Leading change is hard. But when you have a compelling WHY, and you do the right things right, change can happen.
In education, our WHY is to better the learning and lives of our children. So, before I share my process to lead major changes in our school district, I want to add this disclaimer: if you are thinking about making major changes in your classroom, school, or district, make sure that your WHY is about kids and NOT about adult convenience.
As Simon Sinek says, start with WHY. People will buy into your WHY before they buy into your plan.
Here is where the WHY in my change story began:
About two years ago, a high school teacher started sharing senior essays with our curriculum department. And while there were many beautiful things that students wrote about their educational experience, there were some heart-breaking stories too. Many students wrote about losing their love of learning in high school, stating in so many words that their self-worth was tied to their numbers. And as I read more and more pages of essays where kids were crying out that they were more than a number, my heart swelled up. My gut was telling me that something wasn’t right. Kids were becoming increasingly focused on competition, and this fixation on competition had stolen their passion and love for the learning process. So, we started questioning our WHY – our why for a lot of the ways we were doing business. For example, why were we putting class rank on transcripts? The story we often tell ourselves is that our current systems are in place because “that’s what colleges want to see.” But the truth is, while that may have been true at one time, it had been a long time since we had investigated that further. And boy, can we be guilty in secondary of promoting unhealthy practices because “that’s what colleges want to see” or “that’s what colleges do.” That is a bad habit. And it’s often fiction. We need to stop. We should do what is right for kids at their current stage of learning and development. Think about it: how can you get ready for the next level of something if you haven’t mastered the current level? If a child is in 8th grade, let’s prepare them for a successful, meaningful, and joyful 8th-grade year. If a child is a sophomore, prepare them for a successful 10th-grade learning experience. Let’s stop the glorification of “because that’s what they will have to do [insert next thing].” But I digress.
All of this to say…
KNOW YOUR WHY.
And keep reminding yourself of your WHY because change is scary for most people. And when things get scary for people, people react in very interesting ways. When people react negatively and strongly toward you, you have got to remember your WHY, and you better make sure your WHY is something you believe with all of your being because there will be times when the way people react to you will shake you to the core. It can cause you sleepless nights, nausea, anxiety attacks, you name it. But as Eleanor Roosevelt says, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.” And if you don’t believe in your WHY and your decisions and you don’t stand firm, no one else will believe in it. BELIEVE, people. You’ve got to keep the faith. And know this, if people aren’t criticizing your work in some way, you probably aren’t doing anything that matters. Change is uncomfortable and getting more comfortable with the uncomfortable is part of the deal.
A GOOD PROCESS CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS.
Without getting into the weeds about our systems, I can tell you this. I knew we had challenges in many different areas, but I didn’t know exactly what to do about these problems. However, I believe deeply in the power of a good process, so I kept the faith that a thorough and well-executed process would lead to good solutions, and it did. This blog post serves as not only a walk down memory lane, so I can personally remember, reflect, and learn from my own process when I lead changes in the future, but I hope that sharing it will somehow help someone else out there who is also trying to champion changes for children.
- Socialize: Before you start any process on any topic, start a conversation. Then, another, and another. Be OK with not having the answers and with conversations being a little messy and just listen. Never underestimate the power of conversation. Every conversation matters. Words matter. Listen to lots of different people and groups of people talk about the subject at hand. For me, the conversation started with administrators. And when I saw that we shared the same concerns, I started talking to teachers, students, and parents. When I saw that many of us were concerned, lots of little sparks were ignited across our district, and it propelled me into action. It gave me confidence knowing that I didn’t stand alone with my concerns.
- Committee: Sure, sure, many of us internally eye roll when we are invited to be on a committee. But when done right, committees can do amazing things for a school district if you: choose a variety of stakeholders to ensure there is well-rounded community representation; invite some people to join your committee who are skeptics about the topic at hand (people who are NOT “Yes Men”); do the research and when you think you’ve researched enough, research some more; provide structures for conversation to ensure the conversation stays on target and topic; and finally, use decision-making protocols to confirm committee consensus. More information about consensus protocols can be found in The Art of Coaching Teams by Elena Aguilar.
- Transparency: When the committee reaches consensus, start talking with MANY different groups of people. Put together a presentation that starts with WHY and tells the story of your WHY. You must appeal to people’s hearts before you educate their minds. Share your research and findings in a way that is clear and easy to understand then share your recommendation. This part is a little messy and that’s OK because that’s where the learning happens. Listen to the questions people ask and listen to their feedback. This can only make you better and your plan better. Continue to refine your approach, your presentation materials, etc, based on this feedback. Let opposition sink in. Allow it to force you to think, “Do I believe that to be true? Do I believe that feedback should compel us to modify this plan?” Once you’ve talked to various groups of people, if it feels like you are on the right track, to the point that these changes really can happen, start communicating with the masses. Invite more people to the conversation with a mass communication such as a district or school letter. Hold more meetings where people can come and talk with you and ask questions. Produce FAQ materials and make your presentation materials public and accessible, so people can be informed and reach out with their thoughts. Collect those thoughts.
- Analyze: This part will sound a little crazy, but it’s worth it. Start collecting all of the written correspondence you receive then keep track of the amount of positive and negative feedback in these communications. Keep track of the number of people who reach out and attend meetings. Keep track of the amount of supportive feedback you receive and oppositional feedback you receive at those meetings. And use this to run some analytics on where people are as a community with your proposed changes. Run those analytics against your plan and the WHY for your plan; this will help you decide whether to move forward with making your changes official. In my case, the changes needed to be voted on by the board of education, so board members were a part of my socialization and communication process. Whatever your final decision needs may be, having analytics is helpful in telling the story. Often, opposition feels significant because it can be uncomfortable, but having data on the amount of feedback both positive and negative that you’ve received can help you maintain an objective perspective.
CONTINUE TO EDUCATE
Accept every invitation for a conversation or phone call. Believe in your heart that all people have positive intentions. Often, we all want what we believe in our heart to be best for kids, we are just coming at it in different ways with differing philosophies. You cannot lead big work from a big, cushy office with your door closed. Get out there and talk with people. When changes are approved, the work doesn’t end, it’s only beginning. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and strategize how to continue educating people, how to communicate effectively, how to work the details of the plan. Continue to get into the weeds with people to ensure that small aspects of your plan are not done poorly. When that happens, it can give people a bad taste in their mouth about the plan as a whole. Details matter. Continue doing the right things and doing things right. Prioritize. As my husband says, continue to maintain a WIN mindset: What’s Important Next?
After many sleepless nights, we were able to approve a plan that we believe will make our schools less about selection and competition and more about learning and human development. Change is hard, but if you stick with it, change is worth it because kids are worth it.