In an administrative meeting, after a session of instructional rounds, we began a discussion about why we see pockets of excellence in a building or even promising practices in one subject area not present in another when looking at the same teacher. The group did come to some consensus that all teachers want to do their best and want to be using the best practices for their students. (If there are teachers out there that do not want those things, then we have a much different problem.) That led to the discussion about beliefs, philosophy and practices. I honestly feel that we have many teachers who are using less than effective strategies and doing things that have a negative impact on their students because they truly believe that those things are what are best for students. I will just throw out one of my own personal crusades, how to handle late work. Giving students no credit for late work is touted by some teaches as preparing the student for the "real world" or teaching them responsibility. I would argue that this practice does neither. In the "real world", deadlines are missed regularly. Manytimes they are missed due to timelines being too ambitious, overloaded individuals or departments and even simply because people just weren't able to do the work without further training. An example: I hand out things to teachers asking that they be returned by a specific date and have normally have far less than 100% meeting my deadline or even in completing the task. I have posted deadlines for grades to be due and in eleven years as a principal, have yet to have them all in by the deadline. Some of these instances result in disciplinary action but most end with my assisting the teacher in accomplishing the task. None of the staff, even those disciplined, have compensation withheld due to not meeting timelines and none are allowed to just not complete their grading. I would also argue that when individuals, miss deadlines, they learn nothing if I let them off the hook and either finish the task myself or assign it to another. I am sure that people can argue the opposite side of this issue with their own examples of cases where when deadlines were not met, the employee lost their job. I doubt these are as common as we try to get students to believe, however.
Back to the real purpose of this post which is the analysis of whether, changing a teachers beliefs or practices needs to come first in a reform effort. I argue that changing beliefs is much more difficult than changing practice. Teachers want to believe that what they are doing is best for kids because we take what we do very personally. Often to the extent that we identify ourselves by our job.So if what we are doing is not best for kids, then we ourselves somehow lack worth. This has a tremendous impact on our willingness to take risks. We get comfortable and convince ourselves that the way we were taught and learned are the most effective ways of teaching and learning. It scares us that the way we have been teaching all these years could possibly be less than perfect. Afterall, we can all point to students who have excelled once they left our classrooms as evidence of our effectiveness. To convince a teacher that they need to change a practice that has become a cornerstone of their teaching and which they have defended over the years is nearly impossible. It often requires that they see evidence that the proposed change will have a greater impact than the current practice. If the evidence presented is generated in anther school, there will immediately be defensive reaction generally citing the difference in demographics between the two schools or a declaration that there must be an inequity in the resources afforded the teacher in the other school. The preverbial, "Ya But" of somekind generally surfaces. If, however, they are forced to make a change in their own practice and can experience first hand the positive impact it makes, they will become an immedaite convert.
So, knowing that there is generally an implementation dip with the introduction of any new skill, how do we insure that a teacher sticks with it long enough to see positive results? Quality professional development prior to implementation and adequate support during, which includes positive reinforcement from the administrator. Praise for effort is a tremendous motivator for educators, We generally have an open Mindset and truly believe that we can get better at things with practice. However, we can also be quickly discouraged when a tremendous amount of effort does not yeild immediate results. This is where the encouragement from an administrator is essential. They need explicit affirmation that what they are doing is "good" and they are an "awesome educator" for making this change. They need to hear that the administrator knew the change would not yeild immediate gains and reassurance that their efforts will lead to not only great improvements in their own classroom but later in their leading other staff members through the sharing of their experience, the whole school as well.
The other administrators laughed at me when my response to how do we get teachers to leave their current practices for those which research suggests are more effective. My answer was, "We make them!" . However, I sincerely believe that with the exception of a few leaders and early adopters, teachers will not abandon practices they have grown to be comfortable with unless they are forced to do so. When I say "make them", I really mean having some frank discussions with the individual or group, building up their confidence by sharing your confidence in them as a leader, providing opportunities for new learning, setting a timeline for implementation, adequate support while implementing the new practice and finallly, recognition of their success in front of their peers.
I am a big fan of Leading Change by Kotter and understand the importance of creating a sense of urgency, but to be honest with you, if teachers don't have this by now after all of the negative light that has been shed on our schools over the past twenty years, then they never will. Creating a sense of urgency is not where we need to spend a great deal of time with our teachers. Even those who aggressively defend their schools and individual practices deep down know that we need to do better. Teachers and administrators love to plan and plan and plan so at some point, the administrator must set a deadline and force someone to try something new. This is what I feel he is citing as the creation of a guiding coalition. Build capacity with a few so that they can later lead the many.
As I stated in the beginning of this post, I believe that you must change practice prior to belief in almost all cases. You can monitor practice far more effectively than you can beliefs and what gets monitored is what gets done. You can "force" people to do things, you can't "force" them to believe.