Understanding Teachers’ Emotions while Leading Change

140625-F-UN284-185As school leaders, we accept that pedagogical change is hard for some teachers but do we really attempt to understand why? Unwanted change is difficult for everyone. As Michael Fullan points out, thousands of people are told by their doctors each day that if they don’t change their lifestyles, their lives might be at risk. Yet many are unable to implement the  modifications needed.

Those who work in business are amused and baffled by the resistance we encounter when trying to implement change in schools. The corporate approach to change-making is much more clinical and ruthless. What many fail to understand is that teaching is a deeply emotional practice.  Teachers continually tap into their emotional resources in order to support the children in their care. Teachers are special people who spend their lives, nurturing and planning for the growth of others. Their emotions are often, necessarily, closer to the surface than those of other professionals.  Teachers’ professional and personal identities are also more closely woven together than other professionals.  Their role defines not just what they do for a living but the very essence of who they are.

A few weeks ago,  I was studying the expressions of teachers as their students performed in a talent show. It is hard to describe the intensity of the pride, encouragement and sheer joy on the teachers’ faces as they hung on every note sang or played. These are people who care with every ounce of their being and work with the utmost commitment and dedication, truly believing that the practices they employ in their classrooms bring out the best in each student and help them to realise their full potential.

School leaders understand  the need to continually push forwards in schools, to meet the changing needs of our students and many teachers strive to continuously bring innovative approaches into their classroom. However, for some, when administrators or colleagues suggest that there may be a better way to do things, this is seen as a criticism of a teacher’s professional practice but, worse still, l it can be interpreted as an attack on teachers’ personal identity, their true self.

I try to view the positive emotions that teachers channel in support of their students’ growth and the negative emotions some exhibit during the change process as two sides of the same coin. It is unrealistic to expect that all teachers can turn off the emotional tap and engage in purely rational debate when it comes to discussions about their classroom practice.

In order to move pedagogy forward, school leaders need to understand the emotional landscape of their schools and  value teachers’ emotions as a resource, rather than viewing them as a barrier to change. No matter how good we are at formulating a vision and setting out a plan for change, only teachers can implement these changes in the classroom. To avoid teachers paying only lip service to the change process then reverting to what they know best, we need to tap into what motivates each individual  and ensure that change is a positive experience for them, drawing not their deep knowledge and providing structures for support and inspiration. Regardless of how time consuming and exhausting this may be, it is the only guaranteed route to success.

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