The Challenge of Advocating for Change

I received messages this week from people asking for my thoughts about advocating for changes in literacy practices. These questions have come both from parents and teachers who are equally as concerned about the wellbeing of children.

Creating change can be a difficult process.  There is something particularly challenging about trying to convince people who believe in something different from you to change the way they think and act.

As teachers, our work is deeply personal.  What makes us good teachers is the ability to bring who we are to our work and when your very being is at the heart of what you do, someone trying to change your mind about how to teach reading can challenge your very identity.

So knowing that facts rarely change people’s minds, how do we help create change in our schools?

Have a Seat at the Table and a Voice in the Conversation

If you want to contribute to change you need to be a part of the conversation.  If you are a teacher join a literacy strategy group in your school, share articles or start a collaborative working group. If you are a parent, join the school council or board, attend meetings and build relationships with other like minded parents.   Schools exist to serve their communities and parents have the ability to influence their decisions.  It might not happen right away, but if there is enough pressure it might be possible for changes in practice to occur.  Go to meetings armed with information, research and reliable sources.  Facts themselves might not change minds, but make it clear that you are not representing your own opinions, rather you are sharing current research and best practice.

A trick that I learned from my mother in law is to use the department or district’s policies to build your argument.  When the official policy is that reading should be taught explicitly according to evidence based practice it is pretty hard for school leadership to argue for anything else.   When a state’s department of education funds decodable texts for every prep student, you are within your rights as a parent to ask why children are not being provided with these texts.

Don’t Cast Those You Disagree With as the Villain

It is easy to engage in black and white thinking where you and those who think like you are the goodies and other people are the baddies.  Working effectively with other people, especially those who you disagree with, means staying open to the possibility that they might have something good to say.  That’s not always easy. Just as ‘they’ are protecting ‘their’ identity we are doing the same. As teachers and parents who advocate for evidence based literacy practice we are part of a group on the opposite side of those who do not share our view.  It is possible to admire and respect one aspect of a person’s work while disagreeing with another.  I am a fan of one academic’s teaching about grammar, but stand in complete opposition to their stance on reading instruction. By remaining open to the possibility of learning from others, we come from a place of respect and are much more likely to be able to make connections with them.

Remember that the teacher in the next room or the Principal in the school down the road wasn’t taught about evidence based literacy instruction at university any more than you were. Our fight is against ineffective practices, not other teachers.

Find Common Ground

It is rare that we won’t be able to find anything in common with those who think differently from us.  If the only thing that you have in common is a genuine desire to do a good job for kids, then use that to build relationships.  Whole language teachers will agree with the need to use rich literature for teaching. You will also be able to find views in common around teaching handwriting and creating authentic purposes for literacy.   Whole language teachers will likely agree that children need to learn about letter sounds and that this teaching needs to be intentional.  I have worked with a whole language teacher who acknowledged the benefit of systematic phonics teaching for children at educational risk, but didn’t think that it was necessary for the whole class.  I hope that with more time, I would have been able to influence her everyday teaching practice and if not, I certainly think that I would have been able to influence practice for the at risk students in her class.

Let Your Results Do the Talking

There are times when you just have to get on with the job of teaching in your own classroom and let your results do the talking.  This is even better when you can find a buddy teacher to work with. If you are a parent, hopefully your child’s teacher is this person.  Over time, as students in your class develop strong and solid foundations of reading others may notice and will possibly be influenced to try a new way.  Schools want results for students. Sell the argument that evidence based practice will give them that.  If your school doesn’t have runs on the board yet, find a school that you admire and present a case study about their journey.  In my own experience, teachers come on board pretty quickly when they can see a noticeable difference in children who have previously made little progress.

Join An Advocacy Group and Find Like Minded People

If there is nobody in your school to join forces with, find an online group to provide you with the community you need to keep going on the tough days.  I am a member of Code Read Dyslexia network that advocates for evidence based practice for everyone and supports children who have dyslexia and their families. Connecting with others in this group has helped me to remember that I am a part of something bigger than myself and provided me with the sense of collegiality and purpose that is important when you are working to create change.

Accept that Change Takes Time

I spoke with a teacher the other day who described how, not very long ago, she didn’t feel like she was able to talk about her teaching in the staff room and had to use decodable texts in secret.  Now the other teachers are coming around and she feels that she has made some progress in shifting attitudes.   Sometimes it can feel like change will never come, or that it will be so slow that progress moves at a glacial pace, but there is a growing momentum; a growing group of people on the change bus. 

I don’t have any magic answers to how to change a school’s practice. My strategy so far has been to make sure that I either work in schools already on the journey or have a leadership role that allows me to make change, but many people do not have this luxury.  If you have had success at influencing change in your school either as a parent or teacher I’d love you to share your experiences in the comment box below.  There are so many of us seeking to create change and advocate for children.  Your story may inspire and support someone else with the same hope.

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2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Advocating for Change”

  1. I couldn’t have tried any harder to bring about change to literacy practice in the manner you describe. After several years of achieving some change, I leave the profession feeling defeated. Individual teachers can’t make things happen when leadership from state to school level continue to actively promote training and practice that is based on a debunked theory.
    It’s time for our leaders to realise the urgent moral imperative of teaching ALL students to be literate. Change is too slow and progress is constantly undermined by school leadership who are ill-informed, even when it is in black and white(National Literacy Progressions). The science is emphatic, the evidence is plentiful ,but no-one with power is brave enough to just
    say enough is enough.

    1. Hi Lyn. Well said! You are right. There’s nothing to say that anything I have suggested will work if the leadership of governments, departments of education and schools are lacking the understanding to endorse change. It’s why I am in leadership. Not for ambition to climb the ladder, but the opportunity to influence positive outcomes.

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