Facing the fear of change for the benefit of students: Braving a change of grade level assignment

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“…in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy
The above quote from Tolstoy touches upon an almost universal truth.  Humans, more often than not, tend to look at how they can change the world without first examining how they can change themselves.  It is hard to turn the lens of critical analysis upon oneself and to embrace change as a key component to continued growth.  Humans, for the most part, tend to find their comfortable niches and stick to the routines that have proven manageable.  I say “manageable” because these routines may not always be the most effective; they simply have to suffice for the task at hand.  We get comfortable and begin, like Garth in Wayne’s World II, to “fear change”.  It would seem that the very nature of the universe is change and it is the one thing that can be counted upon time and again to strike the most fear into the hearts of humans.  Fearing change is like wearing a blindfold. It hinders you from seeing the bigger universe.  It is time we take off our blindfolds and venture forth into the world with our eyes wide open so that we may be able to help our students succeed in life. You may be asking, why I’ve developed a sudden interest in change and the natural fear that seems to go along with it. The truth is that next year I will be starting a new school and my vision is to have this school be the very essence of change. It will exist to improve student learning through the piloting of new programs and initiatives.  It will become a laboratory in which our goal is to help all students achieve mastery of their subject domains. I’ve long been, and continue to be, a supporter of using research to drive instructional and organizational decisions. However, I’ve found almost zero research for one of my initiatives that will be implemented next year. I’ve conducted research in a multitude of literature journals and educational databases from the university and I’ve still found little in the way of research.  That means that the initiative I am proposing is based upon anecdotal observations.  I propose the following: Every three to five years, teachers should change the grade level in which they teach. I know that some teachers are already pointing their slings and arrows in my direction, however I ask that, if you are one of these teachers, you hold back your attack and first listen to the reasoning behind this initiative so that you might understand why I have chosen this course of action.  Perhaps by the time you are done reading, you too may be swayed to take arms against a sea of troubles with me (Hopefully Shakespeare doesn’t mind me repurposing his words). Let me preface this next section by stating that next year every teacher at my school is experiencing some type of change (be it grade level assignment, subject matter taught, or pedagogical methodology).  The response has been overwhelmingly positive from my faculty and many are excited to be a part of this initiative. With that being said, here are my observations (and these are taken not only from schools in which I have taught but in visiting many other schools and observing their operations).

Stagnation can lead to atrophy

  As a reminder, these are all of my own anecdotal observances they are not based on any research. I have witnessed teachers who teach one grade level for many years.  By many I mean 10 +.  Some would argue that this would make the teacher an expert in that grade level and I would agree.  This is certainly a possibility, however, more often than not, I have found that teachers in this situation tend to stick to the lessons they like the most, they don’t embrace new teaching methodologies, and they genuinely have a severe lack of understanding of what other grade level teachers do throughout the year. In the process of remaining the same, they begin to whither in their effectiveness as educators.  I’ve witnessed teachers teaching lessons about butterflies, dinosaurs, family trees, etc. when these topics are not even part of the standards that are supposed to be taught to their grade levels. I’ve witnessed teachers who actively resist utilizing new technologies that have been proven by research to help improve student learning, teachers who are more happy using an overhead than actually having a student interact with the subject through using technology. In essence, teachers in this situation tend to get stuck in a feedback loop and never really develop beyond their first few years of lesson plans. The tragedy is that students suffer at the cost of keeping a teacher comfortable.

Lack of organizational understanding

  The other observation I have made is that sometimes teachers who remain within one grade level tend to become an island unto themselves. They lack a clear understanding of what other teachers do for the school and only focus upon their single room. Imagine a teacher who never understands the pressures and responsibilities that an 8th grade teacher has in helping his or her students enter high school, the responsibility of teaching sacraments in 2nd grade Catholic school, or the difficulties in planning weeklong science camps in the middle school? For some, it is difficult to develop a true respect for the roles and responsibilities of other grade levels until they have been asked to take on those responsibilities. In this regard, I seek a deeper understanding and mutual respect among fellow educators.

The god complex

  I’ve witnessed this in at least two different schools with teachers that have held a single grade level position for more than 10 years.  Sometimes teachers begin to believe that they are the best individuals for the grade level and that no one can do the job better than they can.  I’ve heard these teachers actively throw near tantrums when a change to their curriculum is introduced or when a teacher is asked to take a portion of their class to teach because the class size is too large for one teacher. I am under no misconception. I know there is always someone in the world that can do the job better than I can. My job is to do the best I can with what I am assigned. The danger is that these teachers develop such hubris that they begin to stop seeking better ways of teaching and actively derail new initiatives if they do not fit within their comfort zone. It is better to be humble than to build delusions of grandeur.

