Monday, 22 January 2018

The Four Tendencies and Teacher Wellbeing

In her book 'The Four Tendencies' author Gretchen Rubin outlines four ways in which people respond to expectations. According to her findings everyone fits into one of the following categories:
  • Upholder - readily meet external and internal expectations
  • Questioner - question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified
  • Obliger - readily meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations
  • Rebel - resist both outer and inner expectations
It is worth noting that Rubin believes that we each fall into one single category and that this is not likely to change. However, the Venn diagram below demonstrates that we may 'tip' into a neighbouring category.

Information taken from the free-to-download The Nutshell Guide To The Four Tendencies (a read-through of this will be useful before you proceed)

In a recent Twitter poll I asked educators to complete The Four Tendencies online quiz and to then vote as to which tendency they were. 696 educators responded and the results were as follows:
  • Upholder - 12%
  • Questioner - 47%
  • Obliger - 25%
  • Rebel - 16%
However, according to a survey done by the author (not just of educators), the biggest percentage of people in general were Obligers (41%) followed by Questioners (24%), Upholders (19%), and Rebels (17%). There are some possible reasons for the differences between my poll and the author's (much larger) poll:

I asked on Twitter. According to Rubin Questioners have the following traits:  Data-driven; interested in creating systems that are efficient and effective; willing to play devil’s advocate or buck the system if warranted; strong-willed; enjoy sharing their findings. Which sounds to me exactly like the sort of teachers who sign up for Twitter. It may be that there are many more Obliger teachers who haven't joined Twitter (which is commonly seen by twitter-using teachers as a place to find new and better ways of doing things).

I asked educators. One trait of Questioners is that they ask questions and then enjoy sharing their findings - most teachers like imparting knowledge in one way or another. Questioners also ask a lot of questions, as do teachers. Perhaps teaching is just a natural career choice for many Questioners. Having said this, the traits of Obligers would seem to make great teachers too: Reliable; responsible; team player; good boss, responsive leader; feel great obligation to meet others’ expectations; willing to go the extra mile; highly committed.

People didn't take the quiz. Twitter polls are usually used to gauge a very quick off-the-top-of-the-head reaction, usually based on opinion. My poll was completely the opposite. Some folk contacted me to say they'd voted before doing the quiz (some of them had picked the right option) but there are bound to be others who voted based on their own opinion without understanding the four tendencies framework. Questioner is probably the easiest category to believe you belong to as it is seemingly most self-explanatory, and after all, all people ask questions.

It's also interesting to note that so many Questioners responded to the poll (and indeed that Rebels did too) - they responded to an outer expectation (from me) with only a brief explanation of why they should do it. Perhaps I have some very dedicated followers who felt like my asking for help with something I was writing was a good enough reason.

Implications of The Four Tendencies for Teacher Wellbeing

In Dr Emma Kell's book 'How To Survive In Teaching' she cites that respondents to her questionnaire identified unreasonable working hours for the reason why they left teaching. She also outlines that the LKMco's 'Why Teach?' report found that workload was the top reason for teachers leaving the profession and that the ATL's survey had 76% of teachers cite workload as their reason for considering leaving the profession. There are plenty of other studies and reports that say the same, not to mention the personal experience of many teachers. Heavy workload is the main reason for poor teacher wellbeing.

After reading 'The Four Tendencies' I believe it might be the case that teachers struggle with workload and therefore wellbeing in different ways, depending on their tendency.

Upholders - they will readily meet the expectations of the government, their school policies, their leaders and their students and will do their best to do what is asked of them but will also respond to their own inner expectations, for example, if they know they need to get rest, or to not work so much. Upholders might struggle to delegate because they believe others aren't dependable enough. This puts this group in a fairly good position when it comes to workload and wellbeing, although they still have the potential to uphold unmanageable expectations and want to do everything themselves. Their reliability also might mean that more is asked of them.

Obligers - they will readily meet the expectations of the government, their school policies, their leaders and their students, potentially regardless of difficult it is to meet those expectations. In addition to this, they won't find it easy to priorities their own needs without some external accountability. This puts this group (a large group) at risk of being over-worked, and therefore of having low levels of wellbeing. If an Obliger feels resentful about the expectations they are meeting then they are prone to falling into Obliger-rebellion. Most Obligers are also known to others to be obliging meaning that this group can often find themselves being asked to do more and more, thus adding to their workload and the possibility of them burning out.

