When Are Teachers Ready to Change?

“The important thing is this: to be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are – for what you could become.”  (Charles Dickens)

Why is change so difficult?  Why do teachers and educational administrators have such a difficult time changing their minds and their methods? Although we may recognize the importance of altering a behavior, attitude or belief, we often fail, or resist doing so. As Dickens so eloquently laments, we are afraid to sacrifice what we are for what we could become! Why?

Based on the insightful work of Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, IBM has outlined the following top ten reasons why educators resist change:

  1. Surprise, Surprise! Decisions or requests that are sprung on administrators and teachers without notice.
  2. Excess Uncertainty. Not knowing enough about the change will result in the “walking off a cliff blindfolded” syndrome.
  3. Loss of Control. Feeling that changes are being done to, rather than done by, those affected.
  4. Loss of Routine. Concerns that change will require administrators and teachers to question familiar (and comfortable) routines and habits.
  5. We’ve Seen This Before. Expectation that the initiative is temporary and it will stay incomplete, meaning the best strategy is to lay low and not contribute to success.
  6. Loss of Face. Change implies that the former way of doing things was wrong. Some administrators and teachers may feel embarrassed in front of their peers or staff.
  7. Concerns About Future Competence. Educators can question their ability to be effective after a change: Can I do it? How will I do it? Will I make it in the new situation?
  8. Ripple Effects. Change in one area can disrupt other projects or activities, even ones outside of work.
  9. More Work. Organizational change often increases workloads.
  10. Sometimes the Threat Is Real. Change often creates real winners and losers, and people worry about where they will end up when the project is complete.

While education professionals should address the validity of the aforementioned reasons, a serious examination concerning the socio-psychic conditions that are necessary for desired change to occur should also be pursued.

James Prochaska, John Norcross and Carlo DiClemente are researchers who have carefully studied the manner in which people begin to sacrifice their current modalities and successfully change.  Their fascinating exploration has led them to identify six stages within the difficult and often painful process of personal development.  While their model was initially used to help patients modify certain deleterious health behaviors, it has proven to be so successful that it has been effectively extended to other audiences.

Prochaska’s stages of change are: (a) pre-contemplation, (b) contemplation, (c) preparation, (d) action, (e) maintenance, and (f) termination. Progression through the six stages is not accomplished in a step-by-step linear fashion. Because many individuals relapse on their change efforts and do not successfully maintain their initial gains, Prochaska and his fellow researchers insist that lasting change is the result of a cyclical or spiral process.

The first aspect of such a cyclical change process is the intentional movement from the pre-contemplation to contemplation of a problematic issue.  According to Prochaska, pre-contemplation describes the condition that exists when an individual is unaware or fails to acknowledge a questionable belief, habit or attitude. Individuals in this stage are not interested in engaging in any change enabling activities, often insisting that their current condition is normal and correct.

Contemplation is activated when an individual begins to develop personal consciousness of the veracity of an issue. Consequently, individuals in this stage begin to honestly consider altering their beliefs, behavior, and or attitudes. They may, however, still remain unprepared or even unwilling to fully commit to what such change may entail.

Given the proper support, time and conditions, individuals begin to shift from contemplation to the third stage of Prochaska’s change theory – preparation. Preparation is the process whereby an individual who is willing to change actually plans to do so within the immediate future. The action stage follows shortly thereafter, and is characterized by increased anxiety and coping with the difficult effects of the premeditated change activities.

Maintenance is the sixth and final stage of Prochaska’s change theory. During this final phase, reinforcing habits are developed that firmly establish the new change of personal or professional lifestyle norms. It should be noted that this stage may last from six months to an entire lifespan and may also include long-term coaching to avoid relapse.

Since Prochaska’s change model is cyclical, individuals have the ability to return to previous stages at any time. The spiral pattern acknowledges how most teachers ultimately change their teaching/learning methods and belief systems by actually learning from their relapses.

In the final analysis, personal and professional change successfully occur when educators enjoy the benefit of having a knowledgeable coaches or supportive instructional mentors to facilitate the process.  Educational administrators would be well served to embed such practitioners into their respective professional learning communities.

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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