A few years ago, I had just started working with a new school. On my first day in the building, I asked the principal Mr. Dawes to take me on a walkthrough so that I could see the range of teaching happening in the building. Mr. Dawes took me to several classrooms and then I asked him to take me to the classroom of whom he considered his worst teacher.
He immediately took me to Ms. Marshall’s classroom. We stayed about 10 minutes and when we left, I was confused.
“She’s your worst teacher?” I asked incredulously as we walked back to Mr. Dawes’s office.
“Ugh! She’s a nightmare,” he moaned as he rubbed his temples. “She won’t accept feedback on her teaching, she thinks she knows everything, and nobody wants to work with her because she just bullies her team mates and refuses to collaborate on anything.”
“But Mr. Dawes, she is instructionally sound,” I countered. “The class we saw wasn’t bad at all. The students were learning.”
“I know that but I would rather take a teacher that I can work with and who is willing to learn than one who is competent but completely wrecks my culture.”
We entered his office and he sat down behind his desk. I took the seat across from him before pressing my case.
“But, she’s a good teacher and with a little help, she could be a master teacher.”
Mr. Dawes looked at me for a moment and then reached for the phone and dialed his Instructional Coach. “Andrea, would you come in here for a second?”
A minute later, Andrea walked into the office. Mr. Dawes gestured for her to sit next to me and then said, “Andrea, tell Dr. Jackson about all the ways that we have tried to help Ms. Marshall become a – he used air quotes – ‘master teacher.’”
Andrea rolled her eyes. “Ughh. We have tried everything.” She began to tick off the list on her fingers, “We have given her a coach, we’ve changed her team three times in the last two years, we moved her to a new grade level, we have given her warnings, we have tried talking to her and she just argues with us, we have observed her class and given her feedback (which she ignores), we have sent her to workshops over the summer, we even gave her to one of your books. Nothing’s worked.”
“Are you sure that nothing’s worked? You don’t see even a small improvement in her instruction?”
Andrea thought for a moment. “I mean, sure, I see some improvement. She isn’t a bad teacher but she won’t listen to us and she argues with us all the time. Plus, she’s a pain to work with.”
Mr. Dawes chimed in, “I met with her last year and told her that I thought she should look for a job elsewhere.”
“Wow,” I was a little surprised at his frankness. “What was her reaction?”
“She cried and then went right on back to being the same way she was and she’s still here.” He shook his head.
“I don’t want you to think that we are bullies,” Andrea added quickly. “I was at that conversation and Mr. Dawes simply told her that he didn’t think that she was happy here and so maybe she should consider finding a place where she could be happy. He offered to help her.”
Mr. Dawes leaned back in his chair. “She’s unwilling to learn,” he declared. “And if somebody is unwilling to get better, then they don’t belong in this building.”
I sat there for a moment thinking.
“Surely there is something we can do to help her,” I mused aloud.
Mr. Dawes shook his head and laughed. “Some people you just can’t help, especially if they don’t want the help.”
“You would never let a teacher say that about a kid,” I countered.
Mr. Dawes frowned. “No I wouldn’t,” he agreed. But we’re not talking about kids here. We’re talking about an adult who had choices and options. This is a job and if she is unwilling to do the job, then she needs to go.”
“But she is willing to do the job. She’s still here.”
“Just cuz she’s here doesn’t mean that she’s doing the job,” he countered.
“What’s she not doing?”
He rolled his eyes. “I just told you. She doesn’t listen.”
“So let me see if I understand,” I started. “You’ve tried to help her by giving her better training, giving her better feedback, and changing her team and grade level.”
They both nodded.
“Well it seems to me that those things are all designed to improve her skill but skill isn’t her problem. Will is.”
“Do you think you can change her will?” I asked.
“You can’t change somebody’s will,” Mr. Dawes shook his head. “Either they want to get better or they don’t.”
“I’ve tried talking to her” Andrea chimed in. “She won’t listen. How can you help somebody who won’t listen?”
I spent a few moments explaining will drivers to Mr. Dawes and Andrea but they weren’t having it. They were adamant that this teacher couldn’t change and she just needed to be gone.
A Different Approach
Finally, I gave up trying to convince them and asked, “Is there anyone here on your staff who might be willing to work with Ms. Marshall?”
