Steven Farr on How To Induce Adult Change

I had a check-up yesterday. Doc asked if I exercise. Not much. Play b-ball once or twice a week.

Got home. I said "Pru, I need to exercise more." She said, "Great how can I help? What might a schedule look like?"

And then I came up with a million excuses. You know. Work is super-busy. The kids. Etc. Pay no attention to the fact that we have an exercise bike and live 4 blocks from a nice outdoor track. I just whined and then changed the subject.

Adult change is hard.

Steven Farr is a tall Texan who serves as the Chief Knowledge Officer of Teach For America. (Boston readers: He is speaking next Tuesday evening at the Boston U School of Ed, and the dean says everyone is welcome).

Last year I blogged about Steve's work here

He is one of the taller guys in education reform. (He also has a funny story about not celebrating Valentine's Day. I asked Pru if I could have the same deal as Steve. She said no).

My question for Mr. Farr:

Tons of TFA supervisors and charter school administrators say: I have 3 buckets of teachers...

Bucket 1: Reluctant to take feedback. As a coach/supervisor, I try to charm them and win trust, then flip them up to Bucket 2.

Bucket 2: Engaged but Plateaued Teachers who are excited to see me, take lots of notes, say "oh, great idea" -- and then it only dawns on me 6 months later that very little BIG change is happening. Just stuff at the margins

Bucket 3: Big Changers My unscientific sample of about a dozen TFA current or former PDs, and maybe 20 charter people, is that most of our world is in Bucket 2. If true, that means teacher coaching may have low R.O.I.

So my question: How do you create big shift in a Bucket 2 teacher?

Steve replied:

In diagnosing what’s holding the person back, based on my experience there are (three) common issues.

Issue #1 A fair number of the Bucket-2 types I talk to fall into this general description: They have displaced the definition of “great” with the definition of “good.” They have bought into the debilitating “better than the alternative” definition of great that too often permeates our schools. (“Wow, you got THOSE kids to generally do what you say? You’re a genius.”) They have become complacent.

In MTR, we lock in on the same thing. We have a "thermometer" that measures "Commitment to Excellence." You know what's at the bottom of the thermometer, what is the opposite of pursuing excellence? "Commitment to Good."

Nobody thinks they're Committed to Crappy.

Steve continues:

What they need is not skill building, but fire-stoking. This profile is someone who would still SAY they have the outrage (about social injustice) they had when they started, but their actions don’t really show it.

For these people we need to give them experiences that shake their assumptions and remind them of the problem. They probably love their kids. These teaches need an “excellent school visit” to go watch some truly highly performing 8th graders and get a sense of just how far behind theirs are. They need to see a teacher really putting kids on a different path. They need to re-engage with the awful realities of the problem that they want to solve.

There's a nuance in Steve's reply that I need to think about. He says "give them experiences." One experience he describes is "seeing excellence." The other is considering awful realities (Lee Canter says this, too: "Do you realize if you don't reach the kid, he has a good chance of ending up on the street?"

I'm not sure about the latter one. At some point, I think each individual teacher reaches equilibrium on the social justice motivation. Don't know how much extra juice you can squeeze from that orange. At least, in my limited experience, I rarely see this "work" once a teacher has reached "plateau."

Seeing excellence I sort of buy. I've definitely heard from our teachers over the years -- they may come back fired up about seeing a strong teacher in another school. But I also question "seeing it" as a key driver. It's very easy for a solid but unchanging teacher to explain away why a different teacher may be having more success. So I'm going to keep this puzzle "open."

Steve continues:

Issue #2 Another group (though these people tend to be sliding back toward Bucket 1) are those that have truly lost their high expectations. For understandable reasons, that sense-of-possibility has been beaten out of them. It’s not that they’ve water-down the definition of success, but rather it’s that they no longer think success is possible.

This is a more delicate situation. This person needs to see success, but not all at once. This person needs to see teachers and kids grow. This teacher needs a coach with whom he/she has a really strong relationship to reflect deeply and explicitly about their kids, the challenges, and their potential. I want to see and celebrate small successes while simultaneously getting this person an AA-like support group of successful teachers who can testify to having lost their conviction that success is possible AND somehow gotten it back.

I just don’t know that any of us is very good at this—and that’s a real problem.

Lots of my colleagues are thinking about this question. How do we nurture and repair mindsets that we are putting in harms way, and that sometimes get blown up by the tough realities in which we work?

Totally agree with his statement of the problem. Don't know the solution.

He continues:

Issue #3 Sometimes (though honestly I think the first of these profiles is the most common), you actually have a skill issue going on in a Bucket 2 person. There’s some weakness in the big menu of what it takes to be Bucket 3 (organization and classroom systems, backwards planning, whatever) that is serving as a destable-izer to everything else.

As you know, the fact it is a skill issues doesn’t actually make it much easier. Diagnosis is tricky because often the most superficially obvious problems in the classroom are actually 3 or 4 times removed effects of some root-cause skill problem. (I.e., planning weakness causing classroom mgt issues, for example).

And once you’ve engaged enough to have a theory of the root cause skill(s) to work on, THEN you’ve got to actually work on them. Practice, real-time feedback, video self-analysis, watching models—you want the whole toolbox available, but hopefully you know this teacher well enough to have a theory about what moves him/her most quickly.

* * * * *

I'm giving you Steve's reply out of order. He's a lawyer by training. So he analyzed my question first.

I think we’ve got to start with a parsing of “how do you create a big shift in bucket 2 people?” Being successful requires at least the following insights/judgments:

*What are bucket 3 people doing/thinking/believing. An assumption in your question is that we know the answer to that, at least with enough confidence to act on it. And that leads to: *What do bucket 3 people do differently from bucket 2 people? This gives us a sort of menu of indicators we want to move a bucket 2 person toward. *What do bucket 3 people do differently from THIS bucket 2 person? This is a diagnosis. What’s actually holding this person back from the sort of Plato’s Form of bucket 3 person that we have in our head? *And THEN, we have to ask, generally speaking, how do we change adults’ current behavior/habits to embody some set of aspiration ones? (Again, this gives us a menu against which to ask the specific question *How do we most effectively change THIS bucket 2 person’s behaviors/habits? What drives this person to excellence?

Now, marrying the answers to above (especially 3 and 5) we are able to get a diagnosis of what’s holding this person back and some theory of how to change this person’s behavior.

I delineated that sort of tortuous parsing mainly to rationalize how hard all this seems to me. It’s more than just “there’s lots of places to screw up,” but also “there are lots of tough judgment calls where we have to act on our best informed theory.”

The haziness in those multiple, interrelated judgments can sort of compound on each other. This is the hard, hard stuff of our work.

I should confess that I remember clearly a naïve phase of our work on the Teaching As Leadership framework, when I was thinking “If we can just articulate what great involves, we win!” Nope. Figuring out the WHAT is hard—and never done.

Meanwhile, figuring out the HOW (to change adult behaviors to embody it) might be harder. (This is the frontier of a bunch of my colleagues work (Jeff Wetzler, Andrew Mandel, Annie Lewis, and others). They have hard-earned views on all of this, but I know would be the first to say we have a lot more to learn.)

So, if I actually had to give an answer, I would say: You start by diagnosing both the Bucket 2 person’s strengths and weaknesses on the axes that you’ve identified as key to Bucket-3-dom.

You should take the strengths seriously. If this person is a great executive, with tight implementation and great organization, you want to ride that strength to 3-dom. We ONLY get to great when we play to our strengths (rather than just try to shore up or reverse our weaknesses).