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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Our Iceberg Is Melting: Isn’t It Time to Change?

By Peter DeWitt — November 06, 2012 5 min read
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“Clarify how the future will be different from the past, and how you can make that future a reality.” John Kotter

This year seems different. Even in schools where principals have positive relationships with teachers the observation process is still nerve-racking for everyone involved. Many principals feel like Darth Vader as they walk down the hallway because teachers are afraid that they are the next unannounced observation. Even in the most trusting schools, there is a feeling of mistrust for the process.

Educators who have been relegated to point scales are looking for the maximum scores and principals are trying their best to make sure they account for every bit of evidence they need when completing observations. Although the formal observation process is seen as a positive experience for most people because it provides the time for principals to see great teaching, there is still a feeling of concern.

To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure if this is the social and emotional focus my blog is supposed to take but I’m fairly certain that all of these changes have affected school culture which definitely impacts the social and emotional health of teachers, students, staff and administrators. I’m tired of the doom and gloom. I’m tired of questioning my day to day interactions with people that I respect the most which are the teachers, students and staff.

I’m ready to move on. I’m fighting to make sure our daily lives are positive. We are all fighting to regain a positive school culture. If we’re not, we should be. Our students deserve more than they have been getting. It is at a time like this that I like to sit back and read a book that will inspire me. That has not always been easy. Even my most inspirational mentors have not helped and the books I usually turn to have not put a dent in what I have been feeling. Then I turned around in my chair and found Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter sitting on my bookshelf.

Our Iceberg is Melting
If you are in educational leadership you have probably read Our Iceberg is Melting. If not, you should read it because it is a quick and inspirational read. Kotter focuses on what needs to happen to create organizational change. If there is ever a time when schools need to pay attention to this book, the time is now.

In order for schools to change their culture, they need to take the proper steps to make sure they are moving forward and these eight steps will help. The following are the steps Dr. John Kotter suggests that organizations take in order to become better.

Create a sense of urgency - Our school cultures are at risk. They are definitely stressed and it is more important than ever to create the sense of urgency schools need to change. Most schools have been under the cloud of accountability and they need to regain their positive focus.

Pull together the guiding team - This includes everyone from students, parents to teachers and staff. What do we want our school cultures to look like? What innovative practices do we need? How does technology play a role in our present circumstances?

Develop the change vision and strategy - Kotter says (p. 130) “Clarify how the future will be different from the past, and how you can make that future a reality.” There is a great deal of conversation around college and career readiness as well as the use of technology. Schools need to make sure they have the proper vision where all of those issues are concerned. Make the vision simple and make it positive.

Communicate for understanding and buy in - Our staff and students really prepared for one of the biggest changes happening in schools which is the adoption of the Common Core State Standards? Yes, the CCSS have been in the public school system for awhile but it does not mean that schools are prepared. All of these new implementations have affected school culture and all stakeholders need to buy in that our cultures have suffered and need to change.

Empower others to act - There is no greater time for those who usually remain quiet to stand up and speak. Most public schools are doing an outstanding job educating students, and there are teachers who do a great job creating innovative experiences for students. They need to be a positive influence in school.

Produce short-term wins - Do you remember the phrase “Caught you being good!” This is the time to find those short term wins. Those short term wins will help schools change their climates for the better. Those short-term wins will help us move forward.

Don’t let up - It’s easy to give up during our present situation. High stakes testing can suck the life out of the best classroom and the negative talk about education can as well but we cannot let up. We must keep moving forward to create positive school cultures.

Create a new culture - Kotter says, “Hold on to the new ways of behaving, and make sure they succeed, until they become strong enough to replace old traditions”. The past few years have been difficult, and the years ahead do not look any easier. We need to refocus on why we are here, even those the powers that be don’t seem to have a clue. We need to recreate our positive school cultures.

In the End
I am a firm believer in the phrase, “things happen for a reason.” Accountability has taken our collective breath away but our passion for education and students is still at the core of who we are, even though it may not be at the core of why these changes occurred. There was a reason why I turned around and caught a glimpse of a book I have not read since before the sky began to fall.

Kotter’s book will not solve all of the problems in school but with the right ingredients, which are the stakeholders in our school communities, these eight changes can make a serious positive dent in our school culture. Isn’t about time we focus on what matters?

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Kotter, John (2005). Our Iceberg is Melting. Changing and Succeeding Under Any Circumstances. St. Martin’s Press. New York, N.Y.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.