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.


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

Tech-tonic shift: Basic needs of capacity building

Please note: This is the third 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. It’s taken many months to get back on track with this, but I’m done and have part four on the way.

In 2013, I helped the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC, 2013) put together a two-day regional seminar on systemic change. Presenters came from several states along with the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of Chief State School Officers. At the opening session, Erick Oetjen, a senior vice president for ICF International, the organization that holds the ARCC contract, opened the seminar with a few experiences from his own work supporting large-scale, capacity-building efforts, especially in areas related to social change.

Eric eloquently and quickly laid the groundwork for the seminar by outlining four key components that anyone implementing a capacity building change effort should consider. (He was so good, that he was later featured in a one-hour webinar in which he was given more time to expand on these ideas. You can find the webinar archive here.) Eric gave these four guidelines that I believe represent some key basic needs for supporting capacity building change. I elaborate on each briefly in relation to technology initiatives, specifically, which is where I most often see these coming into play.

  1. Think broadly about the stakeholders and engage them early. Too often technology initiatives are seen as external to the day-to-day work of the school, which is promoting student learning. Technology initiatives are often isolated, sometimes stigmatized, so it’s difficult to get widespread buy-in. Sometimes we think it’s only the IT staff or the technology coach that needs to buy-in, but any successful school initiative will include all stakeholders, from administrators, teachers, and other staff to parents and–most importantly–the students. Eric notes that if you don’t engage all stakeholders early, you’re going to have to at some point in order to be successful. I add that if you don’t plan to engage them early, you may not like how some of them get involved and the negative impact some stakeholders can have on even the most worthwhile initiative.
  2. Move towards a common language. I sometimes think that educators are the worst in terms of jargon–what I call “educationese.” I’m sure every industry has their own, but in education we use so many common words (e.g., authentic, engaged, problem, project, assessment) that often end up meaning very different things in an educational setting. Eric warns that if change leaders don’t help everyone come to a common understanding of key terms, concepts, and process, people end up “talking past each other.” Common language, of course, starts with a clear vision and constantly referring to that vision to make sure your initiative is on track. I’ve gone so far as to creating “word walls” or glossaries of key terms to help everyone get on the same page.
  3. Develop a communication strategy. Eric suggests having a clear communication strategy that is implemented early and regularly can make or break a change effort. This really can’t be overemphasized. When I work with organizations and ask about communication, it’s often sloughed off as if “been there, done that.” People will cite organizational newsletters, websites, meetings, without ever determining if anyone actually reads or pays attention to these things. Don’t take communication for granted. I led a team of about two dozen educators through an audit-type visit of a large school district in my state. The superintendent told me we should look for innovative use of technology. That he had been pushing for innovation since he got there. What we found was that communication–from the central office to the schools to the classrooms and back up that chain–was lacking and the top priority we encouraged this superintendent to consider in order to reach his goals. It turned out no one had the same idea of what innovation was and so any use of technology, from using an overhead projector on up, ended up being considered innovative. Not exactly what the superintendent had in mind.
  4. Design for early results. This was a unique suggestion Eric made that I would not have included, but makes perfect sense upon reflection. As an instructional designer, I incorporate strategies to motivate the learner based on the work of John Keller who developed the ARCS motivational design model (A = get the learners Attention, R = make the material Relevant, C = build the learner’s Confidence, S = ensure the learner is Successful.) I use this model often and try to be sure that the materials I develop allow the learner to be successful early. Start with small success to build motivation and increase complexity over time. Eric suggested a similar philosophy, noting that even if you can accomplish small or even temporary results early, they will build momentum for the initiative and help it keep moving forward. Same idea. I’m glad he applied it to capacity building.
Learning from Los AngelesUnfortunately, the Los Angeles Unified School District suffered through one of the least successful technology integration efforts perhaps in the history of schools–at least since personal computers were introduced into schools in the 80s. Costing more than a billion dollars and a much reported dismal failure–one that cost the superintendent his job–the one good thing that came out of the effort are some lessons learned. These five lessons were posted in Edutopia (Gliksman, 2014) and should serve as the basis for anyone planning any technology initiative in the future.

