Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is it easier to move a cemetery?

We struggle with change in every aspect of school leadership. For the 37 years of my professional life in education I have personally struggled with this, and have often thought to write a book on the topic. But, there is no need for another mindless book, when there are such great thinkers in the world that have been dealing with this dilemma for many years. You see, it is not just school leaders that deal with implementing change, but the concept also runs aground in business and the private sector.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: “To change, or not to change? That is the question.”
After a long career studying this issue and the challenge we all face when we attempt to bring about 21st Century school communities, “change” takes on a new picture. In an excellent blog by Richard Bevan, adjunct faculty member from the University of Washington, he describes a different point of view worth considering. That is, to implement change, one must consider the impact and supports needed by the employees. [1]
In his post, Bevan outlines the three myths that organizations deal with when managing change. I took the liberty to paraphrase them and frame them with school organizations in mind.
Myth #1: “People have a built-in tendency to resist change.”
“The reality: People resist change that they don’t understand, see as poorly managed or think doesn’t help customers [students or themselves]. Organizations [School Districts] that start with the assumption that change will be resisted might fail to explore what those involved think, feel and need — and can contribute.”[2]
School districts are people organizations, usually in the public eye. With increased accountability and political pressure for more mandates, teachers feel overwhelmed and unable to steer through the myriad number of demands that await them. Initiating a new vision to change a program or move the district in a new direction could grind the educational program to a halt, unless implemented with sensitivity and support from school leaders, first.
Bevan recommends that in order to overcome this myth, leaders should:
·        “Develop a brief summary to drive clarity and consistency.
·        Identify key stakeholders, and conduct an assessment of their concerns, questions and ideas.
·        Support managers [principals and subject supervisors] by providing discussion guides, talking points, frequently asked questions and training.[3]

Myth #2: “They can make the time to work through this and get it right.”
“The reality: “They” — [principals & subject supervisors], for example — already have a heavy workload. They are being asked to take on another huge set of tasks and challenges, including dealing with questions and concerns from employees and customers [faculty, staff, students and parents.]”[4]
To overcome the myth, school leaders need to be considerate of the middle managers such as building principals and subject supervisors.
·        “Acknowledge the new workload: Adjust priorities, or engage additional resources, such as contractors consultants and temporary transfers.
·        Assess key processes and systems, such as rewards, information technology and accounting, to ensure they align with and support the change.
·        Ensure senior leaders the superintendent & assistant superintendents are visible, involved and remain open to questions, ideas and discussion.[5]

Myth #3: “If we explain it carefully, everything will fall into place.”
“The reality: Explaining the purpose and the process is certainly an important early step. But sponsors of the change also need to address others’ questions, concerns and alternatives. Effective execution is hard, sustained work. It involves multiple cycles of assessing, adjusting and continuing to course-correct.”[6]
Overcoming this thinking requires principals, supervisors and others engaged and informed through meetings, brainstorming sessions, e-mail bulletins, online forums and webinars. Providing support through a feedback loop that involves interactive and engaging discussions before and during the change process reinforces and supports all of a district leadership team.
There is nothing more painful than suggesting and attempting to implement change in a school.
President Woodrow Wilson once said it was easier to move a cemetery than to change a school curriculum. Hopefully, we will continue to encourage and support our faculty and administrators to be tolerant of people enduring  change.

[1] R. Bevan. (2011, July 12). Struggling with change? Stop telling and start listening. [Guest Post] Smart Brief on Leadership. Retrieved July 12, 2011 at
[2] Bevan (2011) with text substitutions by Tebbano in brackets
[3] Bevan (2011) with text substitutions by Tebbano in brackets
[4] Bevan (2011) with text substitutions by Tebbano in brackets
[5] Bevan (2011) with text substitutions by Tebbano in brackets
[6] Bevan (2011) with text substitutions by Tebbano in brackets