Sharing the Shift-Change in Schools

It is hard to do the right work. There are many moving parts, people, conflicting beliefs and practices. Effective leaders care about addressing all stakeholders’ needs while guiding necessary shifts in how schools serve learners. It is impossible to satisfy everyone while change happens. Each person is affected differently. The leader’s job is to understand what that impact means for groups and individuals. They must support them in moving forward.

Leading change in today’s transformation is key. Culture is an important backdrop. It causes each attempt to make shifts unique to an organization. The leader first must understand the ethos of the stakeholders. Questions such as: How are things done here? With whom or with which groups can the leader share banding people together to best serve our learners? How do we identify and commit to desired changes? How do they affect each group and individual? What kinds of supports are required?

There is a difference between authority and leadership. Greg Satell, (Harvard Business Review 2014), says, “…(you can) lead a passionate group of willing innovators and build a movement or (you can) use one’s authority to demand wholesale change by forcing the unwilling.” Change must be empowered; not managed. ‘Managing’ is not transformative even though it is supportive. Influencing the power of stakeholders to own the change process is needed.

There are many experts on the subject. None has more meaning than having actually ‘lived’ it to understand the complexities of the work. My experience leading schools exemplified what Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy describe: “Change leadership merges top-down, bottom-up and sideways energies to generate change that is faster.” In seven years, we fundamentally changed a traditional high school from bricks and mortar, lockstep time, to a personalized system that served each learner. It was in early 2000 when robust education technologies were not widely available or promoted. We rocked our adult world with a large integration of all kinds of technologies while making school learner-centric. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

We first defined a shared vision. We dreamed and visually represented what this ‘new’ system would do, how it would look and feel. Research and best practices were deeply studied. This helped understand the ‘why’ and ‘what’ for planning and communicating.

Strategies were driven by the vision and were captured by a representative leadership task force. Communications were horizontal, vertical and constant. There was much tribulation and non-stop solution finding, hand holding and wringing. We assessed each action and decision implemented; we monitored and adjusted as needed. It took three iterations, four ‘town hall’ meetings, and 90% commitment from staff to implement an embedded professional learning approach that would allow us to learn and grow. A similar process produced an intensified block schedule that accommodated each learner with a personalized coaching model.

The most important outcome achieved was the creation of a culture where each learner was valued, respected and cared about regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Ultimately, students led this cause. They demanded that peers stop using slang or words that could be hurtful even if that was an unintended consequence. LBGT students came forward and asked for voice and respect which was honored and inculcated.

Even while on a positive trajectory, the fact is that change changes too. Just when we believed smooth sailing was ahead there was a reality jolt that caused us to pause, regroup and adjust the path. In those times even the most staunch leaders and supporters wanted to jump ship. We had created schools within a school to better serve different learning styles. Implementation (use of time/space/interdisciplinary curriculum) caused discomfort and uprising for some. We had to be nimble and live with ambiguity until we properly addressed concerns to move forward.

I wish I knew then what I know now. Our practice, research and expertise today provides a rich set of resources and professional network. To say the least, changing schools is daunting, and, to some, impossible to do. I believe that an initial small ripple has great potential under the right distributive leadership. That and passion and will.

Leslie Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
One-to-One Institute

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