Institutional Constraints: Introduction

The inertial power of institutions is daunting. Unfortunately, the inertia of the educational institution seems more often at rest than in movement. For teachers trying to implement reform there exists many roadblocks (or landmines). Importantly, our institutions are fueled by people. Administrators, colleagues, parents, and even students often resist change. Most people are quite happy with their current states and being confronted with alternative views can result in visceral negative reactions.

In my first year of teaching, within two weeks I had sufficiently ruffled enough feathers that I had been called into the principal’s office so he could express the concerns of other teachers (that’s right, they went to the principal on me!). A group of teachers were concerned that I was not sticking to the curriculum, trying to change team meetings, not giving the same tests as other teachers, and that I should “listen more”. Needless to say, I learned a lot that year about how resistant to change the education system really is.

This series on “institutional constraints” will provide my insight/suggestions on how to navigate the political hurdles that exist for those teachers working to implement effective teaching in less than ideal professional environments. I must stress that if you can work collaboratively with other professionals in your school, that is best for all parties: yourself, your colleagues, and your students. Unfortunately, ideal conditions do not always exist. We cannot use these less than ideal conditions as an excuse to not move our own practices forward. I hope this series will provide you with some strategies to move forward even in the face of resistance.

To provide some framework for my future posts I want to introduce the concepts of 3rd and 4th order thinking. 3rd order thinkers take their cues from outside sources. For example, “the principal says I am supposed to do X, therefore I must do X”. There is nothing wrong with being a 3rd order thinker, but I want to encourage you to become a 4th order thinker. A 4th order thinker sees themselves as the authority and operationalizes other input sources (ie: the principal) as objects that can be used, ignored, or manipulated to suit their personal goals. For example” “the principal says I am supposed to do X. How can I use X in a way that will satisfy my principal and promote my own goals for students?”

An example from my own experience is using the same test as other teachers. I could have simply accepted the fact that I had to give my students the same multiple-choice test as my colleagues. Instead I used the other teachers’ tests as either review activities or pre-tests that could guide my instruction. Then, for my summative assessment of student learning I used the essay-based tests that I feel provide better indication of students’ understanding and ability to apply knowledge. While this might seem deceitful, I have abided by my principal’s wishes. I can demonstrate my use of the “common” test, and I have promoted my own goals for my students.

Realizing that you are your own authority is key to becoming a 4th order thinker. Being able to see those who stand in the way of effective instruction as objects you can work with or work around is necessary to thrive in an institution that resists change so fiercely. In upcoming posts I will provide strategies to work with/around specific institutional constraints such as: administration, colleagues, students/parents, and standards/standardized tests.

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7 Responses to Institutional Constraints: Introduction

  1. Matt R. says:

    Way to stir the pot at your first school Jerrid! I heard a few stories from the teachers…(nothing you don’t already know)

    It all comes down to complacency. Over time, people naturally fall into patterns, ruts, grooves, rituals, routines, etc. Education is no exception. Schools and teachers eventually find it easier to serve up a canned education, preferably cold. I get tired of hearing the phrases “years ago we did this…” or “this is what we’ve done for years..” The fact that we are consistently on the “watch list” or a SINA tells me that what we’ve been “doing for years” is what got us here and it’s time to reevaluate our methods. But people don’t want to hear a) that they are a failure and b) that they have to change after 10, 15, 20+ years of doing the same assembly line style lessons. The community that I teach in is very resistant to change. Technology is not very prevalent so it is difficult to infuse anything online (ie. my teacher blog gets about 4 hits a week, 2 of which are other teachers).


  2. Matt R. says:

    As far as my blog goes….it’s nothing too impressive, I hope to utilize it better next year. It was basically an online syllabus until I all but abandoned it in November. It’s


  3. Vicki says:

    Jerrid, love the way you are thinking here. As an member of the early childhood education field, many of us have learned a very, very simple way of asking how we can be a 4th order teacher. There is a simple question we ask ourselves when young children, teachers, or parents present us with a request that might otherwise get a knee-jerk reaction of “no, no way, or we’ve never done that before”. We ask ourselves: “In what way can I say “yes”?”


  4. Tami T says:

    I, too, have found collaborating and conforming to be identical terms in my bldg. I’ve used common tests as pretests, then moved into differentiation and that helps. A challenge has been to move teachers into the paradigm shift of what are kids doing vs. what are kids learning.


  5. Eric says:

    Too true, and sad.


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