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I’m told, “This is the way things will always be”

Illustration by Franke James of a Switch Brain

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

OfficePolitics.com asked best-selling author, Dan Heath, how an Office-Politics reader (a teacher in an inner city high school) could make change happen, when change is very hard.

Dan wrote, “What you’re describing is a culture problem, and culture change takes time. I don’t have a quick fix. But I want to suggest some things that could make things better. Not perfect, but better.”

Read Dan Heath’s inspiring reply…

SWITCH: How to change things when change is hard

Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives? The primary obstacle is a conflict that’s built into our brains, say Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the critically acclaimed bestseller Made to Stick.

Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two different systems—the rational mind and the emotional mind—that compete for control. The rational mind wants a great beach body; the emotional mind wants that Oreo cookie. The rational mind wants to change something at work; the emotional mind loves the comfort of the existing routine. This tension can doom a change effort—but if it is overcome, change can come quickly. In Switch, the Heaths show how everyday people—employees and managers, parents and nurses—have united both minds and, as a result, achieved dramatic results.

Are you aching for change? Switch can help you understand what’s blocking the change you want — and how to go about removing those roadblocks and making change happen. I highly recommend it. Plus the Heath brothers have gone the extra mile. Their site is loaded with free resource tools to help you apply the Switch principles, whether you’re in a Fortune 500 company, a local non-profit group, or an individual looking to change yourself! You can also listen to Chip and Dan Heath talk about Switch in this podcast.Franke James, Office-Politics.com founder and Author, Dear Office-Politics, the game everyone plays.

Dear Office-Politics,

I work at a small inner city high school in Los Angeles. I have been there for 20 years and have witnessed teachers do all kinds of improper things such as leaving early, talking on cell phones in the hall, showing movies and basically being incompetent by not teaching but just sitting at their desks doing nothing.

Lately, at meetings, I have been trying to shed some light on these problems and put some pressure on the administration to work on these problems. Of course, the majority of the teachers are angry at me because they have been enjoying the perks of not being held accountable. They tell me to mind my own business and to just worry about my classroom.

They say that I should be careful because in our district this is the way things will always be and nothing will change. They also let me know that someone might slash my tires or hurt me personally if I’m not careful. Of course this was a veiled threat that was meant to help me avoid problems.

I’m so frustrated. I don’t want to leave the school because I love the kids and why should I leave because I care.

Any advice would help.


Teacher that Cares


Switch book by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, photo of Dan Heath

Dear Teacher that Cares,

First of all, I want to salute you for caring. Your kids appreciate it, and so do their parents, and so do thousands of bystanders like me, who are rooting for teachers like you.

Let me start with the bad news: What you’re describing is a culture problem, and culture change takes time. I don’t have a quick fix. But I want to suggest some things that could make things better. Not perfect, but better. Here are 4 things I want you to try:

1. Organize the resistance

In situations when change agents are in the minority, it’s critical that they band together. It’s also critical that they have a place to organize that’s insulated from the pressures of the majority. (For a lot more on this, Google this: “free spaces” minority) I’m sure there are a few other teachers who care as much as you do. Get them together. Find a time and a place to meet, every week, so you can share ideas and build each other up. And as new teachers join the faculty, convert them to your side before they absorb the destructive majority culture.

2. Speak to higher emotion

Right now, you are having a pissing match with your colleagues: You vs. Them. If you keep it up, you’ll burn up your own productive energy by fighting petty personal battles. Change your approach. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a Chief Medical Officer who’d managed to change the practices of dozens of skeptical doctors and nurses. He succeeded by reminding people of their mission: “We’re here for the patients. Our role is to save lives and to improve our patients’ quality of life. Can we all agree on that?” And of course everyone agreed—and that agreement was critical, because it changed the tenor of their discussions. Their debates centered on whose ideas were best for the patients (not about who’s right, me or you). So, rather than attacking the work ethic of your colleagues, appeal to their noble side: “What’s the best thing for our students?”

