Tech-tonic Shifts: What can school leaders do to support change?

Please note: This is the fourth and last in a series of posts in response to a request from Susan Swift, a language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, who is writing a book on technology integration. 

So, now you’ve gotten started. You’ve bought some new materials, perhaps some technology devices or new curricular materials, or you’ve brought in some trainer to help spread the word. Boxes have been opened, people have been trained…now what?

Unfortunately, this is when a lot of initiatives fall short. They’re frontloaded with planning and training, but the resources aren’t put into place to nurture and sustain the effort. I can tell when I visit a school or district with a follow through problem when teachers (or other staff) talk about “what we did last year,” or even the year before and there’s no clear connection from year to year or initiative to initiative.

This also happens in those districts or schools with implementation overload. Every year someone introduces new materials, new methods, new devices with no clear long-range plan that ties them all together. I was visiting one school where the faculty complained they had “too much” training. They were introduced to so many things, they said it was like a buffet. But in the end, as one overwhelmed teacher told me, “Just show me 1 or 2 things that works and give me time to really learn how to use it.”

I developed the following guidance for school leaders implementing technology initiatives in their schools, but they could help anyone charged with implementing change. You’ll see some advice repeated from earlier, but that just highlights the importance of some of these strategies. This list began with advice from Margaret Heritage (2010) but I’ve combined some items and school it down to be a little more manageable.

  1. Communicate. This bears repeating. School leaders articulate, and constantly communicate, the value of any change effort. This begins with and returns to the vision, but it has to be relevant. If it’s not important to school leadership, it’s not important to teachers. Administrators who don’t buy in to a change effort can actually derail it. School leaders help everyone–teachers, other staff, parents, students–understand the importance of the initiative and reinforce it through multiple and varied communications.
  2. Support. School leaders provide explicit support to their teachers and staff related to the effort. People participating in and impacted by the change will need different kinds of support. Often, this implies new kinds of support. Determine what kind of support is needed. Be specific. Avoid platitudes or overgeneralizing. Yes, teachers need professional development, but what kind? Lesson study, observations, time to collaborate? Yes people will need time, but what kind of time specifically? Time to collaborate, to plan, to experiment? Identify the types of support and prioritize those needs.
  3. Dedicate time: School leaders find and protect time to engage in real work around the change initiative. Change efforts require ongoing time for meeting, reflection, and discussion. If these times succumb to other meetings or duties, the change won’t occur. Many schools have professional learning communities (PLCs), some just in name only. Any change effort, if worth doing, should be incorporated into existing PLC efforts. Every PLC meeting should result in some tangible outcome related to the change effort.
  4. Embed and connect: School leaders make connections to other initiatives. Teachers don’t have a lot of time, so even the best intended initiative won’t be effective if they don’t understand how new initiatives support existing initiatives or processes. School leaders should make these connections explicit, communicate them often, and tie them together. If a new technology initiative is implemented, school leaders help teachers understand how it will impact or support lesson planning, instruction, classroom observations, communications with students and parents–everything.
  5. Allocate resources: School leaders make strategic decisions about the allocation of resources that support the initiative. Not all resources require new funding. New initiatives should be implemented as an effort to addressing an existing need. Is literacy an issue? How will the change initiative support literacy? Conduct an analysis of what does and doesn’t work and get rid of those that don’t! Too many schools hand on to legacy programs that are ineffective just because “that’s the way we do it around here.” It can also help to get staff from different departments, along with the budgets they oversee, to get together and see how a new effort can support their work. Very often, technology initiatives can support multiple programs (e.g., Title programs, special education, literacy, and technology programs) and can be made affordable when budgets are combined across programs, something that may not be attainable by a single program’s budget.
  6. Take risks: School leaders establish and nurture an atmosphere of risk taking and learning from mistakes. School leaders will have to consider how they deal with taking risks and making mistakes. Teachers are not the only ones who will be trying new things or having to learn new skills. School leaders should be sure to learn alongside teachers by determining which trainings and meetings they’ll participate in with teachers. They may also want to consider which meetings they won’t participate in, in case teachers want some time to practice and work on their own.
  7. Acknowledge and celebrate! School leaders comment on, encourage, and celebrate teachers who demonstrate positive aspects of the initiative. Whenever a school leader visits a classroom, they should be sure to recognize aspects of the initiative (catch teachers doing good things drawn from the initiative) and comment on and encourage teachers who are doing so. And plan for and implement celebration! What celebrations are already in place where teachers and others can be acknowledge for the work their doing? Can they be acknowledged at staff meetings, daily announcements, with letters or cards, in newsletters, or on digital media like the school website, Facebook page, or other means? Celebration is fun and encouraging but often overlooked.

I encourage school or change leaders to do an analysis of existing strategies and processes that support each of these seven strategies. Include people responsible for them, such as the school secretary that puts together the school newsletter where you’re going to acknowledge the good work of your teachers, or the department heads that are going to carry your message back to their colleagues on a daily basis. Determine what works and whom to involve.

You may also need to develop or implement new strategies. For example, some schools may have department meetings but not really PLCs. If you plan to support the change effort with teachers from multiple departments, schools may need to find and adopt a PLC model to help organize those meetings and make them more effective.

In summary, I suggest that we, as an education community, know a lot about implementing and sustaining successful change initaitives. Unfortunately, we, as individual educators, may not always know about this body of knowledge nor about the strategies necessary to successfully implement change. Hopefully this brief overview provides some concrete ideas and strategies for those either leading or succumbing to change efforts and will find it helpful to make those change efforts more successful.

References

Heritage, M. (2010). Formative assessment. Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.