School change: who is it toughest on?

by Steve Wyckoff on March 15, 2010

Most people really don’t like change, even though there are those among us who love it. In schools the dislike for change is profound. I think that educators are so resistant to change because we simply rarely change. Anything. Ever. Oh, we see the individual teacher who changes instructional techniques, but if you took somebody who hadn’t been in a school since the 60s and walked them into a high school today, there is nothing about the school that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with.

We do however, see some dramatic systemic change occasionally. And in other instances we see superintendents try to implement real systemic change but abandoned their efforts because of the resistance. So who is most resistant to this change?

I’ve written before (part 1 & part 2) in this space about the “Innovators Dilemma“, a book written by Clayton Christiansen. He describes how disruptive technologies force change. But what I’d like to talk about here is where does the greatest resistance come from when trying to change schools. In other words, who is the change toughest on?

The group that might be the most resistant to change are the parents of the students who are the most successful. Typically these parents themselves were successful in school, and their kids are being very successful in school, and the last thing they want is to change the system that might drop them down the status ladder.

Not surprisingly, the students who are the most successful are also highly resistant to change. Why would they want to stop doing what really works well for them in exchange for something that might work really well for other kids? Several years ago I had an interesting conversation with a young lady who was extremely successful in school. We had done an exercise with a group of students who are all leaders in their schools. They did a great job of identifying the kind of educational experience were the most learning occurred. But she, speaking for the rest of the group, pointed out that that’s not the kind of learning environment she wanted. In the current system she was receiving A’s and the teacher was doing all the work. Why would she want to change?

Another group who are highly resistance to change are young teachers. When I first realized this it was a shock to me. I assumed that young teachers would be much more open to change. After all, we hear all the time how the young are willing to change and the old are set in their ways. It turned out that most young teachers have dreamed of being the teacher in that class that they loved when they were in school. They fantasized about themselves standing in front of the room pontificating to starry eyed students. The last thing they want to do is sabotage their own dream.

The school’s Board of Education usually starts out supporting change but realizes quickly that any patron who attended school knows exactly what a school should look like. And every patron attended school. For some reason we wouldn’t tolerate other aspects of our life not changing. We wouldn’t dream of seeking medical care that was 50 years out of date. Or driving a car like a 63 Chevy. But when it comes to changing schools EVERYBODY knows what school should look like. And they all have a phone, and they all will call a board member.

You may have noticed the absence of veteran teachers from my list. Surprisingly I have a lot of conversations with veteran teachers that know something is wrong. They know our kids are disengaged, that what our kids are learning is irrelevant, and that we aren’t doing a great job of preparing kids for the 21st century. There is very little consensus about what to do, but understanding that something needs to be done is very common.

Last but not least however our high school principals. I have deep empathy for this group. They, along with their assistants, have the toughest job in education. Keeping an obsolete system under control and functioning is more than a full-time job. The thought of changing it at the same time they’re running it is beyond comprehension for most of them. –  Steve Wyckoff

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