“I’m not here to make friends!”

Boxer

Yes, it’s a longstanding reality TV trope.

But you might say something like this to yourself when encountering resistance to change. You might reassure yourself with these words when you’re feeling opposition to your agenda as a leader:

I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make a difference!

And it’s true: It’s our job to make a difference, not to make people happy.

Or is there more to it?

I get a little uneasy when I hear people talking about staff resistance as a badge of honor, as a sign that we’re making things happen.

I think resistance is inevitable, but it’s not always a good thing. We have to look at the kind of resistance we’re facing.

Are people resisting:
The specific change that’s being implemented?
The way the change was brought about?
The pace of change?
Being pushed into something they feel unprepared for?
The leader’s personality?

Here’s the kind of resistance I’d be proud to create by bringing about a positive change:

The resistance that comes from thinking we’re doing just fine, from believing that an encore performance of last year will do just fine.

Most of the educators I’ve worked with aren’t resistant to change per se. They’re just resistant to the pace of change.

It’s easy for us to overlook this problem as leaders, because much of the burden of change—say, learning a new curriculum—falls on teachers. We have to provide support and keep up with the changes, but our learning curve isn’t nearly as steep, so we tend to underestimate the cognitive load and workload placed on our staff.

We have to realize that change often involves asking people to stop doing something they’re good at, start doing something they’re not good at (yet), and still get good results along the way. This is hard, and it’s our job to make sure we’re setting our staff up for success.

But we also have to realize that the preferred rate of change for a lot of people is “zero.” And plenty of other people would prefer to have their changes arrive at a rate of one every five years or so.

Our challenges are much more urgent, and it’s our job to make sure change doesn’t take forever. But it’s also our job to figure out why and what people are resisting, so we can make progress instead of just enemies.

5 Ways to Make a Change Happen Faster

When change happens too fast, it overwhelms people and diminishes their confidence that they’ll be successful. Skills take time to develop, and no one wants to be judged too quickly on a skill they are still developing.

Shutterstock 108976241

But some people think they should have three or four years to implement every change. Is this an acceptable learning cycle? Do three crops of students deserve to be practiced on while we drag our feet at getting up to speed?

Of course not. Part of responsible planning is to ensure that our “implementation dip” affects students for as little time as possible.

We need a sense of urgency, and we need to move as quickly as we can without jeopardizing our success.

Here are a few things we can do to speed up change.

1. Make the case

People need to develop a shared understand of three things:

  • The problem—why a change is needed
  • The rationale—why this is the right change
  • The theory of action—how this change will solve the problem

Too often, we identify the problem well, but fail to make a strong enough case for the specific change. When the going gets tough—and it will—resistance creeps in and people try to revert to the familiar.

2. Support and celebrate early adopters

You probably already have teachers who are pretty far along in doing what you want to take school-wide. Support them, give them access to advanced training, and make them experts. Help them become wildly successful.

They won’t necessarily want to be responsible for school-wide implementation of the change, but they serve an important “proof of concept” role, so make sure they are successful. If they aren’t, how will people who are less motivated succeed?

3. Set a date

Once the decision has been made to implement the change, don’t leave it open-ended. “When we have time” is not a date. “When there are no other big changes taking place” isn’t a date.

Set a date, and make it clear that the change will be “online” school-wide by that date.

4. Make a checklist

But setting a date isn’t enough. You also need to define what constitutes change.

When my school implemented a new writing curriculum, I made the mistake of thinking that it was enough for people to attend training and start using the new materials. Some people took off, while others dragged their feet.

As the months went by, I was dismayed to see that some teachers were not using the new curriculum. At all. One teacher didn’t even know where her copy was.

What was missing? Clarity about the key behaviors that signify the change.

I immediately came up with 10 indicators of implementation, and focused my walkthroughs for a month on these indicators. None were about skill, and all were about behavior.

As I visited each classroom, I checked: Are you starting writing with a short minilesson? Does your minilesson have a focused teaching point? Are you planning units by sequencing your teaching points? Are you documenting teaching points on anchor charts? Are you spending a good chunk of time conferring with individual students?

I collected data, and shared the aggregated results with staff. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s powerful to see that 80% of your colleagues are doing what they’re supposed to, and you aren’t. After that, things moved along more quickly.

