Avoiding Crab-Bucket Culture

Too many schools have a “crab-bucket culture,” Daniel Duke told his audience in an Annual Conference session called “How Do You Turn Around a Low-Performing School?” Crab buckets don’t need lids to contain the crabs, he noted, because the crabs keep their fellow crabs from escaping the bucket. Often at schools, some faculty members resist school improvement efforts by making it difficult for the others who would like to change.

Do you agree that “crab-bucket culture” is a problem in schools? What can educators do to change such a culture?


  1. I absolutely agree. I have worked under a turn-around principal for the past three years. Her largest challenge has been uprooting the saboteurs in our school. As a NBCT preschool teacher and former teacher of the year there have been times when I have sustained constant attacks on my positive attitude by those hoping to pull me down.

  2. Mr. Duke has had a different set of experiences than I have had with Blue Claw Crabs. Leave the top off and bunches will escape, especially if you have a good catch. They are not at all inclined to cooperate and will even kill and eat other crabs, if they catch them in their soft shell versions. So there may well be parallels between some educators and crabs. I find cooperation more often than holding each other back, but once again I may be looking in different buckets than Mr. Duke.

  3. If you turn that bucket on its side, you’ll find that some crabs go on to greater things! Those of us who are school improvement coaches have found that we can put our hands in a bucket of crabs and hope we don’t get pinched, or we can find ways to re-sort the whole bunch. It takes creative staff development with reorganized groups talking about what our school can be to move folks (even the crabby ones!) in the right direction!

  4. I’m sorry to say that I have seen the “crabby” teachers. Worse, I’ve had too many young teachers in my office crying and pouring their hearts out because of the cruelty of veteran teachers who want to keep the status quo. They have been in the classroom so long that they cannot be removed without dynamite, and they see change and new teachers as threats. The ugly side of teachers who sabotage change is that many of them are bullies, too.
    Yes, talking about what our schools can be can work with many. Creative staff development can work wonders. But there is still a tiny percentage who will blame everyone for problems and who see efforts to change as accusations that they are somehow wrong and seem to enjoy causing pain in the majority who want to always reach for the next level.

  5. The crabs in the bucket aren’t always analagous to the teachers….I have seen it first hand (at my inner city school)to be the students holding each other back…often with the help of their parents. We all must work together (parents, students, and teachers, to escape the bucket!

  6. Although I understand the “crab in the bucket” analogy; however, I do not totally agree. I believe it is mainly a problem of trying to move many of us from our “comfort zone”. Changes mean taking risks and altering what we have done in the past. Life is much easier when we just repeat what has been done before instead of instituting new ideas and constructs. Changing teaching methods means newe lesson plans, possibly team teaching, or a new text to learn. It is so much easier to complain than it is to have to spend the hours and effort to change what we are complaining about.

  7. Sometimes it’s crabs hold others back, but frequently the “change people” are trying to turn the bucket upside down with the so-called crabs being called names for trying to keep what works from being ruined.

  8. Very interesting…I suppose that the person who stuck all of those crabs in the bucket instead of looking at their strengths and abilities and honing in on those should be at fault. I think that you have to be very delicate in expecting change in teachers, and that it has to be grounded in trusting relationships first. As a coach, I could have a “one night stand” and tell the expectation and consequences then leave (put them in a bucket) or I could establish a trusting relationship first and move the change along by establishing a vision and action plan, and letting them know that I am there for the long term, and be in the bucket with them.

  9. Dr. Callahan has it just right. Too many ‘reformers’ want to change just for changes sake and have not idea of the effects, good or bad.

