“You can twist perception, reality won’t budge.” - Neil Peart

Let’s start with a vignette.

Mr. Venture is a principal at an elementary school that has recently invested a great deal of time, energy, and money into a new reading curriculum. The decision to transition to a new curriculum came at the heels of lower reading scores as indicated on multiple measures. Mr. Venture attended and helped guide the discussion during the reading curriculum committee meetings. Mr. Venture was adamant to his staff that he would not be the one to make the final decision because he was not the one who would be teaching it each day.

On top of the purchase of the new curriculum, Mr. Venture made sure that they invested in professional development over the summer. While attending the professional development was not mandatory, it was highly encouraged. The professional development was four days, and Mr. Venture made sure that stipends of $200 per day were available for teachers who attended. There was no stipend for Mr. Venture, but he didn’t miss a day of the PD. He even told the office that he would return any calls but not to disrupt the sessions.

Ms. Pout is a 21 year veteran reading teacher. Her name was quite fitting because she always had a pouty look and she was never without a complaint of some sort. She also saw no problem with the old curriculum. 

“I have been using parts of that curriculum since my first year,” she often said during the committee meetings. As for the low scores? “Nothing has changed but the students. They’re more entitled than ever and if they don’t want to do something they won’t. We shouldn’t be investing in a new reading curriculum, we should be spending our money on more consequences when they don’t try their hardest on these tests.”

Ms. Pout overpowered many conversations with her opinions. The other teachers on the committee were secretly excited about a new reading curriculum. But any teacher with less than 10 years of experience was terrified to speak up in front of the group. A majority of teachers met with Mr. Venture privately to tell him that the group was really excited over one curriculum in particular. At the next meeting, Mr. Venture helped facilitate and presented this curriculum as an option. The other teachers quickly spoke up in favor. Ms. Pout’s perception though was that Mr. Venture had selected the curriculum. This solidified her thoughts that the teachers really didn’t have a say.

Ms. Pout attended all four days of the summer professional development. Each day she could be heard loudly exclaiming, “I’m only here for the money.” Mr. Venture had tried talking to Ms. Pout several times. Reminding her that her experience was valuable to the district. That newer teachers were looking to her when faced with tough situations, relying on her many years in the classroom to help guide them through their own trials. He felt they had a good relationship, which was true. But Mr. Venture was an administrator, and administrators, at least according to Ms. Pout, were the enemy. 

With the new year under way, Mr. Venture gave all the teachers weeks, even months, to adjust to the new curriculum. He brought back coaches who specialized in this curriculum to help teachers. Mr. Venture was pleased to see everyone adjusting well to the new curriculum. Everyone except Ms. Pout.

Mr. Venture didn’t even have to go into the classroom to know that Ms. Pout was still heavily relying on the old curriculum. And not that he needed proof, but walking through the workroom one day he spied a blackline master left on the copy machine. He didn’t have to look to know it belonged to Ms. Pout.

One Friday in mid-January, Mr. Venture was walking through the halls when he glanced into Ms. Pout’s class. Some students had their heads on their desks. Others were gazing intently out the window. The room was deathly quiet except for the droning on of Ms. Pout about the Roman Empire. Mr. Venture could feel his neck getting hot. He walked back to his office and made notes on a notecard. He also checked a few things on his computer. He made a few more notes. He then counted to 10. He did that about 15 times.

When the final bell of the day rang and students filed out, Mr. Venture, with notecard in hand, went to see Ms. Pout. He asked her if she had a minute. She did. Mr. Venture started, 

I cannot help but notice that the majority of the curriculum being taught in this classroom continues to be the outdated materials no longer supported by this school. I can clearly see materials from the new curriculum unopened on your shelf. As I walk through all the other rooms, I am seeing the new materials being used and classes engaged through the new curriculum. I know it’s still too early to tell for sure, but preliminary data shows students’ scores are higher with the new curriculum. Except for yours. The growth in your classroom has the same trend as prior years. I think there is a strong correlation between the old curriculum and your scores. I have given months to adjust and ease into this big change. I find it a slap in the face that you have not only ignored the new curriculum, but you have worn that refusal like a badge of honor. I am asking that you take the weekend to look over the materials of the new curriculum. Starting next week I want to see and hear the new curriculum. If you need one-on-one coaching I can arrange that. I want to see the old materials phased out by the end of the third quarter.

The Intention

Mr. Venture had good intentions. He approached it in what he felt was a civilized way. In his mind, he was calm, cool, and collected. Not bad considering how he felt earlier. He used the good relationship he had established with Ms. Pout over the years to show her that he cared about her transition and recognized it wasn’t an easy one, but also demonstrating to her that the new curriculum was not optional. Mr. Venture wanted to show her that while he respects her many years in the classroom, he ultimately is responsible for overseeing the continued growth and success of the students in his building. Mr. Venture knows that the weekend is not enough time to catch up from the five missed months. That is why he felt like giving Ms. Pout to the end of the third quarter to pack up the old curriculum was more than fair. That would be mid-March! He went home that evening feeling good that things would begin changing come Monday.