3. Publicize victories

No doubt you are doing amazing things in the classroom. You know it and your students know it. But do other people know it? Other teachers? Other administrators? Teachers of extracurricular activities find ways to “show off” their students. School choirs have concerts, and athletes have games and tournaments. If you teach a core subject, you need to emulate them—find a way to show off what your students can do. You need to show your colleagues and your bosses that your way of doing things pays off. The worst teachers might still throw stones at you, but I suspect there are some teachers who’d be inspired. Wouldn’t it be great if you got other teachers’ competitive fires burning? (“I won’t let that one teacher get all the glory!”)

4. Change the environment

The one part of your letter that bothers me is the way you’ve concluded that the other teachers are lazy and incompetent. That smacks of a bias that psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error, which means that we tend to attribute people’s behavior to their core character, and we ignore the situational influences on them. In other words, what if you imagined that your colleagues are decent, smart, well-intentioned people who are tragically stuck in an environment that leads them to behave in an imperfect way? (The same way that you and I might not act our best if we were drunk in a bar full of rowdy people—it’s not that we’re bad people to the core, it’s that the situation is bringing out our worst.)

So what I’d challenge you to ask yourself is this:

How can I tweak the school environment to make it a tiny bit easier for my fellow teachers to do better?

What if you offered to share all your innovative lesson plans with them? (That way, they could do neat activities without having to develop them.)

What if you got a local businessman to sponsor a $1,000 Teaching Prize? (That way, they’d have the financial and cultural incentive to excel.)

What if you spent 15 minutes each morning picking up trash in the hallways? (To signal to others that the condition of the school matters.)

When you change the environment, you change the behavior.

So good luck to you. There are a lot of people who will be hoping and praying for your success.

Best regards,

Dan Heath, Author

Dan Heath is co-author of SWITCH: How to change things when change is hard. Dan is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports social entrepreneurs. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Made to Stick has been translated into 29 languages. Dan is also a columnist for Fast Company magazine, and he has taught and consulted on the topic of “making ideas stick” with organizations such as Microsoft, Nestle, USAID, the American Heart Association, and Macy’s.

Most recently, Dan was a Consultant to the Policy Programs of the Aspen Institute. Prior to that, he conducted research for Harvard Business School, where he co-authored 10 case studies on entrepreneurial ventures, and subsequently, he worked for the executive education division of Duke University, where he designed and taught in training programs for Fortune 500 executives. Dan has an MBA from Harvard Business School, and a BA from the Plan II Honors Program from the University of Texas at Austin. (For more background on Dan please visit Heathbrothers.com)

  1. 2 Answers to “I’m told, “This is the way things will always be””


    Dan’s advice is indeed very constructive. I realize that I can be a bit testy and less than totally objective when it comes to how I view my co-workers.

    Some of the strategies that Dan recommends I have not applied (i.e. free spaces and changing the environment) but some I have applied without much success. For example, I have appealed to the “what’s best for the students” point of view for many years only to be met with resistance and cynicism. I have also won many awards. These accolades did win some people over but other teachers were even more resentful toward me.

    Please let Dan know that I appreciate his advice and I will apply it.

    I think it will make my work day more enjoyable and productive.


    Teacher that Cares

    By Teacher that cares on Mar 31, 2010

  3. Hi Teacher That Cares, I feel your pain. I have the same problem in the international school I teach in. Unfortunately it seems that this is the status of our profession in the entire English speaking world… my colleagues are from UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand… and they have told me similar situations exist in every school they have worked in. Until there is some way to objectively quantify what a good teacher is and does we are stuck with a profession that lends itself to abuse of position. Many good teachers are turned by a cynical culture into less than ideal specimens.
    I think the answer lies in an administration that will hold teachers accountable for those things that we can check, lesson plans done, attendance of their classes, unannounced classroom observations, and not tolerating the retention of those individuals that see this as a ‘job’ and not a calling.

    By Expat48 on Feb 27, 2011

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