  1. Change starts with a vision.
  2. Top-down strategies rarely work without communication and consensus.
  3. Training requires more than an introductory “how-to” workshop.
  4. Technology should empower students.
  5. It’s not about the device.



ARCC. (July 18-19, 2013). Exploring the parameters of systemic change and capacity. Regional Systemic Capacity Seminar, Crystal City, VA.

Gliksman, S. (2014). The LAUSD iPad initiative: 5 critical technology integration lessons. Edutopia. Available from:

Tech-tonic shift: What type of change do you want?

Please note: This is the second 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.

I have the great privilege of working with one of my professional mentors. Dr. Sharon Harsh is an exemplary educator who is also an acknowledged national leader in the field of organizational change, especially as it relates to education. She has studied the organizational change literature across many industries and has used that knowledge to craft strategies and procedures to support systemic change at the statewide level to much success. For this, she is acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Education, and I get to pick her brain often and learn from her. How cool is that?

Early in the change process, those in charge really should sit down and determine what kind of change they’re really seeking. Harsh (2012) summarizes that there are three levels of change, and using strategies for one type to address another can not only be ineffective but can frustrate those involved and hamper the ability to implement future change initiatives. She describes three types of change:

  1. Incremental or first-order change occurs when a change initiative is localized to an individual or small group of individuals within an organization. In schools, this can occur when a group of teachers take a class or attend a training together and attempt to implement a strategy they’ve learned. Or perhaps a grade-level team may work on adopting a new technology resource together. In this type of change, an individual may build capacity, but the organization as a whole stays very much the same.

  2. Transitional or second-order change ramps things up a bit. This type of change focuses at a larger group of people, a well-defined group, such as a workgroup or a team in an organization. In schools, this could be a group like all counselors, all algebra teachers, or all technology coaches (to use a Dubuque example). The goal of second-order change is to help an entire subgroup of the organization build their capacity to meet the goals of the organization, but whole-scale organizational change is still not occurring.

  3. Transformational change or third-order change is true systemic change in which all of the players in an organization are impacted, some profoundly. This type of change is, obviously, the most challenging type of change to undergo and see to a successful conclusion, because it can impact the entire culture of the organization. It may require people to reflect and modify their philosophy of their role in the organization and what they want to get out of being in the organization. Some may leave the organization. In a successful effort, everyone changes to some degree.


Again, more great lessons, but what does this mean for schools? Especially those in the midst of a tech-tonic shift? In my experience, the most obvious answer rests in the mismatch between intentions of a change initiative and the strategies used to get there. Transformational change is hard. It’s complex and requires a great deal of preparation and forethought. As Harsh is fond of quoting, “complex problems require complex solutions.” Simplistic approaches won’t lead to successful change in complex situations, like whole-organization change. Transformational change is truly a contact sport. It requires rallying the troops and getting everyone on the same page. It can even involve thinning the troops or finding those more sympatico to the change vision.

In my experience, too many education organizations attempt to implement transformational change through incremental strategies–using simplistic strategies that can’t address a complex problem. In most cases, those I work with are seeking transformational change whether they originally intend to or not. Also in most of these cases, the strategies used are limited to individuals or a small group or do not tackle the larger and more complex issues related to revising personal philosophies, developing a shared vision, or changing organizational culture. Yes, those are challenging aspects, which may be why so many people want to avoid them, but you have to be true to yourselves and those with whom you work. If you want transformational change, roll up your sleeves and get ready to do some heavy lifting. If you’re not ready for the long-term investment required for transformational change, change your sites. Focus on incremental change, and select strategies that will support it.


Harsh, S. (2012). Taking successful change initiatives beyond capacity: A multiple-dimension approach to capacity building. Fairfax, VA: ICF International.