School & District Management Opinion

In Schools, Constant Change Defies Resistance

By David B. Cohen — November 20, 2014 7 min read
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There’s a truism in discussion of schools and teaching that isn’t exactly true - the idea that teachers and schools generally resist change. I’m not going to argue that the opposite is true, that classrooms and schools are consistently inclined to embrace change. However, something that has stood out in my recent visits to schools is that we live with change constantly. Even when we say that people or systems resist change, the fact is that change is happening. Perhaps the resistance to change should be understood more precisely as resistance to excessive change, fear of counterproductive change. Under the right conditions, educators do embrace change, and I hope to explore that idea in future blog posts, but for now, let me share recent observations that have me thinking about constant change in schools.

In my year off from teaching, I’m visiting teachers and schools around California. My last four visits, however, have been close to home, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve been to an elementary school, a middle school, and two high schools, from a school that is literally in the shadow of a major freeway, to a school in the hills surrounded by million-dollar homes (surprisingly modest dwellings, in case you’re not familiar with Bay Area real estate).

There was no particular plan or reason behind going to these four schools at this time or in this sequence. Regardless of the school, however, change is a constant. Good teachers are always looking for change, for ways to improve their practice and their students’ learning experiences. The teacher who resists an imposed change with a questionable rationale may be doing so in part to protect the innovation and change already occurring in the classroom. And to some extent, every school year presents changes, as schools adopt and discard various programs, curriculum, initiatives, and technology, while at the same time adjusting to new personnel, and familiar personnel in new roles. So, when administrators, consultants, trainers, pundits or poilcy makers say that teachers and schools resist change, that claim should probably be taken with an assumption that teachers and schools are already in the midst of change, and if they’re resisting, it’s partially related to the changes they’re already navigating.

To make the discussion more concrete, let’s start with Brookfileld Elementary School in Oakland, CA - the school with more concrete than any campus I’ve seen this year. The relatively small school sits on a huge plot of land, with a blacktop play area that might hold two football fields. My host for the day was Tammie Adams, a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught at Brookfield for eighteen years, and now serves as the school literacy coach. In recent years, the school has emerged from program improvement status, and like many schools, has had turnover among staff and school leaders. They’ve taken on new programs and a new STEM emphasis, and are now in the midst of the Common Core transition along with so many other schools. On the day I visited, Tammie was also not only still in the process of figuring out a new role, but was also helping with a second-grade class that does not have a permanent teacher of record right now. The idea that anyone at Brookfield would simply “resist change” would be illogical; they don’t have the option to resist most of the changes that have come their way. If a school or district leader were to try to add to the changes teachers already deal with, however, you might understand if they felt some resistance was becoming necessary.

Heading south from Oakland along Highway 880, you reach the city of Newark, where I recently spent a day with Tom Collett at Newark Jr. High School. Tom, a science teacher and a 2012 California Teacher of the Year, teaches eighth graders. He introduced me to his principal and many of his colleagues, all of whom were eager to describe to me the great work their school does to engage and support students - from arts and recreational sports to tutoring and specialized classes, and more. However, there’s one change that Tom sounds like he’s resisting - at least the timing - as California science teachers are caught in a transition between prior standards and state assessments and the Next Generation Science Standards. Due to a quirk in state policy that otherwise guides California towards a potentially reasonable Common Core transition, our existing state tests are still given in science, and the results are still reported for school accountability purposes - even as schools and teachers are encouraged to move towards the new standards. I’m not going into the details of the standards, assessment, or accountability program at this point, but it would be a mistake to look at any ambivalence in this one area as indicative of a broader resistance to the idea of change.

In the past couple weeks I’ve also spent days in two high schools in the San Mateo Union High School District. This week, I was on the campus of Burlingame High School, in the town of the same name, observing and conversing with English teacher Jim Burke. Jim is major figure in the teaching of English Language Arts in this country: he’s a prolific writer, best known in our field for The English Teacher’s Companion, which I’ve heard people refer to as the English teacher’s Bible. Jim also has been a leader in NCTE, the College Board, and PARCC. So you might think Jim has his practice down pat, that the classroom is on auto-pilot and Jim has it all figured out. In fact, on the day I was visiting, Jim was trying out new content with his seniors, and explaining to me the uniqueness of these classes in ways that challenge him to change. He also shared with me how he was navigating new technology, primarily Google Classroom. And like Tammie Adams at Brookfield Elementary, Jim described changes in his work assignment, teaching partners, and school leadership, and of course, the Common Core transition is relevant here as well. While hardly in a state of chaos or tumult, Burlingame High School certainly has teachers contending with a variety of changes all at once.

In the same district but in the city of San Mateo, Hillsdale High School is the teaching home of Karl Lindgren-Streicher, whose students are freshmen studying World History. Many California teachers know of Karl from Twitter and #caedchat, from EdCampSFBay, and from his work with Computer Using Educators (CUE). On the day I visited, he was in the process of helping students conceptualize a year-long, self-guided learning project in the “Genius Hour” kind of approach: one hour per week for students to follow their own interests and passions to learn something new and produce something to be shared publicly (at least within the class, I think) based on that learning. This kind of project is nothing new to Karl as a teacher, and it’s the kind of approach that shows an eagerness to create and embrace change. From the teaching standpoint, Karl is not implementing the idea the same way this year as he did last year, so there are layers of change at work here. At the same time, there are elements of stability that seem important to Karl’s teaching practice; he is now a well-established staff member at his school, and has had the chance to work with the same teaching partner for eight consecutive years. English teacher Sarah Press, like Karl, came to Hillsdale out of the Stanford Teacher Education Program, and their collaboration involves planning complementary lessons and sharing assessment of a common group of students within the school. So the ability to change in some ways may depend on a stable anchor that makes risk-taking a viable part of teaching; were somone to propose changes affecting that foundation, you might see some of the most change-embracing practitioners becoming change-resistant.

Looking to your own experience in schools and other organizations, you might recognize that change is a constant in almost any setting, and certainly in educational settings where we have constant turnover of students, frequent turnover in staff and leadership, new technology, new standards, new materials, new policies, new politics, and new budgets to contend with every year. To claim that teachers or schools resist change is an oversimplification that ignores the reality of a highly dynamic workplace - so dynamic that resisting some change is often a smart move, if we’re to ensure that any change has a chance to work out for the better.

Photos: Tammie Adams, Tom Collett, Jim Burke, Karl Lindgren-Streicher; by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Road Trips in Education 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.