Being a Change Agent: Helping One is Better than Changing All

The ends of terms in a number of schools and systems often mean conferences, inservice days, contemplations about what schools do, what can be done into the future. A frequent motif that appears in these conferences is “Change – How Do We Do It?”  Teachers are often presented with this Ken Robinson talk about how schools kill creativity.

Or maybe they will hear a provocative talk from a figure like Gary Stager introduced in order to have us question the ways schools are set up and how we can Change them in order to achieve Creative Outcomes or build students into Creative Producers. It is often curious to me that these campaigners for Change often haven’t taught in a classroom.  As a result, many teachers are left with ideas that their system is flawed, but without many tangible clues as to how to put this amorphous “change” into action.

Then we have the generation of teachers who have been in systems for 10 – 20 years who find themselves wanting to help change their systems because they see the flaws, the students falling away from engagement, their minds drifting away from what these agents for change see as an inflexible set of teaching practices. A significant chunk of this generation, me included, saw the Peter Weir film Dead Poets’ Society, where Mr. Keating was a hero teacher, working against an inflexible system to deliver a creative approach to teaching to his students.  A lot of us left cinemas wanting to be something like Mr. Keating, working against Conservatism.  As a result, we see a number of Generation X teachers wanting to pit themselves against a system that appears like Welton Academy in some ways.

These teachers risk burning out from possessing this fire for change. A good example of this kind of teacher is Bianca Hewes, who recently outlined in her blog a range of frustrations she has being a sole change agent in her context. It’s an excellent post at addressing the idea of the change agent, working hard to bring about changes to their teaching world, but to the dangerous extent of burning that person out – as Bianca points out:

We’ve been dancing for too long and for the most part no one is following. It’s not fair that we keep shouldering the burden of educational change. Maybe we’re deluded. We can not keep working 12 hours a day. We are NOT hero teachers, and we shouldn’t be. We should be supported by systems and individuals in the position of power to reshape these systems to ensure better outcomes for teachers and students and the wider community. Let’s be honest, no one is inspired by someone who works constantly, who lives and breathes teaching and has no time for anything else. They might be full of respect, but who wants to follow in that teacher’s footsteps?

This passage illustrates to me what happens when the ideas of people like Robinson, et al, inspire teachers to be agents of change but don’t prepare them for the inevitable moment where they lose hope and energy when those around them appear to be slower to embrace that change. I say inevitable because changing what you do can be an easy enough process, but to bring about lasting change around you, having others think as you do about the need for change and how to bring it about is very hard.

What is missing here is a sense that the energy and ideas of the change agent has had impacts on others who surround them. I personally know, for example, that teachers in schools have used one or two ideas from Bianca and found they have changed the quality of their teaching – but have felt reluctant to go further than that one idea. For example, I find myself liking her passion for Project Based Learning, but I pursue it at selected times because it better suits my context and the learning goals I have mapped out for my students.  But that can be of little comfort to the change agent sitting down at the end of a day, seeing little in tangible change around them in a day to day context.

I was disturbed by the blog post, however, due to the interaction that was had with Valerie Hannon, a visiting member of the British “Innovation Unit”.  It disturbed me on a couple of levels.

When I got up to speak, I’ll admit that I was scared of Valerie Hannon. She’s a very provocative thinker (which I love) and I feared what her response to my video and ideas would be, lol. But when I was standing there talking I got fired up, and directed my discussion at her. She is right. We’re not supported. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our lives to our jobs. Add children and a husband to the mix and it’s insane trying to sustain such a commitment to excellence and innovation in the classroom let alone adding blogging, conference gigs and workshops to that. IT IS NOT RIGHT! So I agreed with Valerie and told her and all the other powerful people in the room that I will probably burn out in the next 12 months. I probably won’t be teaching this time next year if I try to keep up the pace I’m at. And what did she ask? 

When teachers consider themselves lucky enough to go to particular workshops, there is often an uneven power situation, as was the case from this interaction, which inspires both this feeling of being put upon, plus also coming to the point seeking an answer from the Important Guest.  The answer in this situation is a crucial and symbolic point for us to contemplate. Here is the answer, where Valerie sets up what authorities can do to help the “hero teacher”:

What do I need in the way of support to ensure that my enthusiasm, interest, knowledge and skills can be sustained for the benefit of my students and school? What should those in power provide teachers with so as that my innovative student-controlled teaching methods can be the most effective? 

Then we have Bianca’s response:

She stumped me! I didn’t know the answer! All I managed to say was: 1. Give me space to experiment with learning. 2. Acknowledge and praise me when me or my students manage to do something amazing.

This was a very good answer, given the high pressure circumstances that Bianca was placed in, having to answer in front of those who are important in Bianca’s profession. This is exactly what agents of change do need on a day to day, week to week basis. Space and encouragement to experiment to the end of improving student engagement and learning as well as acknowledgement that they are on a good and productive pathway. Not necessarily every day, but the psychological needs of someone at the edge of innovation are great, especially if they feel vulnerable because they are the only one experimenting or feel as though they are being judged negatively because they are being a “creative” teacher. Good people managers achieve this goal. In terms of enacting change, too, it makes good sense, in that it acknowledges that the change can indeed become part of the wider picture of how that school does things.