At this stage, don’t even worry about whether people are executing these elements skillfully. That will come in time and with good coaching. The first step is to do. You can’t get better at something you haven’t started doing.

5. Coach Toward Excellence

Implementation isn’t a great destination; we need to push for excellence, and excellence requires continual growth. 

With our writing curriculum, we quickly realized we needed more expertise, and that expertise came in the form of classroom coaching.

Coaches don’t particularly like being asked to help people get better at things they aren’t doing yet, so make sure you push for full implementation before bringing in coaches. But when you do, get ready for amazing growth as teachers start to zoom up out of the implementation dip.

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Do you have a story of making change happen, slow or fast? What worked for you? What barriers did you encounter, and what helped you overcome them? Leave a comment below.

A Focused Improvement Cycle

Change is hard, but it doesn’t have to be excessively complicated. I’d like to share a straightforward model for working through any kind of change in your school:

4d change process

Let’s take a look at each step in the cycle.

Data
We start with data, some form of information about what’s going on. This could come from surveys, test scores, and other quantitative sources; or it could come from feelings, complaints, discussions, conversations, and other rich qualitative sources.

Inevitably, the impetus for change is that something isn’t quite right, or isn’t as good as it could be. Data helps us get a handle on the situation.

Diagnosis
What data doesn’t do is explain the reasons behind the problem or what to do about it. That’s why we need to bring our best collective professional judgment to the situation and diagnose it as thoroughly and rigorously as possible.

Decision
Once we have a sense of what’s going on and why, we can make a decision about what to do. Because the options are endless, schools tend to get bogged down in endless debate and discussion over the best course of action.

What’s the antidote? Action. Speed of execution. When we make a decision and get started, we can immediately start to get feedback about whether it’s working – and if not, we can try something else.

Deployment
Too often, we drag our feet in rolling something out because we want to build universal “buy-in” and “make sure everyone is on the same page” before letting the plane take off.

Guess what? You will never have everyone on the same page. And for most changes, that’s OK. What will get people on the same page and moving in the same direction is evidence that the change is working.

Instead, we need to find Margaret Mead’s small group of committed people:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

But we don’t need to wait for a corps of fanatics ready to put everything on the line. We need people who are willing to be early adopters, willing to start, willing to experiment and report back.

And it’s in the reporting back that the change can either grow or refocus, as the cycle repeats.

How have you seen the improvement process play out in your school?

In Defense of Incremental Change

Cross-posted at LeaderTalk

If you can bring about rapid, radical change to accomplish something important, go ahead – why not? We need bold experimentation and exploration. We need people to try things no one else is doing in education.

I’m a big fan of pilot projects and trying new ideas, but we can’t rest only on bold new ideas as our reform strategy. Why? The opportunities for radical change are fairly limited.

In other words, radical doesn’t scale. A bold reform may make headlines in one district, but it won’t even be allowed on the table in others. In most settings, improvement is going to happen at a slower and more incremental pace.

This can be frustrating – it can seem like nothing is happening, and it can be hard to maintain focus on the improvement. However, the greatest opportunity for improvement lies in those areas that can be changed incrementally – because everything can be improved incrementally.

We like fast results. We like to take credit. We like to celebrate visible success.

But over the long term, the biggest gains are going to come from the quiet, incremental changes we build into our work every day. Curriculum is a great example – it’s the quality and refinement of the implementation, not the radical shift to something new, that most improves student learning.

Is Everyday Math better than TERC? It depends – either curriculum can be implemented well or poorly (even within the same school). The devil (and the greatest opportunity) is in the details.

So what does getting better at something over time look like?

First, practice. When we consider how students improve as readers, it’s clear that doing lots of reading – in other words, practice – makes all the difference. The same is true for our work as educators – we improve our practice through more practice.

Second, strategies. Just as we run drills at soccer practice and teach students to use new reading comprehension strategies, there are strategies we can use in our schools to accelerate and scaffold the improvements that are taking place in instruction and other areas.

Third, attention to detail. When we get better at something and start to become experts, we start to see a world of detail that’s invisible to the untrained eye. This is why instructional coaches are so helpful – they see the opportunities for improvement that others might miss.

