Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Can You Believe in Change This School Year?

By Paul Kelleher — October 17, 2008 5 min read
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Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, “Change you can believe in,” raises the question of whether believing in a change is enough to make it a reality. In this year’s presidential race, both sides make the assumption that if Americans believe a large-scale proposal for change is both worthwhile and possible, then they will accept and embrace it—and certainly vote for the candidate espousing it.

In education, the professional literature on change and leadership also emphasizes that a proposal must first be credible if it is to persuade people to act. A critical mass of those concerned must experience what’s known these days as a “felt need” for change, and then become persuaded that the specific change in question can make their lives better. Only with these cognitive and emotional conditions met can large-scale alterations in how people do their work actually occur.

But as important as believing in change is, current views underestimate the difficulty of achieving change and oversimplify the process of doing so. No matter how compelling a change may seem, human nature leads most of us to feelings of ambivalence about it. Our lives—both personal and professional—are basically insecure. We may not think or talk much about mortality, yet we know our lives could end tomorrow. And as we age, this fundamental awareness grows and our insecurities deepen. We are reminded continually of how changeable are the people, places, and events around us.

Nowhere is this truer than in schools, where the changes in generations are measured by students passing through our classrooms, where we mark time by the rise and fall of new administrative leadership, where we remember (or think we remember) other times when children were more motivated, parents more responsible, and leaders more enlightened.

In our daily school lives, all of us seek peace, harmony, and good feelings—about ourselves, our students, and our work. We know what we like to do, what we care about, what we want to do, and what we will do. We find balance in our lives through familiar touchstones, the people, places, and ways of doing things that seem right for us. And we try to maintain these. Comfortable routines give us a hedge against life’s basic insecurity.

Though most of us may understand that change is necessary, even positive, and though we do our best to adapt to it, we are all, at the same time, searching for security. Change is not only uncomfortable, but sometimes frightening. Our reflexive, often unconscious response is to resist change because it upsets our hard-won equilibrium.

Consider the common example of this ambivalence: trying to change ourselves through diets or pledges to form new habits. Research and our own experience tell us that even when we know such changes are imperative, most of our efforts fail. Even a majority of people who have serious heart attacks and are told to change their diets and lifestyles to survive will revert to old and destructive patterns within two years.

We must abandon the ‘either-or’ view of change—you’re either a change agent or a change obstacle—and accept a ‘both-and’ ambivalence.”

It seems to be a part of human nature to live a contradiction between what we say about change and what we do. As parents, most of us become aware of this contradiction in various “do as I say, not as I do” moments as we raise our kids. More problematic, though, are the times when we are unaware of the contradictions, when we fail to recognize our own resistance to change. We look then for ways to rationalize opposition to change—excuses that may keep healthy and productive new patterns from coming to life.

As a public school leader—a teacher, principal, and superintendent—I saw myself as a learner and change agent. But I still experienced powerful feelings of ambivalence about change, especially when it involved me personally. One small example of this occurred in one of my annual performance-review conferences with the board of education. A board member made the comment that all of us tend to spend too much work time on the tasks we like and too little on those we don’t like. When he asked me what work tasks I didn’t like, I remember feeling immediate unease and anxiety. I thought to myself, confessing that I don’t like politicking local community groups might lead board members to think less of me and take a harder look at my community activities. So I didn’t volunteer that information. Had I done so, the result might have been changes in how I did my job—changes that could have been beneficial—but I was not ready to undertake them.

So I did not reveal any vulnerability. When someone else had gently tried to draw attention to my familiar work patterns, I had resisted. Despite an avowed commitment to change, my behavior contradicted my words. I was defensive, protective of the equilibrium I had established in my work responsibilities.

This natural defensiveness gets complicated by the fact that schools as social institutions are not just about change, but also about conservation. In considering schools’ role in change, we sometimes forget the past and our continuing responsibility to it, and somehow assume that schools begin anew each year, just as the school calendar does.

But the institutional role of public schools in American society stretches back 150 years. Any teacher or administrator today is but the latest in a long line of practitioners and reformers. Throughout that time period, educators have both reflected and influenced the social change surrounding them. Some of what our predecessors did may seem seriously flawed today, mistakes like trying “life-adjustment education” after World War II, or setting up high schools as “sit and git” institutions for adolescents. Some of what they did, however, remains noble and impressive today: enabling the social mobility of countless young people, committing the field to the promotion of children’s personal and social growth as well as their academic growth.

Today’s school leaders have to be both change agents and trustees of the established truths of the past. The trick is knowing when to do which.

The only successful path to resolving the contradiction between our belief in change and our resistance to it—as well as to ensuring that the changes we think are important get translated into action—is to become more reflective and less reflexive in our attitudes. We must abandon the “either-or” view of change—you’re either a change agent or a change obstacle—and accept a “both-and” ambivalence. We must recognize that the defensiveness we may feel in ourselves and observe in others is a normal, even healthy, human response—an emotional expression of the wish to protect what is stable in an unstable world. Without that ambivalence, we might embark on ill-considered changes that could prove unproductive or worse.

If we accept and claim our ambivalence about change, we can separate reflex resistance from healthy opposition and work toward reconciling our beliefs and actions. Only then we will have “change we can believe in”—and enact for the benefit of all.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week

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