership with the faculty so that when the classroom teacher encounters a difficult situation in her teaching – a hole in her “intellectual territory” so to speak – she feels comfortable asking the coach for suggestions. This requires that the coach respect the teacher’s need for autonomy and choice. Many times this is easy, because most highly-effective teachers are also highly reflective, and are constantly searching for new and better ways to reach their students. I find that the best teachers are often the hardest on themselves, and they are the ones always asking me for more and better strategies for reaching those puzzling students that keep them up at night.

Resistant teachers are not necessarily resistant to new ideas – they’re resistant to feeling as if their prior ideas and experience have no value.

No comments: