Joy Kirr is a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. Her 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of their learning experiences... Want to have her speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is Joy's PORTFOLIO.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Change - Part 2 - Reluctant Faculty

Last July, our keynote for the last day of the BLC conference was Dr. Robert Evans. I wrote about what he said about change here, and then I purchased the book. It's time to share some of my notes as I slowly work my way through it (amongst the myriad books I read to share with my students)...


Chapter six is called "Staff: Understanding Reluctant Faculty," and here it is in a nutshell, using his words...

"Many improvement schemes...pay little attention to the lived realities of the educators who must accomplish change or to the practical problems of institutional innovation" (91).
Although it is not true of ALL veteran teachers (like me, I hope), "Most of America's educators are veteran practitioners who are not eager to embrace a new round of innovation. Their natural human aversion to change is intensified by three factors: their stage of life, their stage of career, and what demographers would call their 'cohort factor' - their unique composition as a group and the unique historical context in which they have worked" (92).

Supposedly (remember that this was written in 1996, but I'll bet it still holds true), most educators "have become a veteran, middle-aged, immobile group" (93). He states that "middle-aged" includes the mid-forties and older. These "middle-aged" teachers are often dejected. They "feel unappreciated, overworked, and demeaned as professionals." He goes on to explain why, including that many teachers feel that "one's efforts to help others are unsuccessful," and "that the task is both endless and unrewarded in terms of either achievement, appreciation, or advancement" (95).

Dr. Evans then goes in depth about "midlife," and what that means to humans. Many people heading into (and out of) their forties experience changes in their own personal lives - their bodies are changing physically, their children are growing, their parents are ailing, and time is speeding up. Priorities are shifting - they're more invested in their family than in their professions now, and they also have the added worry about their futures.

He lists three "pressures against innovation" when teachers are going through midlife. First, "most people are coping with considerable change...before they even come to school." Second, if "veteran staff seem doubtful about promises of rapid, radical change," it's because they've "become more sophisticated and more skeptical" and no longer see the "world in terms of black and white." Third, people (in midlife) are "much less likely to pursue activities that do not fit into their personal priorities" (100).

And, because most people in midlife are also in midcareer, they've got to deal with the effects of staying in the same job for a long time. Remember when you first began teaching? Everything was new and exciting! You put in 110% each night at home and again when you were in front of the students! You didn't have to worry about a mortgage, children to raise, or illness among parents or in-laws. No way were you worried about benefits once you retired. Sick days? Take 'em if you need 'em! In midcareer, "one's focus shifts to include a growing preoccupation with personal and family concerns. The midlife issues...exert a stronger pull on one's energy and attention..." (103).  "Having devoted themselves primarily to their career for several decades, they are often ready to reduce their work commitment and devote greater energy to personal or family interests." Not only that, but one "becomes less exclusively centered on the innate satisfaction of one's work and more concerned about salary, benefits, and related matters." But wait - there's more! Once you get closer to mastering your craft, "challenge dwindles and recognition plummets" (104).

It's a vicious cycle! "To sustain performance everyone needs feedback" (105). However, the older we become, the less feedback we get. Our profession is such that we spend our days with children, and not our peers. We grow even more isolated in later years! "Given the rise in personal and family demands and the drop in work motivation and interest, veteran staff are more likely to limit their time at work to the essential, if not the minimum. They are less likely to come early or to stay late to meet with one another, and they are less likely to 'talk shop' during their breaks. And since middle-aged people tend to go out socially less often than younger adults, there is less personal connection among colleagues over the years." This doesn't mean, as Dr. Evans continues, that we don't care about one another as much, but what it does mean is we "spend less time together, are less familiar with one's work, and draw less support from one another" (106). Let's pile on the stress and add that this is not something teachers talk about. They don't acknowledge it with peers, and so they feel that this dilemma is isolated to just themselves.

I'm not there... yet. In this, my 23rd year, I can feel myself some days heading into this abyss of not being connected, of trying "too hard" without reward, of being knocked down by parent confusion, but I'm not there YET. I am still open to innovation - in fact, I still crave it! This chapter helped me understand WHY. I do not have children of my own, therefore I do not have that energy pull or emotional toll. My parents are older, yes, but healthy at this point. My in-laws are gone, so any parental angst is virtually nil right now. I have time to devote to my husband AND my profession, and I'm supported by my administration in my efforts to innovate. It's no wonder I'm currently still an agent for change. This book is helping me understand many of my peers so much better, and I'm so very glad Dr. Evans goes on to give coping strategies for "veteran" teachers!! He doesn't let us off the hook, even though the resistance to change can be so strong.

So... What can veteran teachers do?!

First, he says we cannot blame working in schools. We are lucky to be alive, have a solid job, and live in the era in which we live. Here are five tasks "each person in midcareer must master...

  1. Specializing versus generalizing. Over the course of a career, there is a logical progression from being a learner to being a contributor in a particular area. In midcareer, we must decide whether we will continue to concentrate on these skills or seek a more broader, more general role, such as leadership. ...
  2. Establishing an organizational identity and area of contribution. Everybody needs a niche. All of us need to achieve a place, establish an identifiable role, make a recognized contribution in our workplace. ...
  3. Modifying career dreams. Midlife is a time of self-assessment in which we ask ourselves, 'whether our career progress has been consistent with our goals, ambitions, and dreams, and if not, how to resolve the discrepancy...'
  4. Achieving a balance between work, family, and self-development. The personal and professional changes of midlife and midcareer require us to reassess our investments in the different areas of our life...
  5. Maintaining a positive growth orientation. Having less time left and fewer opportunities open, having to accept the repercussions of past errors and the prospect of future losses - these make it easy to exaggerate our lot, to become attached to our burdens, to assume that we are trapped and unable to improve things, to give in to depression and passivity. To sustain a positive, constructive outlook on life and work, people must find a way to keep developing their strengths, to treasure and celebrate their successes, to appreciate......" (more on pages 111-113).

I believe these guidelines are necessary for happiness in any profession. Our school systems need to "focus on people." People's "acceptance of a new perspective depends much less on its intrinsic validity than on their own readiness to consider any new ideas at all. Before they can respond to a particular innovation, something must unfreeze their current thinking and perceptions and reach them in a fundamental way" (115) - because we are human beings.

This chapter was the one that my husband heard the most from so far. I'd stop and read it aloud, and we'd process the ideas together. I wish every superintendent and board of education member could read this book and see how difficult is is for humans to change - when it's not our own idea. [Even when change IS our own idea, there's resistance - read part one (chapters 1-3) for this reasoning!] I'm excited to continue reading about setting and leadership, and I'll be more excited to head into part three where I hope he shares some guidance in "Leading Innovation."

Part 3: Leading Innovation

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