Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Is There Time to Lead Change Well?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 11, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It is pretty clear that this century’s leadership demands are first and foremost their ability to anticipate, lead, and survive change. While attention is called to what needs to be changed, developing the capacity to lead change has gone largely unattended. Learning how to watch the horizon like a sea captain, navigate a boat filled with children and teachers through white waters, and successfully make it through with fear turned to excitement...who teaches these things?

A recent blog post written by Starr Sackstein, a teacher in NYC, spoke to teachers about how to “sink or swim” in a change initiative. Of particular interest were her eight survival tips below:

  1. Find out as much as you can about the initiative.
  2. Ask for help once you know what you’re headed into.
  3. Rather than assume the change is bad (because it’s happening), try to see the positive and be positive with the students and parents about it.
  4. Give yourself time to acclimate.
  5. Make the new initiative yours.
  6. Always put the students’ needs first and work hard to not let your discomfort with change cloud your attitude.
  7. Try not to blame anyone for what has happened. Many times changes come from different places and getting angry at one person isn’t going to change your situation.
  8. If you can’t adapt to the new change, maybe it’s time to try another situation.

What a thoughtful view into the experience for teachers this is. It is worthwhile advice, and much of it useful and relevant for leaders as well. Change expert John Kotter presents an eight-stage process for successfully leading major change. They are:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Creating the guiding coalition
  3. Developing vision and strategy
  4. Communicating the change vision
  5. Empowering broad-based action
  6. Generating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating gains and producing more change
  8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture (p.21)

We know that if these eight stages are followed, Ms. Sackstein’s eight survival steps may fade to become helpful reminders for the reluctant rather than “sink or swim” items for everyone’s survival. Her steps reveal the missteps that leaders take, skipping one or more of them and the situation creates survival mode for many.

We Want Student Learning Successes, Don’t We?
Changes in educational practice have always had the intention of improving student achievement. We change reading programs, the way science and math are taught, teaching literacy across the curriculum, we’ve added technology, engineering, we’ve added Science Fairs and Maker Faires, but have we seen improved student achievement?

We do new things or we do things differently, yet we don’t see results consistent with our intention. Time

is our enemy. It seems to add to the pressure but it is a really only function of our own mind-set. There has to be time to do it well if it is worth doing at all. Why spend all the time and energy implementing something new without beginning with engaging those responsible for the implementation in the whole hearted journey of learning? That is the only path for something new to become truly embedded in the culture of the school and district.

Think about all the attention spent to pulling change forward, frustrations with the slow or resistant ones, and energy invested in clarifying misunderstandings, urging the move forward, and monitoring progress. Time is better spent up front creating an environment in which the new initiative is recognized as being valuable, building the coalition to lead with you, sharing the vision generously for all to own, designing a clear-cut strategy, and creating the environment that invites broad-based action, recognizes short-term “wins,” and sustains the movement.

Change is the standard for this century, in life, in work, in schools. Those living in this century need to be able to live in a society in which rapid change is the norm, and for those who have stepped into leadership role ...well, we need to know how to lead into this pace not try to stop it or avert it. We are creatures of habit, all. Habit is familiar and resists the new and unknown. But habits don’t always serve us when circumstances are unpredictable. Energy becomes finite when it is expended with nothing to reenergize it. Think about John Kotter’s work and how it applies to the work you are doing. Take the time, up front, to plan and keep energizing the innovation that you are leading. Leading change is not a one person job. The role of the leader is to create the coalition, insure the potential for ongoing energy, recognition, appropriate measures and adjustment; transform. The practice, once part of the culture, carries forward.

Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed - the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.
- Frances Hesselbein

Kotter, J.P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.