What’s the hurry? What I’ve come to believe about change
I consider myself to be an agent of change. I’m in my fourth headship in 17 years. In each of these positions, I’ve approached them with the firm belief and personal understanding my role is to advocate and initiate change. This is partially due to the life cycle existing in schools. It is my opinion schools have a life cycle. This life cycle is determined by different factors whether it is the age of the school, financial considerations, political factors outside the school, community demographics, or other factors. At different points in the cycle, a school needs different leaders with different skill sets to move the school along until it reaches the next phase. When I come into a school, I try to be very clear about my skill set and the change I will initiate. If hired, I believe it is because it is perceived what I bring to the school is a match for where the school is at in its life cycle. The other reason I see myself as an agent of change is because I believe we have a responsibility as educators to always do everything we can to provide the very best education possible for our students. I believe it was Michael Fullan who made the point a school that isn’t changing isn’t learning. I sincerely believe this. We need to be constantly setting our sites on what is best for students, and continually evolve and change to accomplish that.
So, what have I learned about change? I think the most important thing I’ve learned is change is a process, it doesn’t create immediate results. This process is difficult in schools, especially international schools, where there is constant turnover in students, faculty, board members, and others. There is a tendency to anticipate immediate results. In my current school, The International School Yangon (ISY), we began a process of change aimed at environmental sustainability. We were still in the discussion stage when many people were already expecting to see a difference. I’ll never forget during a school event during this time hearing a comment, “here we’ve been taking about doing something different about the environment, yet all I see is the same old thing.” Michael Fullan (2013) tells us we need to look at three-year trends. From the time a change is initiated, it takes three years to really see a difference. Kotter (2011) indicates it is important people notice some improvement in 12 – 24 months, but the reality is it will take at least three years before a change is fully realized. He describes the expectation of results too soon as being one of the challenges of successful change efforts. For my part, I see a cycle of change that is generally four years. My experience has been I spend the first year in a school learning about what we need to do to build on what we are doing well, and identify what we could be doing better. The second year is about building buy in, whether that is through strategic planning, a SWOT process, professional development, or the use of a consultant. Ultimately, there needs to be a base of people supporting change, and a plan created for moving forward. The third year is a key one. This is the year change really begins to take hold in a school. It becomes clearly visible, and a sense of urgency develops. This is also a time when turnover begins to occur and key people might move on, meaning there is a need to maintain the focus and bring others along. In a sense then, this year is about momentum and focus. Year four is the year we begin to realize results. The work that has gone into change begins to see its rewards. In a sense, a new system has come into place. Then, in years four and year five, we begin to fine tune, look for ways to improve, and look for new changes to initiate as a part of that constant cycle of school improvement.
Change is not easy, and it is not without conflict. Heifetz and Linsky (2011) tell us conflict is a necessary part of change. One conflict is a result of a feeling things are moving too fast, the pace of change is too quick. In fact, when it comes to change, I’ve often been asked, “What’s the hurry? Why are we moving so quickly?” I would argue change is never too fast. In international schools, it is an absolute necessity we move quickly due to the constant turnover that takes place in the school community. We need to take advantage of those who feel ownership over a change effort. While we try to build that ownership in new folks, it is never quite the same. Beyond that, if we really believe the change we are pursuing is meaningful for student learning, then it needs to be pursued at a rapid pace so all students can benefit. Kotter (2011) agrees on the importance of urgency to the change process. He sees a sense of urgency as perhaps the most important factor for effective change, citing it as the force generating a sense of momentum for change to be successful. Garvin and Roberto (2011) concur, stating that in the absence of a sense of urgency, most people will simply continue doing what they have already done. Many international schools have a history of going through a quick succession of leaders. Garvin and Roberto describe that sense of urgency to be even more important in these organizations. It is easy to resist in these situations and find reasons to condemn the new champion of change. Urgency helps to create a climate that we are moving forward. Early in my career I became head of a school that had experienced nine heads in its eleven-year history. As I began to initiate change, and confronted resistance, one teacher bluntly told me, “I’ve outlived five heads before you, I’ll outlive you as well!” I publicly reminded him of this during my welcome back address four years later.
Encouraging faculty to support change can be a challenge. There are always people who strongly support a change effort, and were a part of initiating the process. They are the base, and are the ones who can move things forward. Unfortunately, they are not the loudest. The ones we hear from most are those who resist the change. They are the ones who run to different members of the community to complain the change is destroying the school, they are too overwhelmed, or they are not being listened to. Garvin and Roberto (2011) describe these behaviors as dysfunctional routines. Early in my career, I used to pay too much attention to these voices, believing I need to “win” them over. I’ve since changed my opinion. Reeves (2209) describes the types of people we find in an organization where change has been initiated. He says roughly 17% of the people are leaders, people who can be counted on to move the effort forward. He describes 81% as middle of the road, either followers or fence sitters. Then, he describes the remaining 2% as the toxic 2%. Unfortunately, these are the ones we tend to hear the most from, and so tend to give the most attention to. Alternatively, he says we need to focus our attention on the 17% who are leaders as they will guide the middle 81% forward, leaving the toxic 2% behind. Heifetz and Linsky (2011) go further. They believe it is essential to court the middle group. It is essential they see the change is serious, including the termination of those who constitute the unwilling, so they begin to see a need to get on board. Fortunately, there are ways to filter out the toxic 2%. At ISY, we engage in an annual SWOT activity. During these meetings, various members of the school community have voiced their support for the changes taking place. While some teachers have voiced resistance, others have voiced their strong support. In our most recent SWOT analysis, one teacher even described the changes taking place as nothing short of “transformational.” We hear these same sentiments in our end of year teacher interviews, and our annual community climate surveys, where it is clear the support is strong for the changes taking place across the community. I have found find ways to hear how the majority feel about a change process can eliminate the power the toxic 2% take on by being the loudest.
I want to be clear and acknowledge change is not easy. It is hard work, but it is necessary work. I believe most educators support the idea of change, knowing it means a better education for our students. Change is also stressful. According to Heifetz and Linsky (2011), stress is important for change to occur. It creates an awareness and motivation for moving forward. In fact, they indicate complaints of stress around change are a good thing. It is an indication something is happening, people are being asked to act differently, and are moving forward. I personally believe stress is important, but we need to balance the stress and put it into perspective while not falling back onto complacency. We owe it to our students to be constantly learning, to be in a hurry to provide them the best education they deserve.
Fullan, M. (2013). The six secrets of change. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
Garvin, D. and Roberto, M. (2011). Change Through Persuasion. In: On Change Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, pp.17-34.
Heifetz, R. and Linsky, M. (2011). A Survival Guide for Leaders. In: On Change Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, pp.99-118.
Kotter, J. (2011). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. In: On Change Mangement. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, pp.1-16.
Reeves, D. (2009). Leading change in your school. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.