Education Opinion

Leading Teachers Through Change: Ask New Questions & Listen

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 11, 2014 4 min read
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In the quest for redesigning schools, teachers are asked to make substantial changes in their practice. Releasing the use of textbooks in the service of including multiple resources is one change for many. Including a more problem-or project-based approach to their work with students may be asked at the same time. A move toward more integrated curriculum is another. Teachers are being asked to include more technology into all areas of learning including the use of digital courseware and social media for interacting with students and parents. To accomplish these simultaneously is a heavy lift.

Asking the Right Questions
Developing the art of asking open and honest questions can help leaders facilitate this heavy lift for teachers. The affect upon those being asked open/honest questions is different from that of being asked a closed question which requires a simple yes or no response or a right or wrong answer expected by the questioner. More open questions allow those being questioned to find and offer their own answers. Open questions can be intuitive, seek a reflective response, and can create a dissonance that creates “aha moments” (Palmer, 2004. pp. 132-133). What may be holding back one teacher may not be holding back another. What may seem overwhelming to one may not be to another. What may be encouraging to one teacher may not be to another. How to find the answers and move everyone forward? Leaders need to be able to ask the right questions for each person.

David Whyte, poet whose work ironically includes organizational leadership, writes that when arriving in new territory...

... The crucial point about our arrival in a new territory is that it is often a time of disorientation, and disappearance. We look for cover as an antidote to our disorientation and disappear into the glory of our past story in the process. Our disappearance occurs at a crucial time, exactly the time when we are forming the habits and outlook that will serve us for the next stage of the journey (p.155)

Isn’t this what we are seeing within the faculties engaged meeting the demands of this heavy lift? A sense of disorientation, a loss of what was previously the foundation of the work of teaching is being pulled away, and the response is a sort of disappearance. In order to “form the new habits and outlooks that will serve us for the next stage of the journey”, it is essential for leaders to be asking the right kind of questions.

Questioning is a Personal Art
Two things stand out. One is questioning is a skillful art and requires patience. If one doesn’t know how, or doesn’t find it natural, to frame open, honest questions, one must learn how to develop this skill; that requires guidance and practice. The other is these questions rarely can be asked of a group. The tendency is to address issues of change with groups but these changes require individual conversations and questions need to be asked in the course of personal interactions. For example, often a teacher may be concerned about one thing or another and share that concern with colleagues or with a school leader. The tendency to respond with sympathy, a suggestion for solution, or both is engrained. But issues have a different origin in each person. Why one person feels upset about being asked to use technology or teach to new standards may spring from a totally unique and personal place. The only way to find the lasting solution is to learn the art of asking questions that help the answerer to find them within.

Lead Listeners Shift Compliance to Creative Capacity
Decades ago, we began wondering how to change both behaviors and attitudes. Is changing behavior enough, sometimes? What are those situations? We argue that behaviors can be forced or compelled to change. We can get compliance. But attitudinal change can’t be coerced from outside. It might be persuaded by information or relationship but there is a domain where one’s freedom of choice comes into play. The depth of change being demanded in education now sits at this nexus. If behavioral change is enough, we might be able to mandate it and measure it and make it a performance issue. But, if we seek the kind of change that is really embraced, we need for educators to choose it for the right reasons, for children. That kind of change is deeper and involves personal choice. So, of course, it demands new skills for leaders. One of those skills is to invite the faculty into new conversations where they are the problem solvers, the answers are their own and they are safe to offer them. Leaders ask open honest questions and are the lead listeners. In and of itself, that change will reform the culture of schools and release the dormant creative capacity that is lost when compliance is determined to be enough.

Palmer, Parker (2004). A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Whyte, David (2001). Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.