In our last article, How to Have Difficult Conversations with Teachers, we explored some areas school leaders may want to consider when coaching teachers and staff members for improvement. We received several emails on the topic and the response to our free resource How to Open a Can of Worms: A School Leader’s Guide to Having Difficult Conversations with Teachers encouraged us to spend a little more time on this topic.
Traditional Approaches Regarding How to Change Behaviors of Struggling Teachers
The ultimate goal when coaching teachers related to job performance is performance improvement. This begs the question; if the goal and expected result of coaching teachers and staff members is performance improvement, how can school leaders actually change behaviors of struggling teachers? Useful articles on how to coach struggling teachers can be found easily, but actually changing behaviors can be a little more difficult.
Traditional approaches to changing behaviors rely on sticks and carrots. Policies and guidelines can help keep teachers accountable to expected work behaviors, while failure to adhere to expectations can result in the metaphoric stick through documented write ups, decision making days (a short period of administrative leave), or possibly employment termination.
The advent of PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) attempts to encourage students to choose expected behaviors through a system of rewards and recognition, e.g. carrots. A similar approach can be effective at some level for teachers. Understandably there are groups of leaders who have a hard time passing out carrots to people for simply doing their job at the expected level. Many leaders would rather save rewards for top performers who exceed expectations. The approach discussed below is less about giving rewards and more about how school leaders may be able to help shape the way struggling teachers see themselves and their work in efforts to improve performance. So, how does one go about changing behaviors of struggling teachers?
Criticize to Change Behaviors of Struggling Teachers?
Amy Sutherland is an author who studied animal trainers. She wrote a book titled What Shamu Taught Me about Life, Love, and Marriage. Sutherland watched as trainers taught dolphins to wave on command. She learned the methods used to get seals to pass objects back and forth, and enormous wales to jump through hoops. One day as she watched the interactions between a trainer and a killer whale- leader and subordinate, she made an observation. In her book Amy wrote, “Shamu didn’t learn to jump through a hoop because her trainer was bitching at her.” Sutherland’s observation caused her to reevaluate how she tried to shape the behaviors of those in her personal and professional life. She concluded positive reinforcement was most effective and constant nagging and criticism were highly ineffective means to change behavior.
Understanding more about the person (or in her case the animal) and what can cause that subject to ultimately achieve the goal was far more effective. Her evaluation regarding ineffective feedback and how leaders should provide feedback to subordinates is supported in management literature.
(If you would like to read more about the behavioral change and training methods used at Sea World read more here. This is not to say that people can be trained just like animals, but there are some valuable insights here that should be considered in shaping behavior).
In a recent article found in the Harvard Business Review titled When You Criticize Someone, You Make it Harder for that Person to Change, author Daniel Goleman cited research that found critical comments restricts the receiver’s ability to remain open-minded and causes the human brain to shift into a defense mode. Neurological studies on this topic can explain this a little better. Criticism arouses the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and has the effect of limiting thought and focusing neural circuits on the object of fear or the object to be avoided. The SNS is a stress response and causes cortisol to be secreted into the bloodstream. This fixation blocks out other neural circuits or thoughts related to accepting additional feedback and learning (Sapolsky, 2004; Boyatizis and McKee, 2005).
So does this mean school leaders should never share negative feedback in efforts to change behavior? Not at all.
In the book How to Open a Can of Worms, I discussed the S.T.A.T.E. method of having difficult conversations and the need to share facts about undesired behavior or areas of improvement. What the research above is saying is leaders should not solely fixate on what is wrong. There has to be a path for improvement or a way to arouse feelings of change, possibility, or hope. Returning to negative comments or simply nagging those we want to change will not likely return the goal of improved performance.
What Type of Performance Feedback Will Struggling Teachers Accept?
Asking what type of feedback people prefer and which type of feedback employees will actually listen and respond to may be one way to explore a better way to improve teacher performance. However, many would consider research findings in this area somewhat surprising.
