Why Don’t More Teachers Feel a Need to Improve?

A MiddleWeb Blog

I am going to write on a touchy topic around wanting to improve as a professional.

For the last nine weeks, I have been trying to push my colleagues to be the best they can be each and every day. More specifically, the individuals in our English department. I will be honest, it could be better.

I don’t claim to have all the answers and I will never proclaim I do not have anything to learn. Also, to be fair, not everyone in my department is reluctant to improve as a professional.

I see our role as doing the best for the students we have contact with every day. What I can’t wrap my brain around is why, generally, many educational professionals do not feel any urgency to improve or hone their craft. It perplexes me daily.

Some background

Every Monday we have an allotted time to meet as departments and staff. We meet from 3 pm to 4 pm after school during this time. Some teachers are good with this, but others walk into our meetings with a negative attitude because they have to spend an hour once a week after school talking about our collective professional work.

The reason we chose the 3-to-4 Monday time slot is because too many staff members in the past were missing meetings because of sports-related issues. Furthermore, this time slot allows us to have some K-12 meetings, which is important when considering the curriculum and building relationships across all grade levels. It is not that bad at all and I enjoy the time.

A proactive approach

Prior to the start of the school year, I read Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. Being the English department chair, I wanted to be prepared going into our meeting this year. I wanted to be ready for those individuals who were going to be reluctant to change and those who were not interested in discussing ways we can improve our department.

I started this year’s first session by asking my colleagues to establish a department philosophy. To get them involved, I invited their input. It started out with very little speaking, but eventually, there was buy-in and our department philosophy emerged.

Develop students to effectively communicate and analyze with reading & writing so they are successful as lifelong learners.

Creating norms for conduct during meetings

Upon completing our philosophy, I pushed my colleagues a little further in our next meeting by having them discuss and create meeting norms. I wanted to create norms because our meetings tend to turn into complaining sessions about students. Some teachers decide to have side conversations and grade papers. By creating norms, I could refer back to them if anyone decided to get off track or disengage.

The department wasn’t thrilled about doing norms, and one colleague even pushed back saying they didn’t have the brain capacity to think about doing norms.

When I heard this, I thought about another book that is a great professional read: Shifting the Monkey: The Art of Protecting Good People From Liars, Criers, and Other Slackers by Todd Whitaker. In this book about school leadership and teacher performance, Whitaker includes some discussion about employees who will try to shift work onto others. In this case, my colleague’s comment was their way of shifting the workload onto the rest of the group.

I decided to wait until I received the appropriate feedback even if it took all of our meeting. I chose to wait because I knew this particular colleague would at some point not abide by the norms and when the opportunity came, I would point them to the list the other members of our department had agreed to.

Here are the norms we came up with. They are pretty simple:

  1. Show up on time
  2. Follow agenda
  3. Stay on topic
  4. No disruptions (phones, side conversations, grading papers)
  5. Ask questions
  6. Value each other’s input
  7. No negative criticism
  8. Help propose solutions to problems that arise
  9. Respect confidentiality
  10. Smile
Defensive pushback

It didn’t even take one full marking period before the pushback began.

Our most recent meeting included a conversation about vocabulary instruction. This has always been a topic our department has struggled with. How do we best reach students? From grades K-12, teachers are challenged to find ways to help students retain vocabulary and understand why word study is important.

As our discussion progressed, I made a motion to adopt an instructional strategy that would have teachers revolve their vocabulary instruction around prefixes and suffixes. When I made the motion, it was brought to my attention by two colleagues that they were already using this strategy in their classrooms.

To make sure this critical conversation wasn’t going to head south, I asked my fellow teachers to help me understand how they were doing it in their classroom. It was at this time I was told that a computer program they use (MobyMax) teaches students about the concepts of prefixes and suffixes. I replied by saying that, as a department, we cannot rely on software to teach our students key content. Furthermore, MobyMax is supposed to be used to fill academic gaps revealed through formative assessment, not as a general teaching tool.

Well, that lit the pushback fuse and my colleague blew up and said they do teach the content and they use the program as a supplemental activity. After discussing it further, it was evident students were spending over two hours a week on this program and it wasn’t simply “supplementary” for students who need something extra. I raised that point, but my colleague wasn’t going to budge on their position.

We have an obligation to improve our craft

So, why was there such pushback? Was it a lack of understanding of how to teach vocabulary?

I want to help teachers or work with them to engage as many students as possible. I am always willing to listen and to find common ground on how to reach students. Teachers need to work together in my opinion, especially in our department. We need to take norms 5-8 to heart.

My comment was not intended to call out anyone or come across as negative criticism. It was really an effort to clarify what we mean by “supplementary.” However, I also want our department to be the best it can be for our students. Right now, we have work to do in several areas, vocabulary being one of them.

As educators, we should always be thinking about what we can do to get better at our craft. Teaching is hard work. I will never argue that point. Educators value their summers and their spare time, but just as with any profession, we need to reflect on what we do well and what we need to do better and spend some time in professional study and practice. Lawyers do it, health professionals do it, accountants and engineers do it. So should we.

How do others handle difficult but crucial conversations with their colleagues who don’t want to work hard to get better? I would very much like to hear your ideas.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

4 Responses

  1. Jeff says:

    I think the fact that you were willing to publicly call out your co-workers for their effort should give you a hint as to why you might not have been able build the trust required for an effective team.

    Creating a cohesive PLC is about a lot more than just designing protocols and a team philosophy, it’s about building relationships and a sense of community. I think you’re going to have a hard time making any kinds of fundamental changes in your department without understanding this.

    • Curtis Chandler says:

      While I agree that relationships are foundational to PLC’s, having an expectation of honesty about what really goes on in our classrooms is not the same as ‘calling someone out.’ In Sparks and Many’s (2015) book, ‘How to cultivate collaboration in a PLC,’ the authors write that…”the team leader approaches and confronts difficult conversations when necessary” (p. 40). I am grateful for colleagues and teacher-leaders who have challenged me to be better, shared ideas and resources, and spoken candidly/directly when necessary.

  2. Harris says:

    I find the headline misleading and sensational. The fact of the matter is that you have colleagues with whom you find it difficult to build rapport and reluctant to change their culture.
    I am also a teacher and my colleagues are constantly striving to find ways to become better. I live in a neighborhood with several teachers who teach in various environments and a myriad of grade levels. All of them are striving to become better at their profession even as resources are doing the lean and they are under constant pressure to perform.
    Instead of engaging in this very public criticism of your colleagues, it might behoove you to find the source of their reluctance. Perhaps they are burnt burnt out, perhaps they find the methodology problematic. At any rate you will not find success until you know exactly why your colleagues are resistant.

    • MiddleWeb says:

      Headlines are written by the editors. This headline accurately reflects what Jeremy Hyler says: “What I can’t wrap my brain around is why, generally, many educational professionals do not feel any urgency to improve or hone their craft. It perplexes me daily.”

      Perhaps we should have put the headline in quotes, but it’s a paraphrase, really. We posted Jeremy’s piece (he’s a regular blogger) not because we necessarily agree with all he says, but because it’s a topic deserving discussion. Thank you for contributing by adding perspective from your own experience.

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