Five Insights for Leading and Managing Change in Your School

School leaders are change agents. Leading large-scale change requires a particular set of tools in your leadership toolbox. Here are five strategies to sharpen your change management skills.
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Blog date
2/21/23
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Change in K-12 education can be a bit of a paradox. For many schools and districts, change is challenging because of the complex system in which they operate. Education is a people-centric system. In addition to simply adopting a new process or tool, a large part of managing change is helping to evolve the mindsets and perspectives of a diverse audience—teachers, staff, parents, and students in addition to community members. Add to that, the shifting local, state, and federal guidelines and accountability measures that need to be upheld.   

With these challenges comes great responsibility—and opportunity. As a transformational leader, you’re aware of the need to embrace change to serve your students and prepare them for the future, but you also empathize with how tough change can be when the stakes are high. How can you move through your change management initiatives as seamlessly as possible? It starts by understanding the stages of change.

As a transformational leader, you’re aware of the need to embrace change to serve your students and prepare them for the future, but you also empathize with how tough change can be when the stakes are high. 

The seven stages of change

As you begin to implement new educational practices or new technologies relative to improving teacher practice or student achievement, the members of your school community will respond in various ways at different stages of the process. It helps to understand these stages of change so that as a school leader, you’re able to respond—be it with information, resources, or professional learning opportunities. Here are the seven stages of change that we share with education leaders:

  • Becoming aware. Through an event, experience, or data, the need for change is signaled. An example might be that data from your annual district assessment shows declines in certain grades for ELA and math.
  • Denial. Your school community might defend the current situation. They might also feel the problem identified really isn’t that big of a deal. 
  • Frustration. This is usually directed at the person pushing for the change. Some of this frustration is rooted in anxiety and self-doubt—perhaps your teachers are concerned about the need to acquire new skills, or worry they’re no longer proficient.
  • Depression. Here, the feelings of self-doubt and worry might deepen. Your team might notice the implications of the behavior that needs to change, but there’s still resentment.
  • Exploration. A group begins to make a commitment to change. They’ve started to realize there’s pain in staying the same, so they begin to research and gather information.
  • Acceptance. This is when groups begin to take action. They believe they possess the ability to change. Self-confidence increases and action steps are planned.
  • Commitment. The group is fully committed to continuing change efforts, buoyed by successes and clear goals.

We’ve outlined a few strategies to keep in mind as you’re managing large-scale change at your school—and making it a vital and necessary part of your school culture. 

Assess understanding of the change

The usual framework of change management—communication strategy, stakeholder engagement, and project management—only works if those who are part of the process have an awareness of the need for change. If the goal is to embark on a curriculum mapping journey to address academic gaps, for example, does the rest of your team have the qualitative data to understand why the current curriculum isn’t working?

Understanding the reason for the change is critical, but it’s only one part of the equation when leading change. You also need to create the desire for change. Your team might know there’s an issue, but it may not be important to them to do things differently. After all, change is hard—and it’s especially tough to change one’s own behavior. 

Understanding the reason for the change is critical, but it’s only one part of the equation. School leaders also need to create the desire for change.

To create desire for the change, lean into the “why” behind the new way forward. Helping your teachers and staff to see what’s possible as a result of the change will make it easier for them to embrace what’s coming. 

Define your vision

The “why” behind the change is also a critical part of defining what success looks like when the initiative has been completed. Achieving better student outcomes is not specific enough. Using the curriculum example, make sure you can articulate the future: what does the end-result look like in classrooms? How will it improve student learning and engagement? What positive changes can your teachers and staff expect to see? 

Knowing what success looks like can give you something to measure against. 

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Ask for input—and do plenty of listening

Even if you’re able to explain the reason for the change—and the vision of what it means for your school community—it’s still a one-sided conversation. Everyone who will be affected by the change needs the chance to share their opinion and insights, which is why asking for input is a valuable part of any change management process.

Everyone who will be affected by the change needs the chance to share their opinion and insights, which is why asking for input is a valuable part of any change management process.

Take the time to gather input from all of your school stakeholders through a variety of mediums: online surveys, in-person listening sessions, and one-off conversations. This input may also reveal potential issues and roadblocks you might not have considered—making it well worth your time. 

Remain adaptable—and lean on your team

To truly affect change, school leaders need to continually flex their adaptive leadership and distributed leadership muscles. While we might collectively point to the pandemic as an example of crisis and unpredictability, it’s worth noting that education has been—and will continue to be—unpredictable, independent of the pandemic. Technology will continue to advance, new ways of learning will be adopted, and we may have teacher and staff shortages in many areas of the country for the foreseeable future. 

We need leaders—like you—who can continue to guide their communities through both unexpected and planned change by providing the needed scaffolding and support to their teams to build the same resilience. When there’s resilience, it’s easier to distribute leadership among your team. You’ll be able to leverage their varied perspectives and chart a course for change together. When there’s shared ownership, leading change is no longer something that’s happening from the top down.

Remember that slow and steady wins the race

Of course, you don’t want to live in the “messy middle” of change forever. That said, it doesn’t mean you have to roll out your initiatives at warp speed either.

Consider if there are ways to take a staggered approach to the change in question. If it’s a change in curriculum, is there an opportunity to pilot with a specific grade level or content area before it gets implemented school-wide?

We need leaders—like you—who can continue to guide their communities through both unexpected and planned change by providing the needed scaffolding and support to their teams to build the same resilience.

Keep all change in perspective

Change is uncomfortable and necessary. There is a bright light: the changes you and your school community master now will make it easier to embrace change in the future and will help today’s students be that much more prepared for the challenges of tomorrow. 

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