For preschool leaders, starting a new position can be tricky. It can be tempting to walk into a new school and start noticing things you may like to do differently. It’s even more tempting to start developing big plans for “growth.” While I’m a huge believer in growth mindsets, it’s important to recognize that growth is a by-product of change, and the kind of change that yields big, instructional growth can’t happen overnight.
When change is too grand, too frequent, or too top-down, many teachers will justifiably resist, making nominal growth that much harder to achieve. Instead of trying to overhaul a program overnight, try the “Yes, and...” method to ignite meaningful change one small step at a time.
Real Reasons to Resist Change
First, we have to acknowledge some of the very real reasons why some preschool teachers resist change. Resistance shouldn’t be confused for defiance but rather suggests that there may be some hesitance to embrace change. Below are some possible reasons for resistance.
But it works! Some programs, like my own, are filled with veteran teachers who have been in their positions for many years, and the majority of our novice teachers have been trained by those veterans. In cases like these, teachers may not see a need for change. They may perceive administrators as making change for the sake of change, rather than for the sake of growth or improvement.
Again?! Many preschool programs have high rates of administrative turnover, and each new administration comes with its own initiatives, priorities, and teaching philosophies. There will be little motivation to embrace change and alter teaching practices if teachers don’t expect the administrator to stay very long or if they anticipate someone new coming in and instituting more change in the upcoming year.
Huh? A common barrier to change is a lack of understanding about what the administrator is hoping teachers will do. Administrators may think that teachers are actively resisting change if they are noncompliant with a new policy. However, it’s entirely possible that teachers are changing, but not in the way that administrators expect. Sometimes, perceived resistance may suggest miscommunication or misunderstanding.
Administrators can begin overcoming resistance to change by leading with the why. Explaining the purpose of a change can help teachers better understand why change is occurring and can help illuminate potential benefits. Take the time to engage in meaningful discussion about the desired outcomes of change. Allow opportunities for teachers to express their concerns or hesitations, listen thoughtfully, and offer clarity as needed. Wait to implement the how (i.e., ways that change will occur) until the why is clear.
In my own program, I often engage teachers in pre-change dialogue—sometimes in our monthly staff meetings, other times in smaller team meetings. I lead the discussions with the intended outcomes and what I hope to achieve. This gives us time for teachers to share what they’re already doing in pursuit of similar outcomes and opens the door for me to share new ideas grounded in the same goal.
When I hoped to change our procedures for child assessment and documentation, I first led open dialogue in our staff meeting about how improved data collection could tell us more about our students’ needs. Before I asked teachers to change, I shared what I hoped to achieve. Pre-change dialogue is focused solely on intended goals or outcomes and how some level of change may help us to achieve that, but not yet on requests for action.
How to facilitate change
“Yes”: Teachers must feel that their existing efforts are seen and valued. Spend time in classrooms acknowledging what teachers are doing right. “Yes, more of that!” is powerful in identifying teachers’ existing strengths and practices that are already working. This approach also helps teachers understand that you’re not expecting them to throw away their existing practice that works or to completely reinvent the wheel, two fears that cause resistance to change. Fully acknowledge teacher strengths without including a “but.”
One barrier to this is that preschool administrators are charged with upholding state licensing guidelines, and so often our classroom walk-throughs become little more than ratio checking, sanitizing procedures, and child supervision practices. This can quickly position us as compliance officers, and not educational leaders.
To achieve the “Yes” approach, try planning to spend 15 minutes weekly in each classroom with the sole intention of acknowledging teachers’ strengths. In time, the “Yes” approach can build positive relationships between administrators and teachers and will set the stage for meaningful change to occur.
“And…”: Perhaps the most delicate part of overcoming resistance to change is the “and…” component. Many of us have a tendency to lead with what not to do: “Stop doing this” or “Don’t do that.” In some cases, this is phrased as what we should do instead of something else: “Do this instead of that.” This can be problematic because it plays into teachers’ very real fears surrounding change.
Although there may be times when we do need to stop harmful practices or change our method entirely, the reality is that those times are few and far between. Instead of taking away from practice, we can promote change by adding value to what’s already being done. When our intention is growth, we need to build on teachers’ strengths and add to their practice. Acknowledge teachers’ “Yes” moments, and follow with simple suggestions.
In my first year at my program, I wanted teachers to spend less time telling children information and more time helping children construct knowledge through exploration and critical thinking. Instead of asking teachers to completely change their practices and rewrite all their plans, I started by meeting them where they were. “You made really clear connections to prior learning to engage your students! Next time, add some open-ended questions to promote critical thinking before telling them the answers.”
Not only does this contribute further to positive relationship building by acknowledging strengths, but it focuses on enhancing existing practice rather than completely changing it. The goal here is improvement, rather than overhaul.
What’s next? The “Yes, and...” approach outlined here is not the end of the road. These steps won’t necessarily rebuild a program or address major systemic issues. There will be times when systemic changes need to occur and may require mandated changes or top-down policies. However, it is the intent that this approach will support preschool administrators in building rapport with change-averse staff and, in time, gain buy-in for change.
So the next time you see something you’d like to change in your school, consider using a “Yes, and...” approach. Establish a shared vision grounded in your why, acknowledge teachers’ existing strengths, and add to their existing practice. Support growth in your program, one small step at a time.