They looked at each other for a moment. Mr. Dawes shrugged but Andrea tilted her head slightly. “Well maybe Sandra might work with her,” she suggested slowly.
“Who’s Sandra?” I asked.
“She’s the instructional coach. She’s only been here about a month so she hasn’t had a chance to get to know Ms. Marshall yet,” Andrea explained.
Mr. Dawes picked up some papers on his desk and moved toward the door. “Look, I really don’t care what you do but I can tell you this: You are wasting your time.” He reached out and shook my hand. “I’ve got to get to a parent meeting,” he said apologetically and then headed out of the office.
Andrea took me down the hall to meet Sandra. After quickly introducing us, she left us alone to chat. I explained that I wanted to work on improving Ms. Marshall’s motivation and receptiveness to advice and support by tapping into and feeding her will driver. Sandra listened carefully and readily agreed to the plan.
I suspected that Ms. Marshall’s will driver was Connection/Belonging and so I suggested different ways Sandra could feed that will driver over the next month. Sandra was a little nervous because this was a new approach for her, but she gamely agreed to try.
That month, Sandra poured into Ms. Marshall. She stopped by her classroom regularly and established a collegial relationship with her. She made sure to acknowledge what she was doing well in her classroom and she offered genuine concern and support when she shared feedback that was negative.
“I kinda see it like this,” Sandra explained on my next visit. “She has an emotional bank account so I try to make at least two deposits for every one withdrawal.”
Over the next few months, the change in Ms. Marshall was subtle but dramatic nevertheless. For one, she stopped bullying the other teachers. She didn’t become friendly necessarily, but she stopped talking over them during team meetings and she stopped calling their ideas “ridiculous” while insisting that the team adopt her way of doing things. She started to listen more and even agreed to try a few strategies suggested by others.
She also become more receptive to feedback. Sure, there were still times when she wasn’t pleased with the feedback, but she stopped arguing during those conversations and would agree to at least try to implement some of the suggestions. Sandra knew that she had made real progress when Ms. Marshall actually invited her to her classroom one day.
At the end of the year, Ms. Marshall did not seek a job elsewhere in spite of the strong encouragement to do so from Mr. Dawes. Since he couldn’t evaluate her out, he was forced to concede that she would indeed be returning next year. But to his surprise, when he met individually with members of her team to get their feedback and discuss their assignments for next year, none of them complained about Ms. Marshall. They actually said that although the year had gotten off to a rocky start, things had smoothed out and they didn’t mind working with her.
Over the summer, Mr. Dawes got another surprise. The state test scores came in and he noticed that Ms. Marshall’s students had some of the highest scores in the school. In fact, her class as a whole had made huge strides from last year.
Grudgingly, he acknowledged that she had improved as a teacher. So, he called her at home to congratulate her on her progress. When Ms. Marshall answered the phone and he announced who he was, he immediately sensed her hesitation. He quickly told her why he was calling and congratulated her on her progress. “You know, I was wrong about you,” he admitted.
Ms. Marshall was silent for a few moments and then he heard her sob. He felt horrible. “Thank you,” she whispered brokenly.
Ashamed at how he had written her off, Mr. Dawes hung up the phone and called me.
“I didn’t believe you,” he admitted.
“I know,” I replied. “And to be totally honest, it could have gone either way.”
“But that’s the thing. I didn’t give her a chance. I just wrote her off.”
“Yeah, but it’s not totally your fault,” I replied. “It’s the way we were all trained. But if you can overcome that training and if you can treat the teachers you lead like you expect them to treat the students they serve, you can help even your most difficult teacher choose a better path.”
The way we’ve typically been trained can often lead us to write off a difficult teacher who resists our feedback as simply “unmotivated.” We resort to heavy-handed measures because we have been taught that’s the only way to deal with a teacher who is unwilling or unreceptive.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can reach even your most difficult teachers and help them become motivated, energized, and re-engaged in their own professional growth and improvement when you feed teachers’ will drivers. The key is to understand their dominant will driver and specifically target that will driver in the way you give them feedback and support. Do that and you can motivate resistant teachers to change their behavior, to be receptive to your feedback, take ownership over their practice, and become better teachers.
I’ll go in depth on how to do this at our Builder’s Lab. If you’d like to learn how to identify a teacher’s will driver and how to use their dominant will driver to motivate them, then join us at the next Builder’s Lab.