Creating a Change Culture

by Shari Prest, President, ARK Associates

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Change may be the only constant in our world. That is certainly true for public education, despite suggestions that our schools are the same as they were 50 years ago. In fact, change is so regular that stakeholders have become cynical about what they perceive to be temporary cycles rather than a progressive path of continual improvement. That may, in part, be because we approach change too discreetly and with inadequate emotional and intellectual preparation for our communities and our staffs.

The role of leaders, educational and otherwise, is to cultivate a climate where change is treated as the very soil from which innovation takes root and the foundation upon which inspiration begins. Continual change is as fundamental school progress as the seasons of the year are to the year in Minnesota. While the adage that different is not always better but better is always different is true, advancement in the dynamics of teaching and learning and adaptation for increasingly diverse communities require that we be willing to take some risks and learn from the outcomes of those risks.

Students tend to adapt more naturally to change. Their learning takes place in a constantly shifting environment. The lesson is different each day than it was the day before. New seating or a rearranged classroom are frequently thrust upon learners. One day children may have physical education class and another day art. They adapt to different and evolving teachers, places, curriculum and classmates. Each day when they enter the classroom, they expect something different. Educators would never teach the same things in the same way day after day or keep children at the same level year after year. Progress is expected and change is anticipated—and even embraced—by learners.

The greatest barriers to change are 1) fear; 2) lack of understanding how the change represents improvement; and 3) inadequate knowledge of how the change fits into the larger picture. In her 2012 Harvard Business Review article, Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes the reasons people resist change, including the following:

  • Loss of control
  • Excess uncertainty
  • Surprise decisions imposed
  • Loss of face
  • Concerns about competence
  • More work
  • Past resentments
  • These are issues that can be addressed in an ongoing change environment that includes the following:
  • Consistent, broad-based affirmation that change is an essential and ongoing element of progress toward a compelling long-term vision.
  • Identification of the risks and rewards of change.
  • Stakeholder freedom to express fears and request information when specific changes occur.
  • Clarity about the roles of individuals and/or groups in determining the focus, scope and timing of change.
  • Acknowledgment of the impact the changes are likely to have on each stakeholder group and how that impact will be managed.
  • Recognition of the potential internal and external barriers to change.
  • A sustained commitment to change and ongoing assessment processes.

In her Johns Hopkins University article for Creating the Future entitled “Facilitating Change in Our Schools,” Linda MacRae Campbell, M.A., suggests the following strategies for accomplishing that change environment:

  • Develop a common language and conceptual picture of the processes and goals of change among diverse stakeholders.
  • Develop a strategic plan for moving forward on systemic change.
  • Develop an ongoing assessment process to support and encourage deep, quality change.

Change is in the air and moving at a greater speed than ever before. As you read this, the United States has elected a new president, Congress and state legislatures are being transformed, school boards are transitioning, and educational strategies continue to adapt as we learn more about the methods used and the people impacted by public education. ESSA, as one part of the ongoing flow of progress, will influence the future for our schools. But one thing will remain the same. The mission of public schools and their educational leaders will be what it has always been: to prepare learners to be successful participants and responsible citizens in the workplace and communities of the future.

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