Questioners - they will meet their own expectations and if they can see a good reason for doing what they are expected to do, will find this relatively easy. If the policies they are expected to adhere to are not, in their opinion, based on sound reasoning, they will find it difficult to meet those outer expectations. However, in a school system where teachers are held to accountable for meeting the school's expectations, a Questioner could get into trouble - they may end up missing deadlines, doing last minute work, or becoming subject to the school's accountability processes. Questioners also may dislike delegating, especially where decision-making is involved as they believe others won't make the best-informed decisions - this could lead to an obvious increase in workload. If this is the case, then wellbeing levels could be low for a Questioner.

Rebels - they prefer to do things their way, and will often feel the need to do things contrary to expectations (including to their own expectations). Just as with Questioners, in a school system where teachers are held to accountable for meeting the school's expectations, a Rebel could get into trouble - they may end up missing deadlines, doing last minute work, or becoming subject to the school's accountability processes. If this is the case, then wellbeing levels could be low for a Rebel, particularly if they are frustrated at themselves for not meeting any expectations even if they want to.

Providing Wellbeing Advice To The Four Tendencies

Having read Rubin's work with interest, I came to realise that all the advice being given about wellbeing and managing workload (my own advice included) might not be having the desired impact on particular teachers because of their tendency. Perhaps I only give advice as a Questioner that would have an impact on other Questioners.

Rubin outlines that to persuade someone to follow a certain course, remember:
  • Upholders want to know what should be done
  • Obligers need accountability
  • Questioners want justifications
  • Rebels want freedom to do something their own way
If we want teachers of all tendencies to look after themselves, then the advice we give needs to appeal to all. In the book Rubin writes, "because the tendencies see the world in such different ways, there are no magic, one-size-fits-all solutions for how to influence ourselves or other people" but does suggest that "the winning formula is indeed information-consequences-choice... and best of all, humour".

How then can we help each of the four tendencies when it comes to workload and wellbeing issues?

Upholders - when giving wellbeing advice they want to know what they should do. But, any advice given might clash with other internal and external expectations. For example, you might advise someone to only spend a certain amount of time on marking books, but this might not fit with an inner expectation of marking books to a certain standard.

It's also worth noting that telling an Upholder what to do when you have no power to remove other expectations (such as their school's marking policy) might put them in a difficult situation - whose expectation should they uphold? When giving advice to an Upholder is might also be necessary to be someone who they respect - they're likely not to meet the expectations of someone who doesn't matter and are more likely to meet their own expectations, or those of someone with higher standing.

Obligers - when giving wellbeing advice they need to be held accountable for making necessary changes. Much wellbeing advice hinges around the importance of doing things for one's own sake but Obligers are unlikely to meet such inner expectations - they may want to take action to improve their wellbeing, but will feel bound to meeting the expectations of others, no matter how ridiculous (although Obligers can experience Obliger rebellion, where after time, they rebel against constantly meeting unfair expectations).

It is important for Obligers to have someone to hold them accountable - thus making an inner expectation into an outer expectation which they find easier to meet. So, if you are in a position to give an Obliger some wellbeing advice, follow it up by providing deadlines, oversight and monitoring (which to people of other tendencies sounds like too much) - giving advice without this ongoing support will probably lead to very little change in an Obliger.

Questioners - want justifications, and for them, they might need further justification as to why they should meet certain expectations, such as why they should spend time planning lessons thoroughly or providing feedback to children about their work. As discussed before, their wellbeing might be suffering as a result of begrudgingly meeting enforced outer expectations in a last-minute manner - they need to buy into the reasons behind particular work-heavy policies in order to use their time more wisely to complete these tasks.

Where Questioners have inner expectations which have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing (they could, for example, really believe that triple marking is absolutely the best way to mark and thus spend hours each evening providing this) it will take reasoning, provision of research findings, and plenty of information to help them change - they will also need trust the expertise of the advice-giver as they probably won't take advice from someone they think doesn't know what they're talking about.

