Why Professionals Need to Disagree and Disagree Well

In a school system, there’s a lot of stuff with which teachers justifiably disagree—the emphasis on tests in coursework, expectations versus remuneration, attitudes of (some) students and (some) parents, general disrespect, just to name a few.  We are absolutely right to throw in the penalty flag of disagreement in any of these instances. 

However, how and when we disagree makes a huge difference on the outcome of that disagreement.   
For example, let’s say you’re in a large faculty meeting.  Automatically disagreeing with a newly-implemented policy is just not the best course of action. Policies on a school or district-wide scale are generally (not always, granted) taken under some sort of advisement prior to implementation.  The goals are generally laudable and designed with the hopes of improving something.

Wait just a few moments before jumping in to say why this policy won’t work. More than likely, you’ll be provided with who established the policy, why it was established, when it goes into effect, and how you’ll be expected to uphold it.   

Then, if you have a disagreement about who established it, why, when, or how, consider politely asking a pertinent question as opposed to making a statement of disagreement.  

Your questions should reflect the most important variables:  the viability and/or validity of the policy.  

Have any other schools experienced success with this policy? What literature did the committee review to back up this approach? 

If you’re provided with research-based strategies and a successful model, hold off on your disagreement until you’ve given it a shot.  See what works and what doesn’t. Then, you’ll be able to help administration streamline the policy, using the steps below, with more specific information on where the issue lies. 

However, if the answers to your questions above are “No. None.” Stop there.  Don’t do anything else until you’ve done your research.

Yup. You’ve got enough on your plate, I know.  Right, it’s not your job, technically.  However, by taking a few minutes at this point, you’ll save yourself and scores of others.

What you’ll be doing, by taking this proactive step, is making sure your disagreement doesn’t fester into resentment.  Complaining, especially to your peers, is passive-aggressive and accomplishes nothing except to lower everyone’s morale, including your own.  If you hear someone else complaining, walk away by saying, “I’ve got an idea I want to look into. I’ll let you know what I find!”

My guess is that many teachers would stop here, out of fear. However, if the policy (or a portion of it) is just dead-out wrong, disagreeing with it and stepping forward with research as support is the professional thing to do. As long as you maintain professionalism, you stand a greater chance of making an actual difference and helping to set things right.  

Another thing that may stop us is the “Why me?” thinking.  Counter with “Why not me?”  Professionals disagree when it is appropriate to do so, and your gut is telling you something. Listen to it!

It’s difficult for anyone to argue with someone who conveys professionalism or who supports an altruistic objective.  What can be argued, however—and this we see in our classrooms—is the attitude with which we present our thoughts.  No matter how good your idea is or how good your intention, if you say it negatively, impulsively, or nastily, it will neither be heard nor heeded.

Approaching Your Administrator

Politely request an informal chat:  “I’d like to talk to you about the new policy, Mr./Ms. ___.  When’s a good time?”  (Be prepared for now, in x minutes, or after ___ lunch, first period, etc.)

Start out by expressing what’s “good” about the policy:  “I think that our objective for blah blah is very powerful, and we’re on the right track with implementing blah blah…”

Clarify the “linchpin” that needs changing, based on your research: “We might consider taking this approach I found in this article (provide link/copy). It’s awesome because it would blah blah…” 


“Since we’ve started the policy, I’ve found that by blah blah instead of blah blah, I get better results.”

Use professional courtesy: “I know you’re busy, so when you get a chance, take a look and let me know what you think!” 

One of several things may happen:  1) you’ll be thanked, 2) you’ll be thanked with a promise (diligently follow up on this by repeating the steps), or 3) he/she will want to keep talking about it right then and there.

In all of these instances, as long as you are polite, professional, and students’ well-being is the objective, everyone’s dignity remains intact. It’s the dignity and pride thing that gets us in trouble, isn’t it?  Being professional in the manner presented above doesn’t step on toes. It doesn’t “get you in trouble.” 

The key to all of this is that you’ve done the right thing in a professional way. If your research and/or reasoning is sound as opposed to impulsive and emotional, your change will mostly likely be implemented. Whether that means you can keep doing what you’re doing, share it with others, or invoke change, something will probably happen. 

Because you’ve taken these steps, you will feel better about yourself and your job.

Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation! 

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