It turns out people are very selective when receiving feedback. People prefer social contexts that confirm the way they feel about themselves. One would think this would only be true regarding a person’s search for positive feedback, but that is not what studies have found. Swan and Read (1981) found people relentlessly tried to confirm self-views, even negative self-views and even when they had reason to believe it would make them depressed. In the same study, researchers found people were more attentive and had more confidence in feedback that confirmed self-views, and were more likely to ignore or forget feedback that was contrary to the way they saw themselves.
Self-views become more permanent over time. Swan and Ely (1984) found as people become more certain of their self-conceptions, they are more likely to rely on those conceptions to organize their experiences, predict future events, and shape behavior. The researchers concluded the more certain people are of their self-concepts the more motivated they will be to defend them against threats (others who try to get them to see themselves differently).
The practical implication here seems fairly clear. Teacher onboarding programs and initial training and development efforts are critical. New teachers need to feel confident in their abilities and have considerable self-efficacy regarding the most essential behaviors for effective teaching. The longer an individual feels ineffective and unable to make needed improvements, the more difficult it may be to convince them otherwise. The question then is how do school leaders change self-conceptions of poor performing teachers who have worked in the district for several years and help them see they have the capacity to perform well?
Use Images of Ideal Self When Dealing with How to Change Behaviors of Struggling Teachers
“Five months from now, if your classroom ran perfectly, what would that look like?”
A question such as this (or whatever behavior you are trying to change) causes the brain to react in the complete opposite way it does when we are receiving negative feedback. This question, or one framed in a similar way, helps because it arouses the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). It is believed that dreams or the image of a desired future leads to the arousal of PSNS and causes a positive emotional state in which a person is elated or aroused and is open to learning and eventual possibilities (Boyatizis and Akrivou, 2006).
So what does this have to do with changing the behaviors of struggling teachers? Research suggests people will be more open to ideas when in a positive state of mind. Therefore, school leaders may want to consider following objective negative feedback regarding performance with a brief discussion to relax the individual and immediately turn to a question like the one above. Arousing images of an ideal self and about a desired future causes positive effects on new learning and openness to new ideas and possibilities (Berlinger, 1994). Put another way, when some people are able to perceive themselves in a desired or ideal state and are provided appropriate motivation, feedback, and encouragement they may begin to modify their behaviors and habits to convey the new identity to others.
According to Swann (1987) it is possible to change a person’s self view if three conditions are met:
- A person must undergo a major reorganization in the way they view themselves
- They must be led to believe the desired behaviors are under their control
- The new behaviors must evoke desired responses from others
We will get to the second point a little further down in the article, but the third condition cannot be overlooked. Unless a person’s social surroundings, e.g. peers, friends, or loved ones, recognize a change and adjust the way they treat the person undergoing the change, behavior changes are not likely to last long. Strong peer relationships and the need for peers to recognize and provide encouragement of desired group behaviors are essential to helping teachers realize their ideal-self and creating enduring changes in behaviors.
The concept of an ideal self is defined as the individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is. In practical terms it is a personal vision or an image of what kind of person one wishes to be or what the person hopes to accomplish in life and work (Boyatizis and Akrivou, 2006). Researchers believe if leaders can arouse the images of an ideal self it can help guide thoughts, decisions, and actions that lead to more desired behaviors.
The concept of the ideal self is thought to be comprised of three constructs.
3 Components of the Ideal Self
- Image of a desired future: The image of a desired future is derived from a person’s calling or purpose. It is also influenced by a person’s values as well as their life or career stage.
- Hope: The force behind the ideal self is hope. Self-efficacy and optimism have a tremendous effect on hope. Without hope it is unlikely teachers will pursue their ideal self. (You can find out more about the importance of self-efficacy and its effect on teacher engagement in our free resource Ignite: A School Leader’s Guide to Motivating Teachers). Bandura (1997) found self-efficacy to be the cognitive mediator in the relationship between knowledge and actions. Further research found the level of a person’s efficacy predicted behavior change and persistence in achieving established goals (Kolb and Boyatizis, 1970; Bandura, 1982).