The Reception

Ms. Pout couldn’t tell if the vein in Mr. Venture’s forehead was getting larger or if it was just her imagination. She still couldn’t believe he stormed into her room demanding five minutes of her time. She watched as he snarled at her talking about how horrible of a teacher she was. She tried to take mental notes of all of the insults he said about her teaching. She stared in disbelief as he made it all about him with the whole “slap in my face” shtick. She wrote down the threats he made against her if she didn’t follow his every command. She thought about every other administrator she had experienced. They were all the same. Full of themselves even though they hardly spend any time in the classroom anymore. When Mr. Venture left she drafted an email to the building’s union representative and CC’d the union president. This needed to be addressed. As she began gathering her things she looked at the materials on the shelf. She smirked as she shut off the light, headed into her week with more resilience than ever to refuse to do anything remotely related to the new curriculum.

The Reality

Neither Mr. Venture or Ms. Pout was correct in their assessment of the situation. On the same note, neither were really wrong either. What they needed was a neutral third party that could confirm or deny how each remembered the exchange.

The reality is that both are flustered by the situation. Mr. Venture knows everything invested into fostering success in this new curriculum. Not just the money invested, but the time and energy given by so many to bring about this change. He sees the excitement and engagement in other classrooms. He also has immense respect for Ms. Pout and knows that if the data trend continues, she will be embarrassed to see so many newer teachers with students showing higher growth. 

Which is exactly why Ms. Pout is frustrated. She knows that education has always evolved, but the last decade has seemed to be on a bullet train. The teachers coming in have more energy and excitement. They’re more receptive to change. They’ve embraced the new curriculum and their students do seem to be showing more growth.

Ms. Pout might be a little burned out. That is something she would never say out loud to others. She would be shocked (and maybe reassured) to find out that many feel the same as she does. In fact, what she doesn’t know is that her inability to speak candidly—the inability to be vulnerable in front of others about how she feels—is actually slowly ostracizing herself from others. 

The other teachers have one of two thoughts: The first is the thought that they feel inadequate to handle the pressures of teaching. They perceive Ms. Pout as solid in her teaching and in the profession. They don’t see her as worn out, they don’t see her struggling with lessons. Worse of all, these teachers do not see themselves ever transitioning to become the veteran Ms. Pout is. The second thought is more harsh. They view Ms. Pout’s refusal to change and hardness toward administrators as calloused. They don’t want to stay in education if they are going to eventually transform into the same cranky, scowly teacher.

Too often we are too emotionally invested in something to hear what is actually being said. In this case, this is the problem for both Mr. Venture and Ms. Pout. Mr. Venture is emotionally invested in transitioning the school to the new curriculum. Ms. Pout is emotionally invested in her original stance against the curriculum. When we are emotionally invested our greatest intentions often fall to our emotions. Those same emotions will receive any kind of feedback or input as an attack. 

Too often we are too proud to hear what is actually being said. This is the problem for Ms. Pout. Her veteran status weighs on her. The truth is that many new teachers are coming out of college equipped to handle the shifts that are being seen in behavior as education is experiencing a generational transition. Ms. Pout’s pride is blocking the message Mr. Venture is trying to communicate. 

Change is hard. While the change impacts each person differently in this situation, it definitely plays a role in the failed exchange. Mr. Venture is forgetting how hard it is to adapt to a new curriculum as a classroom teacher. He believes five months is a long time. He knows everything that has been invested. He sees the change happening in other classrooms. He is failing to recognize the change is beyond frightening for Ms. Pout. 

Ms. Pout simply doesn’t like change. She loves routine so much that her routine has a routine. This change to a new curriculum is simply too much for her. Plus she has years of experience to her advantage. She understands that no curriculum is perfect. This allows her to more easily point out the flaws of anything that isn’t where her comfort zone is. Her years of accumulating materials is just too easy to access.

The other thing at play here is confirmation bias. And Mr. Venture and Ms. Pout are both guilty. Next week’s post is dedicated to confirmation bias. Ms. Pout’s bias is that administrators are the worst and they don’t really know about teaching. She might even believe they became an administrator because they couldn’t hack it in the classroom.  In this scenario, no matter how Mr. Venture presents the information, Ms. Pout is only hearing one thing: confirmation that all of her thoughts and beliefs on administrators are true. 

For Mr. Venture, his bias is that Ms. Pout is a cantankerous old teacher who is stuck firmly and stubbornly in her ways. No matter how he approaches the situation, he has confirmed in himself that Ms. Pout will never transition to change and will always be a heel. I will dive more into confirmation bias next week. 

The best way Mr. Venture could approach this situation is not by telling Ms. Pout what he sees and how he proposes it is fixed. Mr. Venture would be better off asking questions on how he could best serve Ms. Pout. The best way Ms. Pout could receive this situation by believing Mr. Venture is not out to get her. Collectively, they have the same goal of serving students. She also needs to understand that change is going to happen whether we like it or not. 

The battle between intention and reception is one that will rage on for years to come. The more modern communication vehicle of email and text only serves to further separate intention and reception. We must be mindful that our greatest intentions are not always received the way they should. We also must understand that not every communication we send carries the same intentions. Words matter. Tone matters. Body language matters.