Where the disturbing part for me came was in the response from Valerie Hannon:

What did Valerie say? NO! That’s NOT what you need! You need REAL change. We need to radically change what schools look and feel and run like. She was talking cool stuff like John Goh is doing (note, he is a principal and can therefore enact actual, lasting change unlike we classroom teachers who can only try and try and try) like changing school times, lesson times, the physical layout of the school, the way subjects are taught – everything. I could only laugh and nod. Yes, there’s the dream Valerie. But we teachers can’t be held responsible for bringing those changes on our own … and that’s why they didn’t even come into my mind when she asked me. I guess I’m a defeatist and I didn’t know it.

This is where Bianca is being used, I believe, as a pawn in a wider game – telling authorities in Australia what they MUST do.  That what Bianca is doing in the school isn’t “real” change, that the only “real” change is to be done by Principals and their superiors – changing school times, lesson times, physical layout, the way subjects are taught.  That’s not change, that’s revolution – unrealistic and dismissive of everything that has previously worked in schools.  No wonder Bianca felt she was a “defeatist”. She’s not – she’s being a realist that works inside a school, not a dreamer from outside, making a comment and then taking off to wherever else she is to go, free of the responsibility of having to enact it. What we don’t hear in this answer are the questions raised by Hannon’s call for revolution:

1. Why must school times change?  There have been schools that have experimented with earlier start times and late finishing times – but they ignore the realities of staff supervision and hours, bus company timetables, the jobs of parents.  One sometimes find unions criticised by campaigners for change, because these unions insist on particular working hours. The unions, however, have the interests of their members – teachers – to represent. And sometimes “flexible” working hours don’t suit teachers.

2. Why change lesson times? What is wrong with 50 minute or 60 minute periods, in terms of addressing the needs of a variety of KLAs and school practicalities.  I have seen schools move away from the 50 minute lesson model, with doubles for senior classes and practical classes, to a 60 minute model, with no doubles, which negatively affects practical subjects.  No one time model suits all.

3. Physical Layout. Changing physical layout of classrooms is an impossibility for many schools, considering that nature of construction in various eras. Changes can be made within those environments, but experience has shown that not all teachers and teaching styles suit those changes – so seating plans and classroom layouts don’t necessarily fit newer ways of thinking. We have also had bursts of the open classroom model, which has allowed for flexibility, which has led to some positive change. There aren’t, however, many of those in our systems. Even in those schools, many teachers have preferred to have the walls go back up, for many valid reasons.

4. The Way Our Subjects Are Taught. This is a large and unrealistic goal for everything to change about the way subjects are taught – what is also left out in this comment is the way they are assessed.  The way our subjects are taught must be influenced by the way our assessment schedules are defined, which is via external forces such as examinations.  One often finds campaigners railing against the HSC, NAPLAN and other standardised tests – and one can see many valid reasons for those views. It’s unhelpful, however. I remember vividly when Gary Stager, at the Australian Computers in Education Conference (ACEC) in Melbourne in 2010, pointing his finger at the gathered crowd, asking us why we “let” the Australian Government do a National Curriculum – as if it was our fault as a teaching profession.

It’s not a matter over which we have power as teachers and education systems.  Parents, media outlets, governments, propagate a view that things like high stakes external exams, national testing and nationalised curriculums are good things. It’s one area about which articles published in conservative media outlets like The Australian have expressed admiration for Julia Gillard, both as education minister and Prime Minister, which demonstrates a political lockstep in terms of the way our major parties see education. There isn’t much school systems, let alone teachers like Bianca Hewes, can do about what is taught as a part of a National Curriculum. We may be able to teach parts of our programs with innovation – which is clearly being done – but not all of can be, in terms of what needs to be a part of a formalised curriculum.

Instead of feeling defeated and powerless, Bianca and teachers like her should be satisfied with what they are continuing to achieve. Be congratulated, thanked, shown how their ideas can inspire and help others.  There needs to be, however, a recognition from various people within a system that these change agents need support and encouragement. There also needs to be a recognition within all of us who want change is that it is necessary to back off from the demands, to not continually try to change the world, change the system – but take one step at a time.

When an agent for change question the way things are done, challenge others to think differently, it is a necessary step to give those people you have challenge a chance to mull over things, make it an organic part of the way they teach, rather than an imposed “let’s change everything” model advocated by people like Valerie Hannon.  Otherwise, it just becomes a diktat from above, as opposed to a lasting, profound change where everyone can feel as though they had a stake, a part in the change.  I have seen teachers from various level of experience and backgrounds change and adapt the way they teach, having been shown the positive change that can be brought to the learning of the students.  In this, I agree with the philosophy attributed to the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich in Testimony :

“Do not try to save mankind. Try to save one man; that’s much harder.”

Having teachers change the way we teach should be based on the same philosophy.

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