Navigating Educators' Resistance to Change
Early in my consulting work, I was presenting to a group of teachers whose district had hired me to coach them. While I’d done some initial classroom visits, I hadn’t yet met most of the teachers individually, and this talk was my first chance to formally introduce myself to them. As I was finishing up, I said, “Please know I’m here to help you.”
Immediately, one of the teachers in the audience stood up and shouted, “You can’t help us! It’s impossible for you to help us. They won’t let you.”
The anger in his voice pierced the room and, if I’m honest, my heart. My offer was sincere. I’d always viewed my work as in service of those whom I coach, and it was shocking to have my statement called into question in such a way and before the person had gotten to know my work. Stunned, all I could think to say was, “I promise I will try my very best to help you.”
While I left that meeting room, the teacher’s words didn’t leave me. I spent all night turning the experience over in my head, trying to make sense of it. I had seen this teacher with his students; his passion was obvious and his fidelity to teaching clear. He was a good person and a good teacher. So what had made him so angry?
It finally hit me—I had to do research and get more information. I’d left the meeting with teachers thinking that I would have to work doubly hard to prove my sincere commitment to their growth. Thankfully, I had an insight that, when it comes to coaching, the most effective way to show sincerity is to meet people where they are and begin the collaboration from there.
I spent the next few weeks learning more about the district culture and systems in place. I spoke with teachers, parents, students, and administrators. I did more classroom observations and reviewed as much data as I could. What I learned was that administrators had put such tight restrictions around what a teacher could and could not do in the classroom that the teachers were suffocating. These well-meaning teachers understood that they had to grow their practices to meet students’ needs. But because the district required that they follow a set lesson plan—and were punished if they deviated from it for even one day—the teachers believed I couldn’t help them.
In the end, I was grateful for the resistance of that teacher. Though I wished he would have approached me individually, he pushed me to understand what these teachers were up against so that I could adapt my coaching to work within present realities while gently nudging district leaders to trust their teachers, give them more autonomy to make classroom decisions, and embrace the art and craft of teaching. But more importantly, he taught me an invaluable lesson about resistance.
Change is scary to many. Even when people want change, it can still cause them anxiety and concern. The natural defense is to resist it. As coaches, we are going to confront resistance to our work all the time. When I coach coaches, I remind them of three key things to keep in mind about resistance and guiding people to trust you on the vulnerable process of change and growth.
Resistance is not a bad thing; it’s a normal part of change
People fear change because of the uncertainty it brings. People also fear that change will make them lose something they value or care about. To protect themselves, people resist change. As coaches, we’ve seen all kinds of ways resistance can manifest.
Resistance is a clue and can be helpful to coaches
I know how frustrating it can be to set great and ambitious goals for educators only to discover their resistance to the work it will take to meet them. However, the sooner educators show us their resistance, the sooner we can identify it and create or adapt plans to meet them where they are.
In fact, I advise coaches to root out resistance before setting goals, as this will ultimately save you time—and prevent a lot of frustration—in the long run. In making a listening tour your first step of coaching, you will discover any kinds of resistance present amongst educators. To help identify the root of a kind of resistance, I suggest using the Five Whys.
Coaches recognize resistance when they see it but can struggle to know how to navigate it
Helping your educators overcome resistance to change is doable. In short, you must meet them where they are. Change initiatives will almost always fail if they ask too much change, too soon. Or if they ask people to start from a place miles from where they currently are.
In my book, I have a chapter dedicated to assessing how ready for change your educators are, including pinpointing reasons behind any resistance they may have. While I included detail to be as helpful as possible in the book, I’ve created a cheat sheet with the possible causes of resistance and how you can help people break through each.
Whenever you approach and analyze an individual’s resistance to change, I encourage you to keep in mind what psychologists have identified as the five typical steps of behavioral change. When you’re able to grasp where an individual is on the spectrum of willingness to change, you are empowered to tailor how you frame goals and the work it will take to achieve them.
The five typical steps of change:
Precontemplation: At this point, a person has never considered changing a behavior or is unaware of the need or reason to change it.
Contemplation: This is when a person has begun to actively ponder a behavioral change.
Determination: A person now begins preparing mentally for change.
Action: A person is now ready to take the first steps in making change.
Maintenance: A person is now focused on continuing their actions to maintain change.
As coaches, we want nothing more than to help schools and the individuals in it grow and reach their potential. Nothing hurts us more than when people resist our support. In my experience, expecting some degree of resistance and having a plan in place to overcome it can greatly reduce some stress from our work. And replace it with greater effectiveness in our work.
Don’t fear resistance. Embrace it as the clue it is and trust that, with the right tools, you can inspire anyone to overcome their fear of change and join you on a path of growth.
Sherry St. Clair, president of Reflective Learning LLC, is the author of Coaching Redefined: A Guide to Leading Meaningful Instructional Growth. She coaches instructional leaders globally, with the aim of helping administrators, coaches, and teachers create the optimal learning environment for students. Additionally, she serves as a Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education.