We Don’t Love These Holes: Embracing and Overcoming Resistance

We’d just ended our Title I Annual Meeting and as the parents began filing out of the cafeteria I saw one parent approaching me and smiling. I knew her well from afternoon dismissal. Her daughter was one of our best 5th grade students and I’d recently remarked to her mother that her daughter’s report card grades and MAP scores were impressive. Both of them beamed with pride and a bit of surprise at knowing that the principal was checking up on her progress and performance. On this evening though, she had something she wanted to share with me. She started by saying, “Thank you for tonight. Now I understand the numbers and how things are calculated. I have to tell you that when you first came here, I had to get used to all of the changes. But now, after three years, I can see what you are doing. I can see you are in it for the right reasons. You are all about the kids.” I smiled and thanked her for the support and honesty. Then, with a bit of hesitation, she continued as a look of concern replaced her smile, “You know, I have to tell you, some of your own teachers were really working against you last year too. But most of them have moved on. Keep doing what you are doing. We see the difference you are making.”

The Sailboat Theory

Imagine that the school is a large sailboat traveling through choppy waters. Nearly all of the crew is on the deck shifting sails and holding on, trying to help the captain steer the ship through treacherous waters. We realize that we are in the throes of the storm and we will either survive together or sink to the depths of the foamy waters around us. Missing from this picture are a few members of the team who should be on deck helping. Instead, they are on the lower deck actively drilling holes in the ship to hasten our descent. Somehow, they fail to understand that they are working to sink the very vessel they are aboard.

Leaders in any industry have to accept the fact that there will be members of the team who have not bought into the vision or the mission of the organization. Sometimes it’s an ideological clash or personality conflict. Leadership styles vary, and as organizations change the priorities shift and the expectations for performance increase. This can create tension and factions begin to form throughout and organizations, school, or church. Efforts to undermine the work can become as extreme as folks researching your driving history in an effort to create distractions from the tasks at hand. Embracing and overcoming the resistance requires a thick skin, inner fortitude, and a healthy sense of humor.

The PowerPoint Principle

Scraping the surface to determine why folks actively work to drill holes in their own ship can lead to a number of conclusions. Many educators are married to old methods and practices that have become second-nature to them. Pushing folks beyond their comfort zone can evoke resistance. One recent example of this is what I call “The PowerPoint Principle”. PowerPoint was developed nearly 40 years ago. I enter classrooms where students are engaged in research and still learning on this program that was once a cutting edge technology. I would encourage any educator to introduce their students to the ten PowerPoint alternatives for 2019. The PowerPoint Principle is this: Never allow your skills to become outdated. You can’t build for the future with antique tools. Information is power and teachers have to remain current in order to keep up.

The Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “Choosing Strategies for Change”. in 2013 The article outlines the 3 steps for managing change successfully:

  1. Analyze the situational factors
  2. Determine the optimal speed for change
  3. Consider methods for managing resistance

The authors, Kotter & Schlesinger (2013), provide leaders with five methods to address “these holes” being drilled into our ships as leaders implementing change. The methods are education, participation, facilitation, negotiation, and coercion. In the middle of my 10th year in educational leadership, I can recall using each of these methods in some way to address resistance.

Education: The solution to stop “these holes” from being drilled may be an honest conversation about why certain initiatives are being implemented. Whether it’s from student performance or a parent survey, data tells a story and can be the impetus for a call to action. We decided last year that our uniform policy needed stricter enforcement. We started the year off on the same page. Students and parents had a clear understanding of the expectation. Recently students suggested ‘free dress days’. I knew this would’t go over well with my staff unless it was aligned to a school-wide initiative. I explained that we would only consider a ‘free dress day’ if it was in support of one of our academic initiatives. We decided that the monies raised would benefit our Urban Agriculture program. Educating the students on the convergence of our interests was a amenable resolution. Likewise, teachers understood and didn’t perceive it as a compromise on our policy but rather as a strategic student-led fundraiser in support of our collective work.

Participation: I was once told that the best leaders “run to their resisters” to participate in school-wide initiatives. Call them up onto the deck, drop the drill for a moment, and come help to lead this project. Let them share their perspective in a way that is tied to the overall mission of the school. In 2013 I worked with a team of 10 high school department chairs in Augusta. I noticed that during our department meetings a few guys were frequently disengaged from the discussion. I devised a plan to have them as part of the agenda of every meeting. One would share a success from his team, another would share a best practice, while another would facilitate a group activity.

Facilitation: We’ve been implementing Guided Reading school-wide. At times, what is perceived as resistance is linked to a knowledge gap. They may just not know how to do it effectively yet. Creating a culture where a growth mindset is conveyed by the leadership is key. “We’re not there yet, but just wait!” Facilitating peer observations and ongoing professional development can absolve the anxiety and resistance to a non-negotiable expectation.

Negotiation: In 2000, I worked for Merrill Lynch in the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan. As the trading volume increased, we were called upon to work overtime to process the high volume of trades that were being bought and sold on the New York Stock Exchange. In addition to receiving overtime pay, they provided dinner and a chauffeur driven ride home if you worked past 9 pm. Negotiating with staff can include providing incentives for peak performance such as comp time, early leave, meals, or special recognition for helping the organization meet its objectives.

Coercion: This is the most basic tool for addressing resistance. Helping team members understand that we rise and fall together. The climate of accountability in public education leans in this direction, linking performance and achievement to school ratings, career trajectories and teacher evaluations. Consistent and successful execution of expectations tied explicitly to performance reviews can effectively fill “these holes” being drilled in the ship.

Helping the crew members preoccupied with drilling either find their way up to the main deck or off of the ship is the job of the leader. The ever present sound of drilling will always be heard in the depths of a ship moving in the right direction. Responding to the sound, implementing appropriate countermeasures, and filling the holes is part of the journey of leadership. Ask any leader about resistance and they will share stories of push back, passivity, and apathy on many fronts. Those of us who lead accept it as part of the journey we love. Schools are organic spaces where things are either growing or becoming stagnant. We love seeing teachers thrive, students learning, and parents actively woven into the fabric of the school community. The work of the leader is a labor of love. Nevertheless, we don’t love these holes.

Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of The Brilliance Beneath (2016), "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and "Principals Don't Walk on Water" (2020) . His forthcoming book is "Virtually Lost" (2021).

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