Rebels - want to feel like they are doing things their way. Advice to the Rebel is best given as a series of recommendations from which they can choose. If only one way is provided then the chances are they will decide to reject that way, preferring to do something their way, or no way at all. However, Rebels may choose to act out of love, a sense of mission or belief in a cause so if the advice-giver can tap into that feeling, as long as they don't specify what they should do.

Rubin also points out that Rebels "may be easy to manipulate by using their spirit of resistance: “I’ll show you,” “Watch me,” “You can’t make me,” “You’re not the boss of me”". This essentially means that in some situations counterproductive advice might drive Rebels to take productive steps or that telling a Rebel that they probably won't be able to solve their workload and wellbeing issues might be the catalyst they need. However they dealt with, they still might defy convention, finding their own ways of doing things to make improvements to their wellbeing.

Other Implications of The Four Tendencies for Teacher Wellbeing

What I haven't gone into in this blog post is how schools might manage teachers of all four tendencies when it comes to getting them to meet expectations. Clearly, the same principles as above apply, but where wellbeing is concerned schools need to ensure that their own policies and systems aren't demanding too much of teachers before thinking about how to get teachers to meet those expectations. Once a school's leaders are content that what they are expecting is manageable, then they should think about applying Rubin's theory to persuading teachers to follow a certain course of action.

Another implication of the above is that one-size-fits-all approaches to wellbeing won't be very effective. Questioners will never see the point in whole-staff Yoga sessions if they think they could be doing something better; Rebels will just walk out. Obligers might go along with your initiative for a while but if they resent it then they might rebel too and even if they don't, it could just add to the pressure that too many expectations puts on. Upholders would most likely get so annoyed at everyone else for not meeting the expectations that they too would feel unhappy.

The four tendencies framework does not intend to label someone's whole personality. Within each group there are hundreds of other factors - nature and nurture - that makes each one of us unique. Having an idea of someone's tendency is helpful, but their other characteristics, traits and experiences must be taken into account too, when thinking about giving them advice about wellbeing. For example, I'm a Questioner but I'm also very loyal so I am more likely to make someone else's expectations into internal expectations because I believe that if I've committed to something then I should follow through on that commitment come what may. If someone were to give me advice, they'd also have to navigate the fact that I find it very hard not to do what I consider to be loyal, even if it is to the detriment of my own wellbeing.

Many teachers feel powerless to change their circumstances - they believe it is only policy makers at government or school level who can do that. They feel like however much they try to change themselves, it will never be enough to combat unmanageable expectations. But when they consider that the way they are (their tendency) will never change, and that (for the time being) policy won't change, but that how they deal with the expectations in light of their tendency can change, things might become more manageable. They might need to be shown how to set their sights lower than whole system change, but higher than no change at all, in order to identify what circumstances they might be able to change:

Obligers might realise they need to ask for more accountability when it comes to taking up a hobby or starting to exercise more regularly. Questioners might need to see that they can ask their questions constructively to people who can influence change rather than question in an unproductive way to their colleagues, friends and family who can't do anything to change policy. Upholders might just need to understand that they want to meet both inner and external expectations and that in order to do this they could plan their time to ensure this happens in balance. Rebels might need to find their own ways of achieving things.

Sometimes expectations  will need to be introduced - some teachers might have no expectation whatsoever that they can have a good work/life balance, and as such will not try to meet that expectation because it doesn't exist for them! Some will need this introducing as an internal expectation (telling themselves that they expect to have a good work/life balance), others as an external expectation (being told that they are expected to have a good work/life balance). The belief that teaching is a 24/7 job can become an external or internal expectation leading some teachers to put in a dangerous number of hours each week - this general expectation in the profession needs to be tackled, otherwise, regardless of tendency, teachers are going to struggle with being well as they try to meet unattainable expectations.

2 comments:

  1. What are your thoughts on applying the four tendencies to students? Would that information be beneficial for teachers? Is there a four tendencies quiz for kids that you know of?

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    1. I think it has many implications and it would be beneficial - would be a huge piece of work (a book?!) to set out how it would all work. Not a quiz that I know of - the point is really that you self-identify more than categorise others!

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