The plan

  So, what then is my plan?  As an administrator of a Catholic school I have a global view of the teaching landscape within my site.  I am not hindered by thinking of only a single classroom or grade level, yet I also lack research to support the initiative. Does that mean I should do nothing and allow 200 + children to remain in a situation that I feel is not in their best interest? I think not. So here is my plan. First of all, I need teacher buy-in.  For the most part I have it.  Any new teachers that are hired will be hired with a full understanding of this plan and that should help alleviate any anxiety about moving to another grade level (after all I will be upfront and discuss it during the hiring process).   Once I have teacher buy in, I need to develop the implementation. I do not believe that switching grades every year is helpful (unless a teacher specifically requests it).  Rather, I believe that 3-5 years allows a teacher to develop a thorough understanding of the grade level they are teaching and to have confidence with their subject matter. I also do not believe in drastic changes, such as moving an 8th grade teacher to teach Kindergarten.  It takes a special teacher to teach kindergarten and a special mindset to teach middle school. Drastic changes such as these would happen only at the request of the teacher and only with thorough analysis and review conducted by the administration. What I propose is that teachers move within roughly a 3 grade level setting.  For example teachers moving from grades 1-3 would help develop a greater understanding of the responsibilities of these grade levels in developing literacy for students.  Grades 4-5 may wish to move up or down depending on their preference. Middle school is a bit tricky. Middle school tends to be departmentalized and I do not believe in moving someone outside of his or her credentialed area of expertise. Therefore these changes would largely be between grade levels.  Most of these teachers teach grades 6-8 for their particular subject so their curriculum really doesn’t change that much.  However, changing homeroom grade levels does introduce them to the responsibilities that each grade level faces. This is truly a pilot program that I am initiating in my school next year so I will be carefully assessing its effect upon student learning.  If it proves successful, then I will continue to adapt.  If it does not, then I will adjust as necessary.  The one thing I cannot stand doing is nothing. As an administrator, it’s my duty to ensure that the students receive the best possible learning opportunities.  I know that there are teachers out there who will read this post and have an immediate negative reaction.  I also know there are some who would be excited by such an experience.   The nature of my school next year is innovation and change and if all faculty members believe in this, then I believe we can accomplish great things for our students. Perhaps Tolstoy was correct and its time we look to changing ourselves in order to help change the world. After all, Socrates believed that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  I agree. It is time we examine our practices, our lives, and start truly living in the realm of modern education. I welcome your thoughts and comments on this topic.  What has been your experience with this? Would you like to try a program like this or does it cause anxiety? I look forward to your comments. Click here to leave a comment]]>

9 thoughts on “Facing the fear of change for the benefit of students: Braving a change of grade level assignment

    • Thank you for your comment. The changes have gone very well. The initial apprehension faded and it has enabled my teachers to improve their teaching practice while encouraging a higher level of collaboration. I think its important to keep fresh and I have a hard time believing this can easily be accomplished if you’ve been the 2nd grade teacher for the last twenty years.

      • John,
        I taught in a school for 9 years where this was practiced. The philosophy was similar to what you expressed, but also it was so we could see the up/down of what we taught. Being that I was fairly rigid, change wasn’t welcomed. But I learned the reason, saw the value, and have grown to embrace change. I would love to either be a principal or start my own charter school one day, and I would employ this practice. I do like your way of creating buy-in.

  1. I guess for those of you that like to be switched you must enjoy not having free time to spend with your children and family as you relearn and recreate all your materials. It’s a massive change in workload that you will be evaluated on and not compensated for.

    • While I can certainly understand the fear of not having free time to spend with children and family as a teacher re-learns materials… it is just that: a fear. There may be sites where this is the reality… teachers who have been so steeped in one grade level that changing requires a dramatic shift that will require time and effort. But the time and effort is to help the 30+ students in the classroom. With the right support, that is, building in time, helping and communicating with teachers who have taught the grade level before… there is a chance to build communication and strengthen the practice. It is also a rather brazen statement to assume that one would be evaluated blindly on this change and not compensated for the effort. This is an older post, but I did go through with this plan. The teachers all had support, built in time to make the changes, and understanding from me (as an administrator) that I would not evaluate them harshly as they began to learn new pedagogical processes. Is this always the case? No. Are there administrators and schools that would evaluate the teachers without time, support, or compensation? I’m sure there are. But that was not the case at my site.. and we experienced growth in our teaching, communication, and student learning. Many parents and teachers who were initially worried about it came through it and felt rewarded for going through the process.