Fourth, collaboration. When we have a highly evolved state of practice, and this practice is shared among everyone in the organization, it’s possible to uphold very high standards and continually push everyone to the next level. This does not mean everyone is equally proficient – on the contrary, the diversity of levels of expertise is a rich resource for improvement. When you’re very good at something and I can see that I’m not as strong in that area, I can learn from you, and you can reflect on what would take your practice in that area to an even higher level. My school is in the first year of full implementation of a new writing curriculum, but some teachers have been using it for years, and their expertise is both a valuable resource for others and a reminder that others have strengths in other areas, and this expertise can and must be shared regularly.

In our national policy context, we’re investing in innovation, but I’d also suggest that refinement is even more worthy of investment, because refinement brings the greatest opportunity for improvement. There may be some gems out there waiting to be discovered, but there are no silver bullets.

What opportunities exist in your context for powerful incremental improvement?

The Neuroscience of Leadership

A colleague pointed me to this article on organizational change and brain science, entitled “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” by a business coach and a psychologist, so I thought I’d share some of its implications for educational leaders.

article illustration - the neuroscience of leadershipThe authors summarize new brain research, conducted using technologies such as fMRI, and conclude that behaviorism, humanism, and other traditional means of bringing about change in others or in organizations simply don’t work. Instead, they point to focus, expectations, and attention as keys to forming new neural pathways and, ultimately, to creating lasting change.

In order to learn a new behavior or a new way of thinking, we must through repetition and attention repeat the behavior or use the new way of thinking until it is ingrained in our neural pathways, the connections between our brain cells that constitute memory.

Of course, it’s easy to envision this process for learning a sport or a language; it’s harder to see the practical application in areas as complex as organizational improvement and changing the way a group works together. As groups work together, people will from time to time come to great insights, and leaders must capitalize on these insights by returning people’s attention to them again and again, focusing attention on the question of how these insights can improve the work at hand.

In short, educational leaders should

focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights.

You can read, print, or save the article here.

The Human Side of School Change

Some favorite quotes from Robert Evans’ The Human Side of School Change:

Many organizational experts are discarding what they see as an overreliance on “hyperrationality.” This means abandoning traditional long-range master plans – with their specific goals and time lines and their extensive use of statistical measurement – in favor of much more pragmatic, adaptable approaches that acknowledge the nonrational, unplannable aspects of organizational life and the importance of being ready to respond to external change. Strategic planning emphasizes, among other things, adapting to the organization’s environment, setting medium-range goals (two to three years), and conducting performance assessments that rely on the judgment of leaders instead of on statistical measurements. p. 14-15

The conviction of an advocate, even a powerful one, inspires resistance if it simply dismisses the inevitable dilemmas of implementation. … It is not that innovators should not have deep convictions but rather that they must be open to the realities of others, to the necessary modifications their ideas will undergo as others encounter them – and to the delays this will surely cause. p. 16-17

…threat occurs not only if a principal condemns a teacher’s methods as outmoded and inadequate, for example, but simply if he endorses and supports a new and different approach. This alone is enough to redefine proficiency. p. 33

We should anticipate that the enthusiastic embrace of change and the rapid transformation of norms and values will be rare, an exception to be wondered at. Not only should we see school culture as a force acting against change, we should also remember that this opposition is sensible, even when the necessity for change may seem compelling from an external perspective. No institution can readily abandon the deep structures on which its very coherence and significance depends. Thus, we find repeated at the collective level the same conservative impulse we saw among individuals – an impulse as vital as it is profound and which reform, if it is to succeed, must respect. p. 50

Disconfirmation can engender so much fear and loathing – so much that people often dismiss the information as irrelevant, which lets them repress any anxiety or guilt. This is why in many schools and organizations disconfirming data about performance exist for a long time but are denied or devalued: “If the change…threatens my whole self, I will deny the data and the need for change. Only if I feel that I will retain my identity or my integrity as I learn something new or make a change, will I be able to even contemplate it” (Schein, 1992, p. 300). What is also needed is to reduce the anxiety surrounding change, the fear of trying. p. 57

…reformers who press staff to innovate have already assimilated the reform and found their own meaning in it. They have already worked out a reformulation of purposes and practices that makes sense to them, which may have taken them months or years to accomplish and may have caused them real distress. Denying others the opportunity to make a similar journey, criticizing them for not responding to explanations about change, dismissing their resistance or hesitation as ignorance or prejudice expresses arrogance and contempt for the meaning of other people’s lives (Marris, p. 155). p. 63

While time does not permit me to write a full review, I greatly enjoyed Evans’ insights on the nature of organizational change, the reasons for and ways to address faculty resistance, and varying perspectives on school improvement.

