We all have times in our careers where progress gets interrupted by something. A few months ago I was experiencing this and took the stance that I had hit a wall. A conversation with Eric Sheninger changed my perspective, when he simply stated, “I hit speed bumps, not walls.”
I have spent the last few months reflecting on this idea off and on, and I think there is more wisdom in these words than you might recognize at first.
Walls are designed to keep things in or to keep things out whereas speed bumps are designed to slow us down and make us pay attention to what is going on around us.
When you are trying to change paradigms and move an organization forward I think it easy to start seeing things as walls. The last few months I have started to shift my focus more towards seeing things as speed bumps. This has helped me realize those “walls” are really just slowing me down, not halting my progress, and that sometimes going slower is not always a bad thing. Additionally, by paying more attention to those around me I have been able to realize there are a lot of people struggling with what I call risk-averse behavior.
In my experience, risk typically manifests in three types of teachers in the school setting. These types are (1) Risk-Averse (2) Risk-Neutral (3) Risk-Ready. Each type of teacher has strengths and challenges that need to be understood for an innovative classroom environment to emerge where students are successful with practices that ensure they will contribute to our future world in a healthy way.
Teachers that are not willing or that do not know how to interact with a shift in pedagogical structure can be considered risk-averse. These teachers may not necessarily have negative intentions or insubordinate behavior from the onset, however, their individual cognitive development may not allow them to process change in the same manner risk-neutral or risk-ready teachers are capable. School leaders should proceed with caution when interacting with risk-averse teachers because these teachers can become risk-ready with appropriate coaching and support, sometimes becoming the biggest advocates for school change and growth in the school culture.
Risk-averse teachers typically exhibit the following behaviors:
* Do not volunteer for activities
* Do not attend meetings that are not mandatory
* Maintain “traditions” that have been in place over time
* Allow others to speak before or for them
* Only engage in conversation when sought out
* Work to stay under the radar
* Can become negative if pushed too far/ fast
Risk-neutral teachers can become the most dangerous group for school cultures during change. The reason for this is because of this groups ability to exhibit a sense of agreement with either risk-averse or risk-ready teachers creating a conflicting environment where confusion becomes the predominant experience students receive in the classroom. These teachers exhibit behaviors that suggest they do not care what pedagogical shifts occur in a building and often declare agreement with whichever group they are interacting with at any given time.
Risk-neutral teachers typically exhibit these types of behaviors:
* Everyone is right if they are around
* Do not respond to change as good or bad
* Can give power to those in favor of or against change
* Do not have a handle on best practices
* Will say “yes” if everyone else is
Risk-ready teachers are typically those teachers that are engaged in changes to pedagogical practices from the first day. These teachers are usually very innovative and eager to please leadership. This group has to be supported but care must also be taken in cultivating their abilities for risk of burnout or moving too fast with initiatives. Appropriate training and ensuring that balance between excitement and effective implementation is important for leadership to monitor with this group of teachers.
Risk-ready teachers typically exhibit these types of behaviors:
* Jump into new initiatives head first
* Put in extra time without being asked
* Volunteer for everything
* Use personal time for work
* Implement initiatives on top of initiatives
* Have an easy time saying “yes” and a hard time saying “no”
* Establish new “traditions” for the school culture
Schools need to change. Understanding that the multitude of changes that have occurred in public education over the last forty years have created an environment where most schools face a fear of risk, school leaders must act to empower those in their buildings. Creating environments for teachers that allow them to take risks and learn from mistakes will inevitably create a school culture where adults know the value in risk taking behavior. Once the confidence of the adults in a building is renewed in their profession and ability, the learning that can occur in classrooms will grow exponentially. Whether teachers are currently risk-averse, risk-neutral, or risk-ready, the school leader is the key to unlocking their potential.