A lot of people want to influence teachers: politicians, researchers, salespeople, campaigners. However, teaching is notorious for being relatively impervious to influence. Once a teacher closes the classroom door, they have a great deal of autonomy. In addition, teaching involves multi-tasking which, to do successfully, requires teachers to automatise many of their routines and behaviours. It is hard to change something you are not conscious of doing, even if you are persuaded of the case.
However, all is not lost. If you want to influence the practice of teachers, I offer the following advice.
1. Offer practical solutions
Most people who seek to influence teachers make the mistake of assuming that it is mainly about persuasion. This is probably because we all have ideologies that we bring to bear on education and these ideologies cannot be ignored. However, these sit more at an abstract level.
If a teacher has a class of 25 students in which one student constantly disrupts the class, what that teacher needs most is practical solutions to a problem that is affecting everyone, not least the misbehaving child. They need to know what to do right now, how to follow it up and what long term measures can be put in place to address the root cause. They do not need a lecture on UN conventions or to be persuaded that there might be a root cause.
2. Make the thing you want them to do easier than what they are doing at the moment
If you do not recognise that teachers work hard then that’s an empathy gap you are likely to never cross. During term time, teachers burn the candle at both ends. They are often marking and planning lessons late into the evening and at weekends. And then there is all the bureaucracy. Not all of this work is optimal and that is the opportunity. If you can make your initiative less work than what teachers are doing at the moment then you have a chance of winning them over. However, if your big idea is a plan for differentiation that involves the creation of five different versions of every worksheet, you can forget it.
3. One thing at a time
Related to the previous point, don’t try to change too much in one go. I remember Dylan Wiliam talking about formative assessment and the professional learning groups he advises creating for embedding more formative assessment into lessons. His key message was that if a teacher can embed one formative assessment practice into their teaching over a given period of time then they are doing well.
4. Be aware of the emotional impact
I am starting to become convinced that all of the most important reforms to teaching involve seeking disconfirming evidence. They involve disrupting the confirmation bias that assumes that because we have taught something, students must have learnt it. So we have to check and find out the bad news. That’s what formative assessment is all about. It was never really about providing feedback to students, it was always about providing feedback to teachers – feedback that students have not learnt something.
This is hard to do. I have been teaching for 23 years. I should be confident. But seeking out the bad news makes me feel like a crap teacher. It is something I would avoid if I had not built the systems to make me do it.
Reformers need to be aware that the best reforms may not always make teachers feel good about themselves and need to have a plan for that.