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Strategies and Stories to Lead and Succeed

Grow to be a Change Agent or Change Your Address

Change is everywhere - constant and continuous, big and small, serious and inconsequential.  Change can affect us personally and directly such as when a new student joins a class or an administrator has to recommend to the board to reduce personnel.  There is institutional change such as hiring a new principal, designing policies for student safety or closing a school. Then there is societal change like electing a new president, implementing federal and state mandates like the No Child Left Behind, staying up-to-date on special education law, and college admission requirements.  Change can be massive, ambiguous, unpredictable, complex and deeply intertwined.

One superintendent I worked for was nicknamed the “moving superintendent.”  Due to large subdivisions being rapidly built in the community and a couple of hundred children moving into homes every year, it was very difficult to plan for such an exploding student population. During the building boom one spring, the “moving superintendent” announced that since the children were being moved around the school district to make classroom size equitable per the teacher contract, all eight principals would be moving to a different building in the fall. With shocked faces, the questions began from the principals.  Can I bring my secretary? No.  Can I bring my custodian? No.  Can I bring some teachers? Finally, a yes, but only if they choose to move, there are openings in the school and the sending and receiving principals agree.  And so it happened, massive, mandatory, disruptive, complicated and significant change.

Some leaders may choose to be quick change artists – those who enjoy change for the sake of change.  These leaders dwell on the bits and pieces of change, such as thinking about new ways to get parents involved in school at the expense of missing the real value of actually getting them there.  Strewn around them are fragmented attempts at change, but nothing really changes notably.  Some school leaders keep adding things for teachers to do, such as implementing new instructional strategies, reviewing technology software, readjusting attendance policies on the spot while not clarifying what is to be removed that may not be working and clarifying the value added. Teachers become overloaded, confused, agitated and ultimately return to what is comfortable – the status quo. Pity the educators who have a school leader who goes to a conference and immediately tries to implement the newest curriculum trend like block scheduling just to keep up with a neighboring school. Change doesn’t happen magically because you want it to or say so.   Nor do you have to be The Great Houdini to make it happen.

Boards of education, local school councils, trustees and governing bodies want school leaders who can grow in the journey toward change with their faculty and staff and get results together.  Leaders who facilitate principals and teachers to be agents of change, enablers of change, reduce them as the casualties of change.  

Certainly a school leader does not make change happen alone. But how do you get other educators to “buy-in” and/ or take ownership of change?  It is not a good idea to use the NIKE slogan, Just Do It.  Nor in this case would I suggest following the advice of Sheryl Crow in her classic song, Change Will Do You Good.  Most educators I know will not accept change without a variety of opportunities to interact and collaborate with colleagues about it.  Change leaders need to grow in their facilitation skills so that they can challenge educators to independently, collaboratively and creatively search for the best possible ideas to put in practice.  Additionally this type of leader has the insight to know what is important locally and focuses on the things that will make a difference in the school for students. But this is just the beginning.

So that you don’t have the “ innovation, strategy or policy flavor of the month,” know that real change can only occur when it is sustained over time.  Only then will educators and stakeholders know the change is important and that it reflects the best we know about teaching and learning.  If you are not willing to integrate and support change throughout the system, it may be time to change your address, go into hiding, and/or put another person in charge. All aspects of the system need to be moving forward together.  A dentist doesn’t say, “Well I guess I won’t worry about that abscessed tooth, the rest of your mouth is fine.”  The school systems and individuals in the school are interdependent for support and each person contributes to successful, substantive and sustained change.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from 99 Ways to Lead and Succeed: Strategies for School Leaders, Eye on Education, 2009.