The old saying is that “No one likes change but babies in diapers.” (Barbara Johnson) If that is true, how does a district make systemic change? Kotter International states, “Urgency is becoming increasingly important because change is shifting from episodic to continuous. That means there is a constant need for an urgent focus on what is important.” Change is around every corner. There is no longer a period of breathing room in education. In North Carolina, it is no different. Our districts are facing very large changes:
- Focusing on 21st century skills
- NC Teacher/Administrator Performance Evaluations
- Common Core/Essential Standards curriculum changes
- Online assessments to be given statewide in 2014
We must communicate a sense of urgency to all education stakeholders. Parents, teachers, students, and community must be involved in how schools do business. They must understand the WHY of change as much as they want to know the HOW of change. Without a sense of urgency, it is easy to put off what needs to be done (spoken by a true procrastinator by the way!). Most change needs immediate action. By waiting, it can compound issues to where you have to climb a mountain to solve a problem rather than a small hill.
When I took my first leadership role, someone recommended I read the book “Our Iceberg is Melting” by John Kotter. This is a very quick read (within an hour) and is presented in a narrative format. Through the example shared, Kotter reveals several steps to bringing about change successfully. These steps have helped me throughout my career. Upon reflection, I realize that I have developed my own off-brand approach.
- Build the infrastructure: As a leader, you must know the political landscape and the resources that you have at your disposal. Are there structures in place for communication? How does everyone collaborate? Find out what is there and see if it can be used to accomplish your goals.
- Know the players, build a team: People are important. If you are not a “people person”, education is not the place for you. A good leader will take the time to know the players of the game and figure out how to strategically place them to bring about the best results. Find strengths and play to those. If weaknesses are too great to ignore, figure out how to grow strength in those folks or help them find a place better suited for them.
- Answer the “so what?” factor: Everyone wants to know what is in it for them. Why should I care? I remember asking my own high school teachers that very same question. It is the same for leadership. Teachers have tons of responsibilities on their plates. It is the job of the leader to make connections so that everyone understands how to work smarter. I use the analogy of “Chopped” on Food Network. On the show, chefs are given random ingredients and told to make a meal from them. The key is to make something that tastes good, looks good, and is good. Leaders in schools have to do the same with the different issues, programs and responsibilities on that teacher plate.
- Bottom-up: Change needs to be a grassroots effort. If you can get buy-in by those affected the most, it can be very successful. There is a great video about leadership from the perspective of the “first follower.” Although funny, it illustrates perfectly how change can become a movement.
- Top-down: Leaders need to lead change. Period.
- Differentiate for the learners (a.k.a. give them choice): Have multiple methods for teachers to get on board. This might be in timing (letting some go first or let those who need to be last, be last), in presentation of the information (multiple formats), or in application of the change (let them choose where they will contribute to the adoption of change).
- Meet them where they are: Don’t make the assumption that everyone is the same. Figure out the needs of your audience/staff and work towards that. My husband is NOT a technology person. He gets overwhelmed with the technical knowledge I have. If I tried to teach him on my level, he would shut down. Instead, it is important for me to teach him something about technology WHEN he needs it or wants to learn it. Then he embraces the knowledge instead of kicking back.
- Be ready to drop back and punt: Not all change will be smooth sailing. Give the change time to take hold but if the writing on the wall early on says that this is not the way to go, don’t be afraid to stop the implementation of change and work toward a better solution.