School & District Management Opinion

Leading Change Begins With ‘We’

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 28, 2016 6 min read
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Recently, we had the opportunity to work with a group of dedicated and talented educators who wanted to shift their classrooms, schools, and/or districts into 21st century teaching and learning centers. With STEM as the fuel for the shift, their goal was to develop a plan to begin the process or to identify and coalesce what was already happening in pockets in their districts. With students at the center of their motivation for these changes, they uncovered that those affected by the changes also include the parents, community, businesses and higher ed. This approach to learning affects more than those within the school walls.

School leaders in these conversations are investing in a locally designed change, which is both a welcomed reprieve from the years of mandated changes we have lived through... and it is an ominous one. Models are scattered across the country. They are continuing to grow and change. Why? Because living things cannot stagnant. Breaking from the past may be considered radical, especially within institutions and organizations that have remained predictable for decades. These districts were ready to embrace something new. They are moving away from schools characterized by siloed subjects, separated by walls, both physical and imagined, where teachers are the holders of the knowledge and students are receivers who seek a relevance they cannot find. These leaders were ready to set out on a journey to open their thinking and release the constraints that limited their creativity.

Not surprisingly, teachers were the largest role group present but there were also principals, central office staff and superintendents in the audience. It was an audience pretty reflective, we think, of the distribution of roles in schools. Most were there as district teams comprised teacher leaders and administrative leaders. They understood that creating the 21st century teaching and learning environment is more than a classroom event.

Some teachers present without their leaders expressed concern. Their perspective was that there was little they could do without their principals. Our response was more encouraging. If these teachers were here, someone approved the funds to support their attendance. We suggested that someone with positional power saw them as emissaries, as teacher leaders who were willing to share a summer day to prepare the message they’d be bringing back to their colleagues. Meanwhile, at a nearby table, there were principals who were wishing their teachers were with them. They wondered how to ignite the passion of their teachers to begin the shift. And, there is the fundamental truth. None of us can do this without the help of others....not teachers without leaders nor leaders without the faculty. This is how our system is constructed....each of us with a part but remaining dependent on the others. We take these two situations seriously.

Teacher Leaders Without Their Leaders
As part of the shift in teaching and learning, bringing schools into a more responsive model, one that fits better in this dynamic century, the hierarchy of leadership must become flatter. This may seem difficult because of the evaluative role between principal and teachers. If teacher leaders are the ones who “get” what has to happen or what can happen, they have to be without fear or concern as they share their knowledge and vision and expertise with their formal leader.

As a single person, or as part of a team of teachers, the conversation(s) begin with the goal of understanding. Research and data help fuel the discussion(s) and even an “ask” for a pilot can help. A successful model can sometimes speak louder than words. But the leader is essential for the support of the changes in practice. The teachers, as they continue to learn and to shift toward inter- and trans-disciplinary teaching and learning, as schedules call for changes, as parents call with questions and concerns, with the community wondering, “What’s next?”, the building and district leaders serve as ambassadors, the ones, who can invite others, including those with questions and concerns, into the journey with understanding and support. With the leadership picking up that mantle, the movement toward a systemic shift can gather momentum.

Why does this work best as a system-wide change in practice? Most students are with us for 13 years. Asking them to move through learning experiences... some tethered to a past century and others to a present one... is confusing and unfair. Our system allows for foundations from one grade to another, for sequences and deepening. Moving in and out of learning models serves to limit and even confuse the intention.

Leaders Without Their Teacher Leaders
Why do some teachers appear not ready for change? What might principals see or perceive that makes them think so? The question of how to light a fire is an individual one in some respects and a general one in another. Knowing your teachers, what they believe, how they have experienced successes, and how they experience the school culture is key. It is difficult to imagine that teachers, whose role it is to excite children into learning, are, themselves, not excited about learning. Or is it that we have been in a place where teachers feel their creativity and imaginations have been uninvited to the conversations. For each one who with eagerness or trepidation steps up and out to ask for a taste of freshness or newness, leaders must be ready with a welcoming hand. The one ready to experience the excitement of learning new things, taking teaching and learning risks, being supported and celebrated for those risks, and seeing results in the faces and behavior of their students will make all the difference. Perhaps, hidden in the classrooms, or even silently in the hearts of some teachers, there exists a readiness, the seeds of the desire for change. What drives teachers the most is seeing their students come alive and experience success. No matter the age of their students, teachers are driven to do their work so students become energized learners. A successful shift in practice, a STEM shift, invites all students into the learning process, and offers multiple opportunities for learning successes.

Perhaps for those leaders who worry that their teachers have little interest in change, a trip to visit a school where those changes have made a difference will help. We believe for both teachers and leaders, the desire to have students become motivated and engaged is most important. Those leaders who worry that their faculty is uninterested, please don’t stop there. Think about who and where seeds may be lying dormant, waiting for you to notice and lift up. It only takes one person to join with you and then it begins. The poet Marge Piercy captures this essence of leading change in her poem The Low Road when she observes:

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again and they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

Marge Piercy, “The Moon is Always Female”, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980

Photo by Konstantin Chagin courtesy of 123rf

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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.