Teachers trying to drive change while staying sane need to recognize the best ways to effect improvements.
For Administrators

Change the World, Save Your Sanity: 5 Quick Tips for Teachers

By Brian Gatens April 11, 2016

My guess is you want to change the world for the better.

Teachers trying to drive change while staying sane need to recognize the best ways to effect improvements.I know this because I’ve almost never met a dedicated, hard-working teacher who wants things to remain as they are. Instead, they see problems and think of solutions. While this attitude has helped our schools progressively improve over the years, it takes its toll over the course of a teaching career.

Can you change the world without burning yourself out? I think you can, if you pay attention to a few key points:

Accurately define the problem

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t understand its root causes. Take student misbehavior, for example. We can’t assume a child who makes poor choices is simply a bad kid. We have to dig deeper to understand the underlying home situation.

Most of the time, strife and difficulty at home have a compounding effect on the child. This also applies to bigger and more complex problems. The more formal name for misdiagnosing this kind of problem is “fundamental attribution error,” which social scientists generally define as blaming person’s individual character while ignoring other potential causes of their behavior, especially environmental factors.

Fortunately, you can guard against this kind of error. When you think you’ve identified the cause of a problem, ask other people to argue against your conclusion. This forces you to look at the challenge from multiple perspectives.

If you think you’ve found an easy answer to a complex, deep-set problem, most likely the answer is too simplistic. Avoid the quick answer.

Expect to fail along the way

Every solved problem follows a whole slate of attempts that failed. Don’t get caught in the trap of waiting until you’re “ready” to begin. Instead, begin to make small attempts to solve problems, and make changes along the way.

Failure isn’t fatal here, provided you don’t make grand and extravagant, but unrealistic, promises. The public will respect a desire to solve a problem provided that trust isn’t broken, and that people are working in good faith.

Find solutions in other places

A wise friend of mine says, “If it has a name, then someone else has had to address it.” With all of the work being done by our colleagues, rare is the problem that hasn’t been successfully addressed by someone else.

Do your research and see what other teachers and schools do to bring about positive change. The solution might be complex and difficult to obtain, but that doesn’t mean you can’t begin to address it.

The first step is to share the solution with as many people as possible, including those who can free up resources. A tremendous amount of time and resources are spent researching and devising solutions to all types of problems, and you can certainly get the ball rolling.

Recruit others to help

There is no need for you to go it alone. Sharing your concerns and a desire for a solution with your colleagues is a great way to recruit them to join with you. It may sound trite, but a group moving in the right direction and focused on a common solution will get to an answer a lot sooner than someone working solo.

Approach an administrator and see if the group’s work can become a formal school improvement initiative, and perhaps dedicated time can be set aside to meet and address the issue. You can link this work with other district committees and possibly devise broader solutions to a whole set of problems.

Take the long view

Never forget that deep-set problems take a long time to address. It’s unreasonable to expect immediate change and success. Look for data points, no matter how small, that show consistent improvement over time, and remember that long, slow change is much more “sticky” than the stuff that looks quick and easy.

There’s no need to think a problem that can’t be solved in a year is unsolvable. Give time and stay focused on the process that leads to an effective, long-term solution.

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