Change in schools: A complex process and a long runway

image from ELG21 on pixabay

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’.

Reflecting on the school leader

The bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise; the great leader is he who the people say, “We did it ourselves”. ~ Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Part of my PhD literature review encompassed what makes effective school leadership, and effective leadership of change or reform in schools. If you don’t fancy savouring all 300 odd pages of my dissertation, the summary of my literature search determined that effective school leaders:

  • Develop shared vision;
  • Have high expectations and clear accountabilities;
  • Develop an environment of trust;
  • Empower others and allow them autonomy, space, and support to lead;
  • Solve complex problems;
  • Engage with the wider community; act as storyteller and sense-maker; and
  • Balance instructional and transformational leadership.

Many of these points are reflected in the Australian Professional Standards for Principals, which break school leadership down into the following components:

  • Leading teaching and learning;
  • Developing self and others;
  • Leading improvement, innovation, and change;
  • Leading the management of the school; and
  • Engaging and working with the community.

Both of these lists cross over one another, and each seems simple in its short-list nature (5 dot points! How hard can it be?), but looking closely at many of these aspects of school leadership quickly reveals the complexity of the mandate. On top of that, school leadership teams are under pressure from constant measures of their performance. Leadership itself becomes a quantified, evaluated performance. Meanwhile, on a daily basis leaders constantly code-switch as they move from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the parents’ committee, to the community event, to the performance management conversation, to the staff member or student who needs support.

My PhD study found that school leaders are constantly navigating internal, relational, and organisational identities. These complex and sometimes competing identities affect leaders’ experiences and decision making. The leaders in my study were moving, often deliberately and relentlessly, between leadership modes that were directive and empowering, hero and servant, visible and invisible.

Leading is a constant state of becoming and of identity work. Peter Gronn, in his 2003 book The new work of educational leaders: Changing leadership practice in an era of school reform, reminds us that leaders’ senses of who they are, and who they aspire to be, play a pivotal role in their engagement with their work. Having multiple leadership roles in my current school has meant that it is not only me who has had to shift my self-perceptions or identity enactments, but also my colleagues who have had to see me in new ways across my time at the school. Additionally, I have multiple, competing identities that exist simultaneously with my school identity; as parent, spouse, sibling, daughter, researcher. Boundary spanner and pracademic. Identities like plates precariously spinning atop spidery poles.

While Gronn suggests that individuals rework their perspectives in relation to their contexts, my PhD found that, while context does shape professional identity, individuals also choose their contexts to fit their own identities. My leader participants indicated that they stayed in schools that resonated with their senses of professional self, and left schools in which they did not feel aligned with organisational purpose and action. That is, school contexts shape leaders, and leaders shape their contexts. Leaders can and do choose schools with which they feel an identity fit, and leave schools in which they feel they do not fit.

Wellbeing is a real issue in school leadership, as reflected in the results of the longitudinal Riley study, which has found that Australian principals score lower than the general population on positive measures of wellbeing, quality of life, and mental health; but higher on negative measures such as stress, depression and sleeping trouble. Leaders need formal and informal support, as well as their own strategies for self-care and renewal. It might be that school leadership can be summarised in a series of dot points, but it is contextual, complex, and lonely. It is challenging and rewarding, exhausting and exhilarating.

Transformational adult learning and growth: a conversation with Ellie Drago-Severson

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware. ~ Martin Buber

Columbia University

Columbia University

It was my privilege to meet in New York with someone whose writing has shaped my PhD research and my school-based work in building a teacher growth model: Ellie Drago-Severson.

Ellie is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education Leadership and Adult Learning & Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her ‘four pillars’ of professional learning are: teaming or partnering with colleagues within and outside the school; providing teachers with leadership roles; engaging in collegial enquiry; and mentoring (or coaching).

While I have read her work (including Helping teachers learn: Principal leadership for adult growth and development, 2004; Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development, 2004; and Learning for leadership: Developmental strategies  for building capacity in our schools, with Blum-DeStefano & Ashgar, 2013) it was most interesting to hear her stories of working with teachers, school leaders, schools and districts to help them apply learning theory to practice. One example was of a school which, after working over time on the learning of its teachers, now consistently achieves the highest student achievement scores in its district.

Teachers College

Teachers College

Ellie’s examples of working with educators were based in some fundamental principles:

  • Teachers are adult learners who own their own learning and should be provided with choices. They should be able to choose if they are ready for growth. Even in mandated programs they should be able to choose their own paths.
  • Developmentally, learners may initially want ‘the answers’ or to be told how to improve, but the aim of adult learning should be to develop self-authoring individuals. Coaching should aim to grow individual capacity (e.g. Developmental Coaching, Cognitive Coaching).
  • Talk defines and drives behaviour (similarly to the beliefs of Adaptive Schools I explored here). Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (2002) looks at how language determines feelings, governs action and impacts learning. As well as talk, the quality of listening has been confirmed by research to be a developmental support for learning.
  • Change should start at a slow pace, with volunteers, building momentum and reach over time.
  • ‘Push back’ (resistance or questioning) should be welcomed and explored.
  • The key to learning is a trusting nurturing environment in which people feel ‘held’; they need to be simultaneously supported and challenged. It is vital to spend the time building culture and developing group norms and ground rules for confidentiality.

Strategies that Ellie uses when working with educators include:

  • Exercises from Developmental Coaching, such as those which help individuals to identify the underlying beliefs driving their behaviour and build a plan to address those beliefs;
  • Informal ‘drop in / drop out’ lunches to which staff are invited but not required. Lunch time conversations based on professional readings and the question ‘What might this look like in your practice?’
  • Journals for teachers / coaches / leaders as a sacred technology-free space for thinking.

There are many affirming ideas here for my school’s work in designing and implementing a teacher growth model, including the importance of a trusting environment, the role of talk and language, deliberately going slow, and providing scaffolds for ownership and differentiation of learning.

Some questions that arise are:

  • To what extent are we differentiating our teacher growth process for teachers? Is it enough for their experience to be one of meaningful, self-driven ownership?
  • What further strategies might we employ to build the cognition and engagement of teachers in their own learning (such as optional journals and online portfolios, or informal lunches to talk about teaching)?
  • How might we support those staff who are not yet self-authoring learners to develop their capacity for self-directed learning?

trust & rapport from the High Line: Eduardo Kobra's mural

trust & rapport from the High Line