The Greatest Barrier for Educators Changing Their Practice? Internal...

Education Research

The Greatest Barrier for Educators Changing Their Practice? Internal Resistance

By Rachel Burstein     May 20, 2019

The Greatest Barrier for Educators Changing Their Practice? Internal Resistance

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

NyRee Clayton-Taylor, a creative writing teacher at Wheatley Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., feels lucky that her school’s administration supports her use of hip-hop in the classroom, but she says it wasn’t always that way.

“When I first started 19 years ago, I did encounter some backlash; some principals didn’t like it.” Clayton-Taylor recalls one principal who asked her to take down a display she had set up with posters featuring hip-hop artists that were designed to motivate her students. The display also featured the covers of hip-hop books and poetry that related to academic subjects her students were learning. Undaunted by her principal’s request to remove the posters, Clayton-Taylor left them up and invited the principal into her classroom to observe her lessons. “When he saw what I was doing with it, he understood that I was teaching the standards."

Despite early push-back, Clayton-Taylor found success with her approach, saw her students thrive and continued using hip-hop in her teaching. Others have taken notice of her work. In fact, Clayton-Taylor has received widespread recognition for her teaching and was selected as the 2019 Kentucky Elementary Teacher of the Year. But the problem of opposition—whether from colleagues, school or district leaders, parents or other members of the community—is familiar to many educators who seek to adopt new approaches and practices.

Over the past year, the EdSurge Research team has been working on a project to understand how educators are shifting their practices to reach all learners. For this project, we convened and facilitated Teaching and Learning Circles—local educator gatherings—in 22 cities around the country; published 60 stories of change by both practitioners and reporters; and surveyed and interviewed hundreds of educators about their experiences. (Learn more about this EdSurge Research project.)

Across all of these activities, educators highlighted internal resistance as a significant barrier to adopting new practices. The silver lining? Like Clayton-Taylor, many educators also reported that they’ve found effective strategies for diluting or overcoming resistance.

Challenges and Frustrations Encountered by Teachers

From fall 2018 through spring 2019, the EdSurge Research team conducted a survey of 115 educators who registered for Teaching and Learning Circles in locations around the country. When we asked educators to rank problems and frustrations that they had encountered, “resistance from colleagues, school/district leadership or parents,” was most frequently ranked as most acute (Figure 1). Over half of the respondents ranked internal resistance as the first or second most acute challenge, surpassing any other challenge or frustration, including lack of human or material resources.

EdSurge Research

Strategies for Addressing Internal Resistance

The problem of internal resistance is clearly very real. So what can educators do about it? We asked our survey respondents to identify one or two strategies they’ve used to address the challenge they identified as most acute. When we categorized the strategies, we found that respondents often used similar approaches to addressing resistance, even though the source of that resistance varied (Figure 2).

EdSurge Research

The Importance of Relationships, Communication and Cooperation

Most of the strategies educators shared that help them overcome resistance are premised on the importance of developing trusting relationships—whether to bolster collaboration, distribute leadership or to gain buy-in by providing evidence that something works. (The one exception is the small group of respondents who indicated that they pursued external professional development opportunities in order to circumvent resistance that they received from within their learning community.)

The following quotations from survey respondents demonstrate how each approach relies on building trust, even when relationship-building is not the explicit strategy:

  • Relationship-building: “I have a difficult colleague [who] is very resistant to any sort of change. I have worked to try and present any sort of new information in a way that speaks to this person individually—rephrasing, working on giving appropriate think time, etc.”
  • Professional development: “We have tried to offer multiple avenues for teachers to pursue PD and help faculty and families learn about the value of new initiatives and approaches we're trying to implement.”
  • Modeling and shared leadership: “When I get resistance from colleagues and leadership to participate or try something with me, I go ahead and try it myself. Usually when others see the effectiveness of a strategy, they want to try it themselves.”
  • Evidence of efficacy: “I also schedule numerous one on one meetings with my administrators to attempt to give evidence to support my ideas and perspectives.”
  • Starting small: “Working in small steps, introducing new ideas through experiences like small faculty meeting activities.”

Of course, overcoming resistance is easier said than done. And it takes more than positive relationships and strong communication to overcome it. We asked survey respondents who cited resistance as the most acute challenge to identify resources they wish they had to respond to that challenge. Among the most common responses were opportunities to work collaboratively and share strategies with other educators and support staff, and more time for planning.

Most educators whom we surveyed are keen to overcome resistance through collaboration and sharing, but how the collaboration and sharing take shape will inevitably vary in different cases. For NyRee Clayton-Taylor, it meant bringing the principal into her classroom to see the impact of her teaching practice in person.

In Teaching and Learning Circles, we heard stories of how providing faculty and staff time to plan lessons and projects across academic subjects and roles could help overcome resistance. Whatever form collaboration and sharing takes, it can be an effective way of overcoming a challenge that is deeply familiar—and frustrating—to educators who are seeking to make change.

Want to learn more about this research project? Visit our project page and download our report:

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Stories of Change: Educators Shift Practices to Reach All Learners

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