The Grief of Accepting New Ideas

Changes in school or classroom practices unleash a variety of emotions. How can we support each other in the process?

The faculty lounge crackles with disagreements about the new grading policies suggested by the standards-based grading committee. The English department debates whether or not grammar proficiency is a requisite for writing proficiency, and whether or not to assign whole-class novels or let students choose their own. Civics teachers discuss how to help students process the latest wave of incivilities among politicians and why we should respect the rights of free speech for groups like white supremacists and the Westboro Baptist Church.

A new teacher evaluation policy declares that all teachers must show specific strategies used to meet the needs of diverse students in their classes, but some teachers say this is coddling students and thereby not preparatory for what they’ll face next year. Some teachers make pointed arguments against using John Hattie’s Visible Learning meta-analyses, citing issues with his research procedures, while others use Hattie’s research to inform almost every classroom practice.

To quote Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-changin’. We wonder, though, if teachers have the dispositions needed to make fundamental changes to their teaching practices in order to respond constructively to our changing times, especially when those changes reveal that what they were doing was less effective than their egos thought they were.

The way we teach is often a statement of who we are. If someone questions our practices, it’s like they’re questioning our value as teachers. Our classroom instruction, including assessment and grading, technology integration, student-teacher interactions, and more, are expressions of how we see ourselves; they are our identity. Can we navigate these frequently troubled waters without invoking self-preserving egos and drowning in resentment?

Robert Evans opens his classic book, The Human Side of School Change (1996) with a quote by education reformer, Michael Fullan, who says that, “The fallacy of rationalism is the assumption that the social world can be altered by logical argument. The problem, as George Bernard Shaw observed, is that, ‘reformers have the idea that change can be achieved by brute sanity.'” Teacher leaders can cite logical, well-reasoned statistics and arguments for new building initiatives, but nothing really changes in classroom practices unless leaders also appeal to teachers’ ethics and the lens through which they perceive leaders’ arguments.

Human ego can be a good thing. It insulates us from otherwise incapacitating personal attacks and moderates those monologues we tell ourselves as we attempt to shape reality to our private theories of the world and our role in it. A healthy ego also helps us maintain confidence and conviction in the face of adversity, fuels hope in positive outcomes, and powers that critical driver of our self and work—that we matter.

The ego is fiercely protective, however, of its own view, for fear that if its perceptions were found faulty and needed changing, everything else it declared as truth would also be suspect, forcing us into uncomfortable uncertainty, and even, change. We’d have to lose a piece of ourselves and what we accepted as normal, we think, in order to accept that new idea. As physicist Max Planck declared, “Science advances one funeral at a time.” (Derek Thompson, “Why Experts Reject Creativity,” The Atlantic, October 10, 2014).

For any of us educators trying to coach teachers, convince a colleague to try something new, or change a school’s culture, it’s helpful to remember that our teacher beliefs are held tightly, with and without close examination, and for one of us to let go of an accepted truth requires grieving over the loss of that truth, at least to some degree. We’re not talking about the grief one feels over the death of a loved one, of course, but it’s something that is a surprisingly powerful factor in idea acceptance and behavioral change. It can make individuals dysfunctional, if a time to grieve is denied. Evans cites James Gleick here:

[People] … cannot accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it … would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives. (Gleick, 1987, p. 38) (Evans, p. 30)

And Kaufman here:

The humiliation of becoming a raw novice at a new trade after having been a master craftsman at an old one, and … the deep crisis caused by the need to suppress ancient prejudices, to push aside the comfort of the familiar to relinquish the security of what one knows well. (Kaufman, 1971, p. 13) (Evans, p. 48)

It is not too far flung to remember Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (On Death and Dying, 1969): Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. One or more of these stages is experienced by each of us when we are asked to discard something we hold dearly and accept something new in its place. Yes, we fake-rationalize ourselves into, “This will not actually happen,” and, “It’ll just pass like another education fad, and I can wait until everyone comes to their senses.”

We can become so concerned about what the change means for us in the classroom that we become vulnerable, as Kaufman suggests above, and that vulnerability and sometimes, confusion, can often come out as anger and depression directed at specific others or at the general ether. We may even accept the logic of the new idea as well as the limited nature of our former idea, but we still resent the threat to our perceived competency. It’s interesting, too, to note that acceptance doesn’t always mean, “content,” as Julie Axelrod writes in her online article, “The 5 Stages of Grief & Loss” ( Acceptance can be a time of great sadness.