  10. I can see both sides of the “crab” analogy. I agree that there are some aspects of education that are good and should not be “up-ended”, but kept with maybe a few tweaks. However, I am currently experiencing a “crab” situation at a school that I moved to recently. I’m not “new” – I’ve been doing this for a while. But I am an early-adopter when it comes to change, and I always look for ways to improve. I am now avoided like the plague (pun intended – I teach biology). Just today, a teacher who has been there f-o-r-e-v-e-r showed me what standards she was covering – they are 3 years old, and I’ve pointed this out to her before, but she still won’t change – and neither will anyone else. So, our kids perform poorly on high stakes tests required for graduation because they refuse to change and are teaching standards and material that are no longer addressed, and refusing to teach different material. Who is being harmed here? Kids – pure and simple. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with how they are teaching, and I’m not saying we should teach to the test (I’ve never seen the test – but I’m going by the content given to me in the standards), but you have to at LEAST change to teach the content as required by the state and county. I am feared because I am different in my teaching style and strategies, and I’m not trying to change that, only point out what is outdated. Again, kids are suffering – the teachers will still have jobs regardless of student performance. But, some of their students may not graduate simply because they refused to look past the end of their nose and modify what they are doing. This is how the “crabs” can hurt kids.

  11. I have been a teacher under a new female principal who was trying to turn a school around. The previous principal was an older male who let annnnnything go on.
    The only way to truly turn a school around it to reconstitute the staff. End of discussion. Trying it any other way is futile. There has been too much bad practice in most cases. The administrator spends too much time dealing with staff instead of making things happen as a instructional leader.

  12. It’s interesting to dialogue with educators about the crab-bucket phenomenon. Teaching in a city school, I actually challenge my students to “be a bucket of crabs in reverse” and they live up to the challenge. At least once a week, students check in with me to see which students in their section are failing so they can get on top of them to makeup work and get passing. As much as this analogy can be used to discourage, it can also be used to encourage.

  13. Anonymous
    How did you get the students to the point where they have the courage to check in with you and go after the ones who need reminders to get the work done and pass? I have a group of grade 8s who do not see the need to pass or do the work as they feel they cannot be failed and that if school is NOT FUN, why should they bother. How did you get buy in?

  14. Jennifer Lynne is right on! Principals must be allowed to “reconstitute” the staff so that the crabs can be released. Too much precious time is spent trying to develop “buy in” from people who have no intention of “buying in” even though their data clearly demonstrates that their students are not learning. Why should children be held hostage to adults who are getting paid to work on their behalf?

  15. Given the opprtunity, the safe environment to work together, talk together, fail at something tried new, readjust and try again…we are..there are a lot of briliant teachers amongst us….capable of solving, improving,CREATING, guiding, as valuable as gold itself learning experiences for our youth….we’re running scared….we must stand with courage and do our jobs. As for the theives amongst us who fraudulantly take money (their gauranteed salaries) for services not rendered….they should be expelled from the union and made to provide their own lawyers to defend their rights to do a poor job, provide shoddy workmanship,and discredit the profession.

  16. The problem is real, however all change is not for the better and blanket change with no teacher input or regard for the locale is in itself self defeating. The pervasive anti-teacher attitude coupled with entitled students and helicopter parents is a far bigger problem, along with those ivory tower experts who put forth ideas which are at best questionable.
    Finally, there are the paranoid purported leaders who consider anyone who may disagree to be a problem.
    There are certainly many who oppose anything but “How We Used to Do it” but if a leader can’t deal with them and still move forward, they arn’t much of a leader. JB

  17. Lord, some of you really sound frustrated to the point of being mean. Teachers are no different from anyone else. Some of us are insecure and afraid of change, some get bored easily and are always looking for change. Some of us are lazy by nature, some oppositional, some relish being the outsider. A good instructional leader takes all those tendencies and puts them to use. Of course school culture can be altered without reconsituting and removing all the staff- but it’s a long process and everyone seems to want things to happen overnight. A school is not an assembly line. You would be fooling yourself to think that all teachers will have the same personalities, communication styles, world view, or level of energy to commit to the job. The best administrators are those who take the time to build consensus, have a high degree of empathy because they have extensive classroom experience, understand that teaching adults is a very different process than teaching children – and ultimately honor the individual strengths that even the thorniest person brings to their site.

  18. I agree and see this culture on a daily basis. My concern is mostly is keeping those new teachers that want and need to grow motivated. I have a few teachers that during their planning time visit classrooms to share their gloom. I agree that in most cases because they have been in the building so long they need to be removed to create a positive climate.


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