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Change in education does not come easily or without a fight. In the past four years as a high school principal, I've experienced many obstacles associated with the process of change and even seen early initiatives fail.
For example, teachers completely rejected professional learning communities (PLCs) when we rolled them out last year—although they now enthusiastically embrace them. It took retooling the vision, modeling by all the administrators, appropriate professional development, and abundant support to establish the flourishing PLCs that are now found in my school and others across the district.
Based on that and other difficult experiences, I've put together a list of common factors that contribute to sluggishness or resistance to implementing change and some ideas about how to overcome them:
1. I Don't Have the Time for This
Ah, the old time excuse. This is probably the most common reason to resist change. If someone says they don't have time to work toward change that helps achieve important goals, then they should question why they are in the education field. Dedicated educators make the time because it's their job! You ask any student who had a teacher who turned his life around and he will tell you that the time spent was priceless.
So what do you say to a time-pressed teacher? I try to put in perspective the numerous responsibilities that I have as an educator and highlight specific initiatives that I have undertaken both in and out of the building to improve teaching and learning. The hard truth is that I am neither superhuman nor supremely efficient, but it's my duty as a leader to convey to my teachers that I take on added responsibilities not because I want to work countless hours, but because I've made a commitment to ensure that all students learn and succeed.
Equally important is the growth and development of my staff. If they see me committing time to change the teaching and learning culture of the school, then you can bet they will be more inspired to follow suit. Rather than the time involved, I place heavy emphasis on the "why" and "how" to stress the importance of the change.
I also share success stories from other districts to show how specific changes that I'm encouraging have greatly improved student achievement and engagement. Educators resistant to change need to realize that today's learners are vastly different from those of even a few years ago. To meet their diverse needs, we must make the time or else we will ultimately fail at our responsibility to promote learning and increase achievement.
2. Fear of Collaboration
Education has been moving from a profession that hoards ideas, lessons, and successful strategies to one that is willing to share this bounty with as many passionate educators as possible. Innovation and change are a collective process, so schools that apply this concept have staff who routinely collaborate with one another and with those outside of their schools. "Together we are better" is the motto that change agents abide by.
The shift to embracing PLCs occurred after we articulated a clear vision and highlighted the collaborative actions of a few passionate teachers. I now have teachers actively collaborating across disciplines in their PLCs to improve student achievement. Their involvement in professional growth activities that they share and find meaningful has provided the appropriate motivation to work together to meet the needs of our students. Teacher leaders have helped to mentor peers. One expert teacher fostered the use of Google Docs and Apps to promote collaboration among teachers and their students outside of the traditional school day.
3. Overly Directive Approach
I was guilty of being too directive when trying to get my staff to use Skype, a free Internet video and phone service. I was intrigued by its potential as a cost-effective video conferencing tool. So I immediately typed up instructions on how to use the program, distributed it to my staff, and asked them to begin infusing it into their lessons. The number of my teachers using Skype in school after six months? Zero.
Taking an alternative approach, I learned how to use the tool myself and modeled to staff the ways it could be used effectively in their own classes to bring in guest speakers and connect with students from all over the world. We also discussed other possibilities for using it to engage students and make learning relevant. Lo and behold, my staff began to use Skype!
For instance, Colleen Tambuscio, a teacher here at New Milford High School, used Skype to connect with a guest speaker from Israel, Shalmi Barmore, for her class on the Holocaust. Barmore was able to give historical insight into the creation and use of the term "genocide," and the history behind labeling the genocide that took place during World War II as "the Holocaust." He also shared scholarly information on the use of these terms from his years of experience in education at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial. In a vibrant real-time discussion on Skype, students interacted directly with Barmore.
Thankfully, I learned from my mistake of trying to impose change and instead found that change occurs through shared decision making, consensus, collaboration, and modeling. As a leader, I had better be able to effectively model what I want my teachers to implement if I have any hopes of seeing the idea succeed and be sustainable.
4. Poor Professional Development
How many times have we sat through training sessions that were boring, meaningless, and didn't provide any practical ideas? Professional development has to be relevant to teachers, contain numerous choices, and be hands-on.
Indeed, often the most meaningful professional development comes from teacher leaders. For example, at New Milford, science teacher Keith Devereaux has been effectively integrating Google Docs and Apps into his instruction for over two years. I've encouraged him to be a teacher leader with a focus on educational technology integration. As a result of rave reviews for one of Keith's presentations at a conference hosted at New Milford High School, the central office asked him to provide four after-school training sessions to teachers from across the district.
When spending money on professional development, make sure it's for a vetted, well-respected presentation where you will get your money's worth. In an effort to have high school teachers use student data more effectively to improve achievement, staff members in math and language arts were provided a comprehensive program that provided each teacher with the knowledge to properly interpret data and develop child-centered instructional strategies to assist all students. Our district's new director of curriculum and instruction, Danielle Shanley, shared with all of the principals her positive experience with the particular program and the benefits that our teachers would receive as a result of this training. The program, as Danielle promised, did not disappoint!
5. Be Open, Then Persevere
It is time to move past the plethora of excuses and embrace transformational change. Such change will cultivate learning cultures that meet the needs of all students and provide meaningful growth opportunities for each and every educator. Administrators, like all educators, need to understand that change requires patience, understanding, and constant reevaluation. Only those leaders who are patient enough to see the process through and understand the intricacies involved will experience successful change. Having an open mind when initiating any type of change is crucial, as certain approaches will not always work and result in the desired outcome. Stay resolute, seek advice from all stakeholders, provide support, realize that there will be many bumps along the way, take risks—and most importantly, do not be afraid to fail.
Eric Sheninger is a 2011 Annual Conference Scholar and the principal at New Milford High School in New Milford, N.J.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 10. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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