In his Psychology Today blog, “Supersurvivors: Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong,” Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University, Dr. David B. Feldman, writes that when grieving, “[W]e may start to question our faith in ourselves.” He says that some people may ask who they are with the lost loved one, and that many of us, “…define [our]selves by the roles [we] play in close relationships.” (
, posted, July 7, 2017)

Not as intense, but still a significant consideration, we teachers can wonder who we are and how we will be defined from now on if we are forced to give up that which made us, us. Why don’t the others see that I’m still a nice person, a solid teacher and positive contributor, we reason, and stop attacking me? Of course, we can still be ourselves, but we can embrace the insights and professional shift, and be an ever-evolving version of ourselves, one that perceives course correction as strength, not weakness. Feldman adds, though, that, “It’s important not to rush grief … [G]rief is very personal, and each of us is entitled to our own schedule.”

David Ropeik, an instructor at the Harvard University Extension School writes in his Psychology Today blog, “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Changing Somebody’s Mind, or Yours, Is Hard to Do,” that we can, “…argue the facts, as thoughtfully and non-confrontationally as [we] can, but the facts don’t seem to get [us] anywhere. The wall of the other person’s opinion doesn’t move…Shouldn’t a cognitive mind be open to evidence…to the facts…to reason? Well, that’s hopeful but naïve, and ignores a vast amount of social science evidence that has shown that facts, by themselves, are meaningless.” (, Posted Jul 13, 2010)

Ropeik says that we hold on to our opinions and beliefs so strongly in order to protect ourselves from those perceived as enemies because they have opinions different than ours. We also conform to the groups with which we identify, such as conservatives with conservatives, liberals with liberals. This, “Strengthening [of] the group, helping it win dominance, and having the group accept us, matters … Humans are social animals. We depend on our groups, our tribes, literally for our survival …The more we circle the wagons of our opinions to keep the tribe together and keep ourselves safe … the more fierce grow the inflexible ‘Culture War’ polarities that impede compromise and progress.”

As teachers, when we encounter an administrator or colleague who says something about teaching or mandates a new policy that is deeply flawed (okay, incorrect), especially when declared publicly at a faculty meeting, we have several constructive responses we can make. First, we talk with him or her privately about the issue, as public correction often invokes the need in the other person to, “save face,” not hear our message. Second, we can make efforts to correct him or her in such manner as to not invoke self-preserving ego, such as:

  • Ask her to tell you more about her statements, posing questions here and there in a sincere interest in knowing more, but letting her shore up her own thinking. This is a form of cognitive coaching (see October 2017 AMLE Magazine for more).
  • Acknowledge that he’s having a tough time (if he is), and come across as supportive, not adversarial. Ask how you can help.
  • Help her see how her message came across, and ask if that was what she wanted to communicate.
  • Offer him alternative compromises between his needs and our needs so that both are served.
  • Affirm what the leader or colleague brings to the conversation, don’t dismiss her wisdom and experience. Then, however, educate her graciously on the topic by speaking from understanding about how some people, maybe even we, held that misconception for many years, but then revised our thinking in light of new perspective or evidence, which you’re sharing with her as well.
  • Present concerns about the misstatements as well as ideas on how to correct them publicly in a clarifying, or diving-deeper-into-the-issue-I-changed-my-mind moment at the next meeting.

The goal is to not invoke threat, which can harden those walls against acceptance, making the grief at having to change all the more difficult. Citing Evans again, “People must be sufficiently dissatisfied with the present state of affairs—and their role in maintaining it—or they have no reason to endure the losses and challenges of change” (p. 57). Thomas Newkirk’s wonderful new book, Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning (Heinemann, 2017) sheds a lot of light on the challenges of change and acceptance, particularly when it comes to our fears of embarrassment or humiliation when interacting with others: student to teacher, student to student, and teacher to teacher or administrator. Without hyperbole, it has the potential to be one of the most affecting faculty readings you’ll ever conduct. It is highly recommended.

We are all fellow travelers, and we are all inconsistent with ourselves and one another. No one likes to have protective layers pulled bare, revealing old scars or sensitive places still raw. To survive the day, we tell ourselves that our truths are THE truths, and they form our version of reality. When we’re confronted with their illusory nature, we’re no longer on solid ground. We grieve for former students we may have wronged, the real or not perceived loss in status among respected colleagues, the time and energy that will be spent in changing who we are, and for the loss of self that was once so sure.

Let’s help each other: Let’s interact in ways that invite thoughtfulness, not invocation of self-protecting egos. Let’s give colleagues time and encouragement to pushback and resist new ideas, and rather than be so self-assured ourselves, let’s look for new insights we need to hear in our colleagues’ arguments. And finally, let’s extend the compassion to others we seek for ourselves, and honor the grief process that happens when asked to give up something we’ve held so tightly all these years—a truth, reality, perception, or practice—as they struggle to accept something new. Instead of leaving them to struggle alone, we can walk that path together.