Results Now Chapter 1: The Buffer

Schmoker says in Results Now that the single greatest obstacle to major improvement in our schools is what he calls “the buffer.”

Results Now

The buffer is, simply put, the unspoken norm in the education profession that no one will question what teachers teach, or how well they teach it. The buffer is ostensibly a matter of professionalism and trust, since teachers should, in theory, be trusted to teach well.

Ironically, Schmoker says, this is highly unprofessional – tens of thousands of educators working each day with virtually no oversight, guidance, or monitoring to ensure that students are receiving high-quality instruction.

Reflecting on my experience as a teacher, I can say that no one knew or seemed to care what I taught. Annual evaluations were taken seriously, but did not occur often enough to lead to major improvements in my teaching. And even these formal observations were not seen in the context of ongoing instructional growth, but as a required opportunity to say some nice things about my teaching and make one or two suggestions for improvement.

Some of my teaching was downright bad, such as the days when I would spend a few minutes before school reviewing the lesson and pull out last year’s materials. The scary thing, which I realized during my third or so year, was that no one noticed anything unusual on those days. I was not happy teaching poorly, and tried to hold myself to higher standards, but the message was clear: I could be virtually as lazy and careless as I wanted, and no one would say anything about it. My colleagues would even commiserate with me when I came in less than prepared. Professional autonomy led to unprofessional behavior.

I have little doubt that Schmoker is right in saying this is the reality in most classrooms and schools. Because of this dire situation, there is also a powerful opportunity for improvement. Leaders must know the curriculum, and ensure that it’s being taught. They must know the strengths and weaknesses of their staff, and take appropriate steps to address weaknesses and celebrate strengths.

Schmoker will offer more specific advice on how to achieve this leverage in later chapters, but the message of chapter 1 is unequivocal: we cannot remain agnostic or laissez-faire about the quality of teaching any longer.

Governor Gregoire Releases “Washington Learns” Report

Via email from Washington Governor Christine Gregoir comes this announcement about the release of the Washington Learns report:

Dear Washingtonian,

Education is the most important investment we can make in our economy, our state and our future. An essential part of The Next Washington plan, Washington Learns is a comprehensive review of our entire education system, from early learning through K-12, higher education and workforce training. The goal is to educate more Washingtonians to higher levels.

Since July 2005, the Washington Learns steering committee, which I personally chaired, and advisory committees, composed of 75 state and local leaders, educators, and business and community representatives, have been studying our education system. Today I am releasing a final report with strategies and recommendations for a ten-year plan to create a world-class, learner-focused, seamless education system for Washington. You can find the report at www.WashingtonLearns.wa.gov.

The final report focuses on five major initiatives: the early learning years, math and science, personalized learning, college and workforce training, and accountability. Washington Learns recommends that we invest in early learning so that children start off as lifelong learners; improve math and science teaching and learning so that our citizens have a competitive edge; personalize learning so that every student has the opportunity to succeed; offer college and workforce training for everyone; and hold ourselves accountable for results.

I understand the urgency of improving our education system if Washington is to remain competitive in the global economy. We have set forth a ten-year plan. Some recommendations can be acted upon immediately, some will need to be phased-in, and, for some, we will need to collect more information before fully implementing them. We will work to do as much as we can, based on sound evidence, as soon as we can. Our commitment is to deliver real results within a decade.

I’ve heard your voices and ideas on education. In September 2006, we received public testimony from nine communities on a draft report. Public hearings were held in Olympia (with live video links to Wenatchee, Grays Harbor and Yakima), Spokane, South Seattle, Vancouver, Mt. Vernon and Pasco. Over 1,500 people attended the six public hearings and we received over 1,000 written comments by mail or online. A telephone survey of 600 citizens statewide was also commissioned. All of this public input was considered in crafting the final report and I appreciate all of your time and interest in improving education for every Washingtonian.

I want to thank you for your dedication and hard work, for your contributions to your communities and for your commitment to our children and our state’s future. I look forward to working with you to create a world-class, learner-focused, seamless education system for Washington.

Sincerely,
Chris Gregoire
Governor

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