From you to we: How to bypass a resistant teacher’s defenses and help them develop.

Can’t help a Star Trek reference, soz.

Coaching is a common form of teacher development used in schools. The more open-ended coaching models like the rise model are often used to work with leaders while more directive instructional coaching models are preferred for working with teachers.

Jack Tavassoly-Marsh identified two types of instructional coaching in his Durrington research school training on instructional coaching:

Classic instructional coaching. This is where the coach directs the teacher to work on things. Common with novice teachers and a classically mentor- mentee relationship. 

Dialogic instructional coaching. Whereby the relationship is more balanced and the coach is less directive. Discussion and compromise are valued and the various strengths and limitations of a particular leverage point might be explored with nuance and context being heavily considered. This is preferred when working with more experienced colleagues.

What’s the problem then?

These are both great and I can see why they are rapidly being implemented by many schools. When training leaders to improve the teaching of their teams I teach both models. After the session though there is always someone who comes up and asks the same basic question. They ask for advice to deal with someone who is resistant to change. I think this might be a third type of instructional coaching. I’m hoping by writing this down I might encourage discussion and dialogue to see if I am right.

You see in my experience there are broadly four groups of teacher:

  1. The novice and enthusiastic
  2. The confident and secure
  3. The resistant and insecure
  4. The incompetent and unsalvageable

Now group 4 is probably small and not my concern here. Schools have systems that are well honed to dealing with them. Also I recognise that the language I’ve used there is quite inflammatory. I just mean those that are not able to improve due to their skill, attitude or personal characteristics. 

Groups 1&2 are well catered for. From what I’ve seen the answer to group 3 always seems to come from experts along the lines of ‘you have to create a low stakes culture and bring people on side by modeling reflective practice and normalising it.’

That is a great idea. But it’s also very hard to do. The school culture is a complex beast made of many levels of communication. Hard for a middle leader to cultivate.

Helping group 3

So what I am proposing here is a practical way of helping those people. 

The problem we face is that people are adaptive agents, they know how to play the game. The teachers we are looking to deal with are normally relatively experienced and have some decent classroom habits. The problem is we want them to have great habits. This means they need to change. While most teachers are willing to change and try new things (thuse being in group 2), group 3 teachers see this change as threatening and an indication that they are currently failing. Instead of hearing the feedback as ‘this is how you could be even better’ they hear it as ‘you are currently rubbish and I am better than you’. 

However, as adaptive agents, group 3 teachers know that they need to play along, they will agree to a target, even do it when you walk in next, but they will not incorporate it into their teaching beyond a superficial level. 

In some ways failing to get through to this group is the ultimate development own goal. As a leader you think they are taking on board and acting on your feedback, until another observer sees something far from where you think they are. You have lost accurate data on their classroom practice, you think they have improved but really they are just ‘playing the game’. To top it off they now view the strategy as even less valuable as now it is a hoop to jump through. 

So how do we disarm their defensiveness? Well we need to turn from being the expert offering direction to a colleague looking to collaborate. I call this going from ‘you to we’.

Moving from you to we

When we give feedback we often end with a leverage point that tells them what we think they should do differently. Hopefully it’s just a single one that they can focus on. We use the power of by to frame it as an actionable target but it still fails to hit the mark with group 3 teachers because it starts with the implication that they should do what you say’. The feedback giver is anointing themselves as the expert and this triggers the defensive tactics of the feedback receiver. And if we want to use deliberate practice?

No chance they will have the confidence and security to practice the new technique in front of you.

So we swap it to we. We try to align ourselves as equals working for mutual beneficial outcomes. Here I like to frame the feedback as the solution to a problem. I’ll try to give a bit of an outline to what I mean below.

Let’s say our leverage point is “Improve the independence of students by brightening the lines at the start of the task to ensure all students can start when instructed.”

I would start with “When you gave the instructions to the task a couple of the students didn’t start work straight away? Does that happen often?”

They will reply with something about how other classes are fine but this class have a few students who don’t listen

“Yeah I find it really frustrating too. I have been working on this with my own classes by using the technique brighten lines, are you familiar with it?”

 They give an answer that shows some familiarity but lacks a few keys points

“Yeah that what I thought too. I did some reading recently and found out a few details I missed…<go through details and success criteria>”

“How about working on that together?”

They nod.

“So far this is what I’ve got. <demonstrate the strategy> Have I missed anything?”

By them critiquing your attempt you give them more security and confidence. You shrink the change and by repeating the demonstration and taking on board any valid comments they have you show you value their ideas. 

Now address the main fears people have about the technique directly. 

“When I first started trying it I was worried that….but so far I think it has not been like that at all.”

They will air their concerns. With this technique it will probably be that it feels like it’s slowing the lesson down.

You gently rebuff them “Yes it feels slower but the students seem to really benefit and finish the task quicker, so the overall time taken is less.”

Then it’s just time to finish up with getting them to commit.

“Shall we put your leverage point as brightening the lines too? That way we can both work on it over the next week and discuss how it’s going after our next learning walk?” 

When they agree you can write it up and check in on them when you next bump into them in the corridor. 

Why I think it works

By shifting from you to we you create an angle to allow a specific group of teachers to take feedback and integrate it into their teaching practice. You are helping those who are resistant to change accept support without feeling threatened.

What about you though? Well from my perspective I think I can always do with spending time focusing on techniques no matter how automatic they are. This gives you an excuse to focus on an area you might not have worked on for a while. You can reflect and build on your existing good practice. Afterall, we can all improve, even the experts!

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