Teachers as Change Agents: Voice and Leadership

One of our Ed.D. professors asked us, “Why do we keep doing things in the same way and then complain that it is not working? Especially when we have research that makes a compelling case for things that do work?”

Reading the literature on “teacher resistance,” or listening to similar media reports, might result in the response that teachers are pathological resistors to change. Too often, perception is that it takes a variety of “management” and re-packaging strategies to engage teachers in change. In many cases, we move into the latest drum beat of some educational guru or movement, with top-down mandates. Therefore, one initiative follows another, accompanied by discussion of how to generate “buy-in.”  

We do have better answers–empowering teachers with an engaged and active role in both creating and sustaining innovation through their own growth and job-embedded professional development (PD).

The idea is not new, nor the demonstrated effects.  

Certainly, we have been discussing the benefits of learner-centered or student-centered education for decades, and that conversation has now gathered critical mass. In their role as “in the trenches” change agents, teachers are learners. The issues of respect, universal design, and equity that mark our pedagogy with our students should also be incorporated in approaching our teacher-learners with innovations and initiatives.

The evidence is compelling:  the transfer or implementation of skills and strategies learned in mass-delivered PD, or through smaller but centralized, non-differentiated PD, is between 5 and 8%, depending on various factors.  Nevertheless, that percentage rises to 85%+ when PD is personalized; practiced and developed with colleagues, in shared inquiry (sometimes as an accompaniment to traditional delivery methods).

We need to trust teachers as learners to:

  • Know themselves, their skills and areas of growth, as well as their students;
  • Engage in reflection and conversations with others (peers and administrators) to become more critically self-aware;
  • Set goals and develop a realistic plan to achieve those goals;
  • Collaborate with colleagues to share wisdom, provide critical friend feedback, discover new ways of engaging students, use technology aligned with their learner goals and with their natural desire to transform learning;
  • Develop as leaders in their classroom and within their department or school, working with colleagues to increase their shared capacity for 21st century learning.

This Learner-Centered PD (Polly and Hannafin, 2010), combined with collegial mentoring / coaching has demonstrated efficacy regarding implementation and sustainability in multiple contexts and settings, demonstrated in Washington, New York, Maine, Montana, Florida, Pennsylvania, etc. To ignore the results of 30+ years of research and rely on top-down, centralized support to lead innovation and change is a death knoll to transformation. Not because of bad intentions, but because the implementation of new vision and innovation critically relies on the people whom it affects the most: students and teachers.  Without their voice and leadership, administrators may find themselves in the midst of  “exercises in compliance,” rather than the systemic cultural shift that has the ability to sustain itself beyond who’s in power.

The use of Instructional Coaching provides an alternative and an opportunity for more personalized PD delivery; many effective models exist. Coaches are a great scaffold and provide good support. My own experience has convinced me that, additionally, the power lies in creating opportunities for teachers to form collegial communities (whether a PLC model, Communities of Practice, or other), in which they develop sufficient trust in one another and in themselves to truly collaborate. We all like to hang out, talk, discuss this strategy or another–general commiseration and sharing. But true collaboration is hard work and intentional. It requires the trust of process–to know that we can be completely honest with our colleagues, to share our failures, our “oops” moments, to be open to asking them for directed modeling and help, to visit one another’s classrooms and provide both affirmative and growth feedback, and more.

I witnessed this in a site visit to a recognized and highly lauded 1:1 school, in which technology integration was broad and creative in its support of 21st century skills and learning goals. After experiencing the site for several visits, I asked the principal about her approach:  she begins each year asking each teacher to re-vision teaching and students based on passion and gut, aligned with whatever mandates are currently de rigueur. She then consults with them to design a personal plan, provides weekly opportunities for the teachers to gather in interest-related groups for reflection and discussion, provides sub coverage for teachers to visit one another’s classrooms to learn from one another and to co-teach/model lessons and strategies for one another, etc. The learning at the school is impressive–united in engagement and the self-directedness of each student while each teacher’s personal style and vision is respected. This may all seem self-evident, but how often does it really happen?

As a quasi-administrator (dept. chair), for me it means supporting each teacher individually, facilitating reflective and critical conversation, listening actively to identify their burning goal regarding their teaching and their vision for their students. Then, to collaboratively plot a path to achieve that goal and helping them to build leadership capacity within it as well as providing continuing support through opportunities for PD, for collective inquiry with colleagues sharing similar goals, for PD implementation that involves all of us, transferring learning into sustainable, transformational practice. With flipped, blended, and online learning, social media, as well as traditional workshops, etc., the possibilities for de-centralizing PD and focusing on learner-centered, embedded PD are endless.

Teachers best experience and see the changes in student learning through their own and their colleagues’ voices. They become on-site transformational change leaders who can carve new ways of being, thinking, and learning.

Polly, D., & Hannafin, M.J. (2010). Reexamining technology’s role in learner-centered
professional development. Educational Technology Research & Development, 58, 557-571. doi: 10.1007/s11423-009-9146-5


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