There are an overwhelming number of initiatives that schools can invest time in developing in order to improve and change for the better. Some schools may charge full-on into as many initiatives as possible whereas others may take a more cautious approach to change. Whatever course leaders help to plot for their respective schools, there is going to be criticism for either changing too much or changing too little.
There are consequences of both. If schools do not change quickly enough there can be missed opportunities for improving student learning and the pioneer teachers in our schools get frustrated with those who are slowing them down in terms of doing what they feel needs to be done to move forward.
Conversely, if school moves too quickly, a lack of planning for the change process may occur that new initiatives may not recover from. If time is heavily invested in a change effort and it falls over, then there is a significant consequence – loss of trust. Teachers expect school leaders to get it right and given the busy nature of schools and the competing demands for teacher time, getting change wrong can take years to get over.
So, what should be done in what appears to be a no-win situation?
School leaders have to play both sides of the same coin when it comes to change. There needs to be a level of differentiation to allow exploration of new initiatives countered with slow and methodical planning of change for others. Most importantly, change needs to be managed carefully.
Notice that the term ‘managed’ is used here, as opposed to lead. This is quite deliberate and may sound quite controlling, restrictive, but should change efforts not have a degree of control, things can get messy very quickly and school cultures can turn toxic as a result of associated frustration when things don’t go well. School leaders may not directly lead many of the changes in their schools, more often they enable others to make change happen, all while having oversight of the many different change efforts. This is crucial, so school leaders are able to intervene where necessary and steer things in the right direction and slow things down or speed them up. The task is to get as much harmony in school improvement as possible.
The last thing a school needs is for its teachers to be pulled in all directions, which leads to haphazard efforts on too many initiatives as opposed to sustained effort on a few changes. