For Administrators

Making Your School More Receptive to Change

By Brian Gatens January 14, 2013

Teacher Helps StudentsIntroducing change into any organization is a complex, difficult endeavor. Getting schools to shift directions is especially challenging because effective schools run on routine, practice and culture — and change upsets that balance. These factors, combined with the uniquely human aspect of schooling, require school leaders to take a planned, deliberate and collaborative approach to change.

Through my experience and research, I suggest schools consider these guidelines when implementing major changes:

Begin with people

Unlike companies that deal solely with the creation of a product or service, schools work with children and their families, which makes it essential that everybody has the opportunity to weigh in on considered changes. Nothing is worse than alienating people by having them feel as if change is being forced upon them. Gather input via community meetings, online surveys and focus groups with key stakeholders.

Base decisions on data

Pointing to data and research supporting the proposed change creates a strong and compelling case for the new initiative. Without supporting data, you can foster the mistaken belief that you’re changing solely for the sake of change. An example of this might be to adjust your school’s approach to literacy instruction if scores on local and state tests show your school is underperforming compared to similar communities.

Find a ‘mirror school’

With so much access to data and information on other schools, it’s easy to find a school like yours that is performing at a higher level. The trick is to establish ways to import those curricular approaches and instructional techniques into your building. Paying a visit to the high-performing school also offers a strong visual example to follow.

Don’t run from conversation

Many schools shy away from change because it leads to complex, sometimes difficult, conversations with multiple members of the school community. Long before these conversations happen, you need to build open and clear channels of communication that will strengthen relationships with people who can provide necessary support for your change initiatives.

Don’t overestimate staff member comfort

I’ve learned through experience that overestimating staff member comfort with any change to their work environment can be extremely hazardous. I strongly suggest underestimating your staff’s comfort level, and then planning new training and expected teacher practices that more than take their comfort level into account.

Have long (and patient) timeframes

The long-term effectiveness of change is proportional to the speed in which it is introduced. It takes a long time for school cultures to be adjusted, and change that appears to be handed from “on high” or introduced too quickly tends to fade as soon as the higher-ups move onto their next big thing.

Focus on past, present and future

It is best to break down all change initiatives into:

  • What has been done to bring the change to the school
  • What is now being done to meet expectations
  • What future actions look like

Along with this information, it is best to highlight the tools and training that will be offered to meet these expectations.

If you’re looking for a great jumping-off point to discussing school change, I suggest starting with KQED’s excellent Mindshift Blog. To avoid the poison of inertia — movement without progress — schools need to constantly examine their practices and then rely upon an effective change process to improve the quality of the education being offered to their students. This is best done by deliberate, collaborative and data-supported changes introduced over time and without a sense of undue urgency.

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