Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip One: Understand Teacher Approaches to Change

Blogger’s Note:  Even though I’m not an administrator, I have spent the better part of the past decade working with school leaders and learning about school leadership. 

It’s always been an interest of mine, given that my working conditions — and the learning conditions of the students in my classroom — are often a function of the decisions made by people who are in formal leadership positions.  And it’s a professional responsibility of mine given the work that I do as a consultant with schools and districts across the country.  

While I won’t claim to understand everything about the most demanding position in education, I do have a small handful of tips that I think could help principals and other people in positions of authority to be more successful in their roles.  I want to share a few of those here on the Radical over the summer in a series that I’m calling Lead Smarter, Not Harder.  

Hope you dig them!


Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip One: Understand Teacher Approaches to Change.

Having had some success over the course of my 25 years of classroom teaching, I am often asked by principals or people working beyond the classroom to move into leadership positions at the school and/or district level.  They want me to be a mentor to a new teacher or to consider joining the school’s leadership team.  They think I’d make a great instructional coach or technology facilitator.

And every time they ask, they are shocked by my reply:  “That would be a horrible mistake for YOU.  I’m not that kind of leader.”  

A few have been offended by my response. One — who really wanted me to mentor a new teacher on our hallway — went so far as to argue that I had an obligation to fill.  “We NEED your expertise, Bill.  You OWE it to us to give back to our school and to share what you know.  Don’t you see that teachers have to be leaders, too?”


Now don’t get me wrong:  I really DO understand that teacher leadership matters! 

But here’s the thing:  I also know that there are multiple forms of “teacher leadership” — and the key to getting the most out of the teachers in your building is to have a deep understanding of who your teachers are — particularly when it comes to driving change — so that you can get the most out of them.

How do you do that?  Start by finding a framework that describes the different approaches that classroom teachers take when addressing change and then charting every teacher in your building.  

One of my favorite frameworks was created by Phil Schlechty.

Check it out here.

Schlechty argues that when thinking about change, there are five types of teacher personalities:  Trailblazers, Pioneers, Settlers, Stay-at-Homes and Saboteurs.  Each group approaches change differently — and needs different kinds of support from formal leaders like principals and school/district staff developers who are interested in moving important initiatives forward.

While I’d HIGHLY recommend checking out the linked article above for a more in-depth look at how each teacher type approaches change, here are some simple definitions:

Trailblazers:  Trailblazers are the teachers in your building who are ready to move forward in new directions regardless of uncertainty.  They are driven by a personal vision of “what should be” and are willing to take individual risk to make that vision a reality.  Schlechty describes Trailblazers as “monomanics with a mission” — people who know where they are going even if they don’t know exactly how they are going to get there.

Pioneers:  Like the Trailblazers in your building, pioneers are ready to move forward and are unafraid of professional risk. The key difference between Pioneers and Trailblazers is in their commitment to the entire community.  While Trailblazers are driven by ideas, Pioneers are driven by relationships around ideas.  That makes them essential to driving systemic change.

Here’s why:  Trailblazers act most frequently as individuals.  They are going to keep moving forward whether anyone else in your building comes along or not.  When Pioneers move forward, on the other hand, they are going to bring peers with them and make sure that the needs of others are met along the way.

Settlers:  Settlers are the teachers in your building who need real clarity before they are ready to move forward.  They are willing to take risks — but only if they know that those risks aren’t going to be a huge waste of time.  Settlers need clear evidence that the journey you are asking them to take is both doable and worthwhile.  To convince Settlers to move, Schlechty argues, you are going to need to provide them with carefully drawn maps!

Stay-at-Homes:  Stay-at-Homes are the teachers in your building who are genuinely happy where they are.  As a result, they see little need to move forward.  Now, CAN you convince Stay-at-Homes to move forward?  Sure — but they usually won’t move willingly until they are convinced that the present conditions that they are so invested in are impossible to sustain and/or there is a clear alternative that is overwhelmingly better in their eyes than the place you currently are.

Saboteurs:  Saboteurs are the teachers in your building who try to actively undermine any change effort that you are trying to initiate.  Worse yet, not only are they unwilling to move forward with you, they are committed to doing all that they can to keep others from moving forward with you, too.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

Leading smarter, not harder depends on having a clear understanding of who the Trailblazers, Pioneers, Settlers, Stay-at-Homes and Saboteurs are in your building because each group is going to need different kinds of support in order to move forward. 

While your Trailblazers are going to move forward without any fear and/or clarity, they need to be reminded of how their actions and direction connect to the work of the whole school otherwise they become isolated.  Similarly, your Settlers really are willing to move forward, but they are going to need a TON of clarity before taking their first steps.

Leading smarter, not harder ALSO depends on identifying the right people to lead your change efforts.  

Trailblazers will certainly move quickly in new directions — but they also aren’t waiting for anyone to follow.  They add value to your organization by moving quickly and testing out ideas and spotting pitfalls before anyone else arrives.  They also add value to your organization by exposing others to ideas that are on the cutting edge simply because that’s where they operate — far ahead of their peers.  But don’t expect Trailblazers to move others forward.

Settlers are also willing to move — but they need so much direction before starting that asking them to lead isn’t going to get you anywhere either.  They add value to your organization by forcing you to have a clearly articulated plan for any new direction that you are setting.  They also add value by questioning moves that aren’t clearly mapped out in advance.  If you can convince Settlers to move, you know that you’ve set a direction worth walking in.  But don’t expect Settlers to set that direction on your own.

When driving change, Pioneers are your most important allies.  Not only are they willing to follow the difficult paths broken by your Trailblazers, they are committed to helping others along those paths, too.  They see value in moving forward together — which makes them the perfect people to put in charge of your change efforts.

So lemme ask you a simple question:  Can YOU name the Trailblazers, Pioneers, Settlers, Stay-at-Homes and Saboteurs on your faculty?

I’d recommend that you create a simple table like this one that sorts your entire staff into categories right now — and keep that in front of you every time that you are thinking through the change efforts that you are trying to implement in your building.

Doing so will make sure that (1). you understand the needs of the different staff members in your building and that (2). you get the right people into the right places to move your change efforts forward.



Related Radical Reads:

Imprisoned by Mentoring?

What do Teacher Leaders Need from Their Administrators?

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders.

2 thoughts on “Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip One: Understand Teacher Approaches to Change

  1. Pingback: Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 4: Quit Chasing Initiatives | THE TEMPERED RADICAL

  2. Pingback: Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 3: Start Building Social Capital with Everyone. | THE TEMPERED RADICAL

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