- Core Identity: A person’s core identity is the deeply seated autobiographical themes that have shaped who the person has become or what they think about themselves. This factor is the most stable of the three components. This is also the area that is likely the most difficult to influence. Core identity often affects the limiting beliefs a person has about themselves, e.g. “I don’t deserve to be valued because” (insert some deep rooted negative feeling about themselves).
So what is the practical purpose for school leaders? As principals or even superintendents try to change behaviors of struggling teachers, they should also be aware of the factors that influence one’s ideal self and ultimately their personal visions for themselves. Before school leaders use a question like, “A year from now, if you were a top candidate for teacher of the year, what would you tell newly hired teachers to help them understand how they could one day be considered for the award too?” they should also understand the factors that may be preventing struggling teachers from envisioning their ideal self.
As school leaders try to convince an entire district to adopt a shared vision and pursuit of district goals it may worthwhile to first consider if individuals feel they can accomplish smaller goals related to their own performance. Across several different studies on the concept of ideal self, hope, more than any other factor appeared to be the central force of the ideal self.
When individuals set goals, hope is a foundational component. Hope is thought to begin with positive emotions followed by an appraisal of goals and related activities. Next people tend to rely on emotional feedback from themselves, and often more importantly, from trusted individuals around them. Positive and encouraging emotional feedback is thought to spur agency, which consists of goal motivation and goal planning causing an individual to continue activities towards the goal (Boyatzis & Akrivou, 2006).
When you look closer at the dependent relationship each of these factors have on one another it appears to be more of a feedback loop, rather than a linear path to goal realization as shown in figure 1.
At this point you may be thinking, “Okay, now I know why so many leaders resort to sticks to get people to accomplish work.” Obviously it takes considerably more time to explore the factors that may be preventing individuals from performing their best. Even so, once a person understands more about the factors that affect a teacher’s perception of their ability to accomplish goals it becomes clear why many still fail, even when sticks are used.
Most research on the topic of change management or organizational change contends urgency and threat to valued resources are the most effective means in bringing about change. However, at the individual level, helping struggling teachers realize their ideal selves and working with them to adopt a shared vision can result in trust and respect forged through transformative leadership.
Leaders miss a tremendous opportunity to show compassion through leadership if they are not mindful or aware of the factors that can lead to long lasting improved change or consideration of components that could lead to lasting change in a struggling teacher’s performance.
Your Advice on How to Change Behaviors of Struggling Teachers?
This article discussed just a few aspects of how to change behaviors of struggling teachers. In the comment section below, please share successful (or unsuccessful) approaches you have used in the past to help change the behaviors of struggling teachers. Maybe you were that struggling teacher who has now become a school leader. What shifted or changed that allowed you to improve your performance? Your feedback can help other leaders who are looking for help in this area.
Bandura, A. (1982), Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, Vol. 37, pp. 122-47.
Berlinger, L. (1994), Commitment as a moderator of flexibility, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, Austin, TX.
Boyatzis, R.E. & Akrivou, K. (2006), The ideal self as the driver of intentional change. Journal of Management Development, 25, 624-642.
Boyatzis, R.E. & McKee, A. (2005), Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.
Kolb, D.A. & Boyatzis, R.E. (1970), Goal-setting and self -directed behavior change. Human Relations, Vol. 23 No. 5, pp. 439-57.
Sapolsky, R.M. (2004), Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers. 3rd ed., Harper Collins, New York, NY.
Swann, W. B., Jr. (1987). Identity negotiation: Where two roads meet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 1038-1051
Swann, W. B., Jr., & Ely, R. J. (1984). A battle of wills: Self-verification versus behavioral confirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 1287-1302.
Swann, W. B., Jr., & Pelham, B. W. (1987). The social construction of identity: Self-verification through friend and intimate selection. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Swann, W. B., Jr., & Read, S. J. ( 1981). Acquiring self-knowledge: The search for feedback that fits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 1119-1128.