The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
I spend a lot of my time traveling through this intersection. In fact, instead of calling me an instructional coach, you can refer to me as an agent of change. A primary function of my job is to either a) help staff complete change of some kind, b) recommend change when change may be needed, or c) first do b then do a.
Like everything in life, you can use a bell curve to describe how well people deal with new. The vast majority need some amount of guidance, but are accepting when they understand the purpose and feel supported, a few will jump at any chance to change it up, and a few resist any movement whatsoever. Complicating movement is the level of change being sought. Schools operate within a number of systems big and small – the bigger the system affected by change, the harder it can be to implement.
I love thinking about systematic change. I enjoy understanding how all of the various smaller systems operate both separately and together and how they each connect to each other and the parent system. A school district is a prime example. Want to change a procedure to hand in papers in your classroom? Nothing is really affected in the district system. Want to change elementary school boundaries? You quickly learn how such a enormous systematic change can become a log jam of discussion and indecision, at least on the surface.
Usually a problem arises causing someone somewhere to reflect on potential change. Perhaps you are losing too much time to transition while students turn in papers. After considering your current procedure, collecting ideas from perhaps yourself alone, your peers, or a quick search with our friend Google, you may determine a better system will correct the issue and the consequences of change are only positive. So change happens quickly and effortlessly. New instructions for the students and voila! Presto change-o!
For something as big as a proposal for district elementary attendance center boundaries, the problem may be overcrowding. Someone eventually notices this and wonders aloud to someone else about possible solutions. And the ball gets rolling. We all know change is hard and sometimes even negatively impacts some. And a systematic change like boundaries can be especially difficult because of the emotions involved. Feelings always add an additional layer to the issue, but those in leadership must work hard to maintain a big picture view. In a case of new boundaries, we might look at our bell curve once again to help us understand that there are always going to be some who are resistant if change affects them. And sometimes, their voices can be loud and moreover, they may be the only voices you hear since the rest of the bell curve is willing to accept a proposed change.
Considering our classroom procedure example, a student or two may object to a new method to hand in papers, but is that a good reason to not implement your procedural change? For the good of the entire class, disappointing a couple of students and then helping them deal with the change afterwards is obviously the best way to go. But how about for the boundaries example? Remember, at least one of the buildings is vastly overcrowded and the learning environments in those buildings are suffering because there are too many students. Like the classroom then, this bigger change is also necessary, and a school board would then have to make the decision in the best interest of the whole district. Change will be hard for the families affected, but it would be made and support would be provided for those affected.
To make such a large change, the process needs to include some additional steps. For example, it should be transparent and any district stakeholder should be allowed an opportunity (multiple opportunities, even) to state their support or concerns and offer potential solutions. These kinds of efforts are not usually necessary for a smaller change in a classroom. The process of change, then, differs depending on the size of the system being affected.
I can’t understand why people are afraid of new ideas. I’m afraid of the old ones.
- John Cage
Where change becomes the most complicated to think about is when a proposal surfaces to change a medium system. These systems, like a school building, for example, can affect every classroom within its walls as well as the entire district system. A new expectation proposed by a building leadership team may or may not be implemented after staff is given an opportunity to comment on it. Whether or not a policy eliminating hats and hoods in the building has no effect, really, on the district as a whole. Any concerns from students and patrons that arise can certainly and typically be handled at the building level.
But what about a proposal to modify a building’s bell schedule, especially if it includes new start and end times? This particular proposal affects the entire district system. Obviously all staff and students in the building in question, but such a change would also affect transportation (buses). In many districts, that means bus schedules to other buildings would be changed. Which in turn affects their start and end times as well. Suddenly, one building’s desire to change the bell schedule runs into the same log jam mentioned earlier.
Why the need for a schedule change? Like the need for a new turn in procedure or new boundaries, a proposal for change stems from someone somewhere reflecting on a perceived problem. In this case, let’s say someone has recognized new curriculum and the associated expectations for instruction a greater need for more collaboration/plan time for teachers. After gathering supporting data, such as the school has the shortest day of all of the high schools in the area (even those outside the district) and the shortest day of any building in the district, as well as giving some teachers a common plan time for a year and determined qualitatively that the collaborative time was very much appreciated and desired, the proposal for changing the building system comes.
Quickly, however, the larger systematic barriers surface, and momentum dies. One not yet mentioned is such a proposal interferes with some negotiated agreements. Suddenly, a building seeking to venture onto Change Blvd. and improve student achievement is halted by a 10 foot swath of roadblocks keeping it on Same Old St.
When I run into these kinds of systematic barriers as a change agent, er, instructional coach, I become frustrated. I tend to look at the reason for proposed change, information offered in support or against the proposal, and begin to take action to move forward with or away from the change. And this is when I attempt to learn as much as I can about how all of the various smaller systems within a large one work together (and at times, against each other). In order to facilitate a change like a building schedule, I have to learn how it affects the whole district and how it may negatively (or positively) impact the other existing systems.
But to practice leadership, you need to accept that you are in the business of generating chaos, confusion, and conflict….
- Ronald Heifetz
And so exists my own state of chaos, confusion, and conflict as I sit on the curb at Same Old St. and Change Blvd, torn between improving achievement for students in one building while not yet fully understanding any negative impacts to students elsewhere. I do not buy “we’ve always done it that way” as a viable counterargument to change. I remain open, however, to a conversation about the systematic barriers to any change proposal. After all, I always enjoy a good road trip to a new destination.