      As I stated in the post, I hope that those who are afraid will face that fear and try something new. The students deserve the great teacher that we all can be and the fear of losing time to be with our own family or children is really a support and time management issue rather than endemic to the phenomenon of changing grade levels. If we approach our teaching every year as something new and to be reflected upon that process should take the same amount of time as taking on a new grade level to teach. It is only when we become complacent in what we have always done that we risk stagnation.

      Therefore, as always, I applaud those willing to take on the challenge and hope that many more pick up the torch to march forward.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I can completely relate to what you have written. I have been teaching Year 3 for eight of the past ten years. Upon learning that I will again be assigned Year 3 next year, I decided to write a blog about this topic. No need- it is already right here written by you! I have sensed in my own teaching that I have lost my zest for educating. I feel stale and stagnated. I feel like I have been typecast as a ‘Year 3 Teacher’ rather than a ‘Teacher’. It is difficult to express these feelings to a principal who hires and fires. After all, who would want to admit to their boss that they don’t feel they are the best person for the job?! I want to be excited to teach once again. I want to do the best for my students but how can I break this cycle of apathy without the support of my administration?

  3. I guess teacher happiness counts for squat. Hey. It’s not a career choice….teaching is ONLY about kids. Dump your family. Learn new material every 3-5 years (don’t master it). I hope my eventual heart surgeon has only 3 months to learn his/her new craft after mastering urology surgeries. A surgeon is a surgeon, right?
    PS– stagnant after 3 years? Maybe lack of finding happiness is more in order….

    • Wow, a response to a blog post from four years ago! I’m glad this topic is still resonating with people, though I wish real contact information was used rather than sarcastic email addresses as was this one “happiness@consistencyforteachers.com” however, I’ll make do with what I have here.

      I’m sorry you feel that my point is that teacher happiness “counts for squat”, Johnny. However, I don’t believe I made that statement anywhere in my post. As a matter of fact I talked about the need to have teacher buy-in for this to work…. essentially making sure that the teacher were “happy” with this type of situation. Your response seems to resonate of the statement I made in the post: “The tragedy is that students suffer at the cost of keeping a teacher comfortable.”

      So I’ll address your points, 1. Teaching is NOT only about kids as you’ve stated but it has been skewed by many toward the teachers far more often than it should be. 2. No one should dump their family… we are teaching elementary school students and subject matter. Teachers should be pursuing professional development continually throughout their career thus learning new material not “every 3-5 years” but every year. My statements weren’t made to say that one cannot master a subject but how long does mastery take? Is it 3 years? 5 years? 20 years? I would argue a good teacher never masters the teaching but rather hones his or her craft and profession continually throughout a lifetime. I get it that changing a grade level is scary for some teachers every 5 years or so but it also encourages growth. Don’t forget that in the post I talk about the excitement of my teachers for following this program… none of them hid from it or were afraid of learning new material or losing time with their families. As a matter of fact, they were able to form stronger more meaningful relationships with their colleagues because they learned to depend on one another and support each other. The other comments on this blog post also reflect that other teachers have experienced this or are even longing for it. 3. comparing teaching to surgery is just a kangaroo jump of absurd hyperbole. However if I go that route I would say that a surgeon continually keeps up to date on new surgical methods… they also work insane hours that teachers would never sign up to work. 4. carefully read my article I didn’t say they would become stagnant after 3 years just that a 3-5 year change is necessitated to help avoid stagnation.

      If teachers are stagnant after a few years yes it may be due to happiness but happiness was not the topic of this article… it could be for a future article so thanks for the idea. However happiness is not the responsibility of only the administrator or school… it is also the responsibility of the teacher him/herself. If one is not happy in a situation or culture in which he or she works that individual has a responsibility to either work toward the change they need to make themselves happy or to find a new place that matches their pedagogical and cultural leanings for happiness.

      I thank you for your response, but it sounds like you’re not happy if you’re asked to grow and change… that’s okay… work at a school that allows teachers to remain for 20+ years in one grade level… trust me… there are more of those types of schools than the ones who are innovating and making modern changes to help teachers and students grow and learn. I hope one day the fear of change leaves you and you see the benefits of taking on a challenge.

  4. Thank you for this article! I’m currently debating moving grade levels from 3rd to 5th and I loved reading this point of view. I’ve always known I would like to change grade levels later, but the opportunity is now rather than. Taking that leap can be quite scary. I guess since we ask our students to take leaps in their learning, it is only fair as teachers we do too.

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