Making lasting change in schools is difficult not only because schools are communities made up of individuals with their own opinions about what’s best for kids, but also because, like most institutions, they are full of “bad habits” that can be tough to break. While habitual behavior can be good — like when it reinforces a positive culture or set of norms — it can also be a stubborn obstacle to enacting meaningful change.
At the EduCon conference hosted by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, a room full of educators easily listed common “bad habits” they’ve experienced in their work, such as siloed learning, homework just for the sake of it, spending time planning with no action, keeping the door closed and visitors out, poor communication between administrators and teachers, traditional professional development, fixing problems by mandate rather than by team problem solving and initiative overload.
Even when everyone in a school building understands that a set of habitual behaviors are holding back change it can be difficult to shift away from them because of time constraints, history, comfort with something familiar, or control issues. But if school leaders and educators in the building truly want to see changes to teaching and learning, they must name negative habitual behaviors, own them, and intentionally make plans to address them.
“This issue of patterned behavior and things that are hard to break is something we keep running into over and over and over,” said Diana Laufenberg, executive director of Inquiry Schools. Laufenberg has been consulting with schools around the country on school transformation and often finds that long-held beliefs about things like the schedule present the most persistent obstacles to helping school leaders achieve their visions. She once worked with a project that had lots of flexibility, no accountability, only 15 students and four teachers, but the first thing the organizers freaked out about was the schedule.
When Laufenberg encounters patterned behavior that is challenging the rest of a school’s vision, she not only tries to get leaders and educators to identify and own that habit, but she does so in a way that isn’t judgmental. Teachers get defensive when a new leader — or worse, a consultant — comes in and implies everything they’ve done in their careers has been wrong. Instead, Laufenberg says it’s crucial to make a strong case for why change is necessary and then invite people to walk through a new door together. Leaders can frame that change as a positive thing and help individuals to focus on transforming practices within their control.
Teachers often complain about “initiative overload” as a bad habit at the system level. It’s a common story: a district superintendent or coordinator attends a conference and comes back with a bunch of new, shiny ideas that she or he wants implemented in classrooms right away. Often new leaders spearhead signature initiatives that then die out when they leave, and classroom teachers are left with the memory of a litany of failed initiatives that were poorly implemented and never given enough time to succeed. It’s no wonder teachers are reluctant to throw themselves into each new idea that comes along.
A COMMON UNDERSTANDING
Mandated initiatives from the top are a reality that teachers in classrooms can do very little to modify, but when discussing the idea, educator Gerald Aungst realized his personal bad habit is a scaled down version of initiative fatigue.
“I always notice what I could be doing better and I tend to try to tackle it right away,” Aungst said. He supports gifted children at Cheltenham Elementary near Philadelphia and often finds good ideas he’d like to try with students mid-year. For example, when running literary circles with his students he was dissatisfied with the kind of questions students were bringing to kickoff the discussions. He stumbled upon the Question Formulation Technique and immediately knew it could help his student develop better questions. He put aside what he had been doing with students and dove into the new strategy.
He now realizes that approach didn’t give him enough time to think through how he would introduce the technique most effectively. “I had a good idea and I jumped to implementation of that idea too soon,” Aungst said. Interestingly, that’s often what happens at the school and district level as well. A good idea may be poorly implemented because the leader doesn’t take time to explain and build enthusiasm among staff.
To address his own bad habit, Aungst is trying to carve out space in his prep time to not just map out lessons for that day, but also to do some longer range planning. And, he’s trying to develop a system for saving ideas as they arise so he can examine them more deeply over the summer and integrate them into his plan for the following year.
Aungst has also worked at the district level, so he knows the view from the central office is quite different from the one in the classroom. “When I was a teacher I felt like so many things that came from district offices felt random and arbitrary,” he said. But he also worked as the supervisor of gifted education for several years, where he began to see that there were lots of individual teachers doing amazing work, but they weren’t all headed in the same direction. He began to see the need for consistency and then struggled to balance that against giving teachers autonomy and preserving their excitement.
“It’s the teachers who are constantly reflecting on what they can do to be better at their jobs who feel even more overwhelmed because they’re getting input from so many different places,” Aungst said of initiative fatigue. These experiences have led him to believe that teachers and building leaders need to understand the broader district goals, but have space to work together on how to get there. That many not be the most efficient delivery mechanism, but it may end up producing the most positive long term results.
Another challenge of habitualized behavior in schools is recognizing that change can’t happen if the structures, schedules, culture and mindsets don’t also change. That often means that in order to break out of calcified approaches changemakers need to put every idea on the table and consider each equally.
For example, when Laufenberg taught in Flagstaff the district was having a lot of financial trouble. She raised the idea of going to a four-day school week, which would save the district a lot of transportation costs. But the idea was dismissed out of hand as something parents and the school board wouldn’t approve. Predetermining solutions like that limits the levers for change available.
CHANGE IN A TECHNOLOGY CONTEXT
Adina Sullivan has been thinking for years about how to help teachers in her district break out of patterned beliefs and fears about using technology in the classroom. As the education technology coordinator for San Marcos Unified in Southern California, she often encounters teachers who say kids can’t use technology either because of age or ability, they themselves aren’t “techy” people so they can’t do it, or fear using a tool that they don’t already know everything about.
“It’s the same or similar issues that have always been there, it’s just now applied to using technology with students,” Sullivan said. When pushing teachers to try new approaches Sullivan is careful not to shame them about their current strategies or their fears, but instead try to understand where they are coming from and then help them to have a positive classroom technology experience that will bolster confidence.
One high school English teacher was resistant to technology at first. She often missed trainings and generally felt that since she planned to retire soon she didn’t need to learn much about it. But the district is six years into a rollout of classroom devices and the pressure from parents and students to have a more tech-savvy class is mounting. This teacher started with a simple project producing brochures with Google Drawings and then moved on to a jigsaw activity with Google Slides. Those successes gave her confidence.
“Now she has found ways and a reason to integrate technology into her college prep English course, which is a course that a lot of teachers don’t feel they have time to add anything new to,” Sullivan said.
The first steps teachers take to integrate technology are usually just a substitution of technology for something that used to be done analog. But Sullivan says it’s important to start somewhere. “Sometimes transformation is just changing someone’s idea of what they can and can’t do, or what is and isn’t possible,” she said. And, she notes, bad habits or deeply held beliefs about the roles of students and teachers in classrooms were developed over a long time, so substituting new belief structures and habits will also take time.
Change often comes with a period of discomfort that can be good, but Laufenberg cautions educators trying to make change in their buildings or districts that when morale goes down and buy-in fades it can be easy to end up with exactly the system that existed before the change process started. That’s why leaders and individuals within the system have to fight hard to recognize and replace their own bad habits.