Not All Pressure is Positive Pressure

It is tempting for instructional coaches to sort teachers into two groups, those who have a ‘growth mindset’ and those who don’t. We celebrate teachers who are quick to implement. Teachers who are open and reflective. And we ponder those who aren’t. We wonder, ‘Where is the transfer? Why isn’t there any evidence of growth? What can I do differently as a coach?’

When faced with these questions, our first reaction is to apply pressure. Our internal monologue may be, “How can I make it happen? How can I get the teacher to follow through? Why isn’t s/he doing it?” While at the same time, we know that by going there, we may jeopardize the relationship we’ve worked so hard to build with teachers. It can feel like a catch 22.

Pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a necessary part of the change process. Michael Fullan (2009) writes, “The more that pressure and support become seamless, the more effective the change process will be at getting things to happen.” In our school systems, there is no shortage of pressure. The trick is finding pressure that is positive. Pressure that moves teacher and student learning forward.

I recently came across a chapter from Fullan and Hargreaves’ book titled, Second International Handbook of Educational Change (2010) that outlines the differences between positive and negative pressure. Thinking about pressure in this way helped me reflect on the types of pressure I should steer away from, and the types of pressure that I should steer towards. It also brought to mind schools where I have worked that succeeded in establishing a rich community of learning for both the teachers and students. Schools that understood how to build urgency, even if they were scoring well on the test. Schools that created opportunities for teachers to collaborate, build partnerships, and create networks of peer support. Schools that used data in a way that surfaced gaps in student learning so that teachers could respond quickly. Schools where accountability wasn’t top down, but instead was peer to peer. Schools where there was energy, and dare I say fun, associated with teaching and learning. These are joyous schools. Schools that have found a way to create a vision around learning that is backed up with ownership, partnership, and enthusiasm.

The following indicators outline Fullan and Hargreaves’ view of positive and negative pressure. They may provide instructional coaches with a place to start the conversation about moving teacher learning forward. And they may help us find ways to break some old habits around the types of negative pressure that we so often turn to during our work as coaches.

Positive Pressure

  • Sense of focused urgency
  • Partnership and peers
  • Transparency of data
  • Nonpunitive accountability
  • Irresistible synergy

Negative Pressure

  • Blind sense of urgency
  • Pressure without means
  • Punitive pressure
  • Groupthink
  • Win/lose competition

© Diane Sweeney, All Rights Reserved.