Change in schools: A complex process and a long runway

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While it’s important not to change for change’s sake, schools are parts of and microcosms of society and the wider world. As such they are always acted upon by evolving environments, and are themselves in a state of flux as they adapt to shifting circumstances, communities and education thinking. Change as part of adaptation, and as part of a school’s work to always improve outcomes for students, is inevitable.

“Without a sufficiently strong foundation, the redirection collapses at some point, forcing you to go back and rebuild. Think of it as an investment, an important investment, in creating a better future.” John Kotter, Leading Change, 1996

John Kotter’s well-known 1996 model of change management reveals the complexity of managing or implementing change in an organisation. The model includes eight steps: establish a sense of urgency about the need to achieve change; create a guiding coalition (a group with energy and influence in the organisation to lead the change); develop a vision and strategy for the change; communicate the change vision (tell people, in every possible way and at every opportunity, about the why, what and how of the changes); involve people in the change effort and encourage them to think about the changes and how to achieve them rather than why they do not like the changes and how to stop them; generate short-term wins and recognise the positive work being done to achieve the change; consolidate gains and produce more change, creating momentum; and anchor new approaches in the culture.

Any change needs to emerge out of an identified need, followed by a thorough process of how best to address that need within the context of the particular school. Whenever undertaking a review and redesign process in a school, I often think at the beginning that I have left more than enough time—sometimes even too much time—but a long runway to any change or adjustment always turns out being the best way to go.

My view of the process of considering, designing and implementing change involves a number of stages, outlined below.

Laying the groundwork

Laying the groundwork for change means setting the scene by establishing the need for the change, understanding the context of the change and stakeholder views, and figuring out what the change should look like, how it will work, and what impacts and side effects it is likely to produce. In this stage, leaders work to:

  • Understand the problem. What isn’t working optimally? What are the vision and needs of the organisation and its members? How can these better be met?
  • Ground the work in context and culture. How is this change grounded in the vision and purpose of the organisation? How does it honour tradition and history?
  • Use a variety of consultation processes to generate feedback and understanding of stakeholder views. Conflicting viewpoints, ideas and requests are likely to arise, but themes will arise that can help to inform the change.
  • Ideate (generate ideas), including a wish list of changes and multiple possible solutions.
  • Prototype and test possible models of what the change could look like. This is where the problems are discovered and ironed out, and where it the difference between an idealised perfect and what is actually possible comes into view. It’s important to go back to the why—the underlying purpose and aims—when making decisions to ensure that the change is aligned with the organisation’s core purpose, strategic direction and idiosyncratic context.
  • Continue iteration and consultation at sticky stages of the plan, when it begins to become apparent what can and can’t be done with the resources available and parameters within which the change needs to occur.

Communicating and working towards the change

Once the groundwork is laid, it is time to communicate the change model and implementation plan. This stage includes:

  • Communicating transparently and often about the change. Be clear about how the change is based in feedback from, and in the best interests of, stakeholders. Be clear about what will stay the same. Be clear about the why of the change and the key takeaway messages. Explain what the change entails and what its impacts will be. At this point, the change is happening along the communicated timeline, and everyone in the organisation is now responsible for making the change a success. Leadership—or rather the act of leading—is needed at every level.
  • Sharing plans for staff development and support to ensure that staff are prepared for the change.
  • Inviting opt-in volunteers to be part of positive, productive contribution to the change.
  • Providing energised enthusiasts (or ‘champions of change’) with time, training and support to propel the change forward.

Implementing the change and providing and ongoing support

“Implementation matters. In organisations where change initiatives fail, it is often because of inconsistent or superficial implementation. It is important that we monitor implementation and student progress and be prepared to make mid-course corrections to improvement plans as needed. Communicating regularly is another key ingredient. It is important that we keep everyone informed of goals, progress and next steps.” Michelle Jones and Alma Harris, Leading and Transforming Education Systems, 2020

Day 1 of the change being implemented is not the moment at which the change ends. The first phase of implementation remains an important time to support all in the organisation (in a school this includes parents, students, teachers, leaders, and administration and support staff) and to continue to generate feedback about how things are going. It is important that school leaders continue to:

  • Take time to continue to generate feedback and listen to the experiences of those implementing and experiencing the change.
  • Review progress and assess the impact of the change.
  • Provide support and training.
  • Recognise and celebrate wins and what is working well.
  • Act with kindness, compassion and empathy. Change can be difficult, and any change takes time. Fear, anxiety and resistance are natural responses to the uncertainty that often comes with change, no matter how clearly communicated and well planned. For some people, change will feel like loss, and they will need to be supported to process their feelings and to see what is not changing, and what values, vision and traditions are being upheld and strengthened.

Even when the why of the change is compelling, change management is challenging for those leading the change, for those who are part of enacting the change, and for anyone who the change affects. When enacting a change process, senior and middle leaders need to band together in productive ways grounded in shared vision and purpose. School leaders need plenty of strength, resilience and conviction. They need to be clear on the why, what and how of the change, and to take care of themselves in order to be able to support others.

Change in schools should be part of an evolution that goes from being something new or reimagined, to something embedded as a core part of the organisation: a part of ‘the way we do things around here’ and part of ‘who we are and how we operate in this place’.

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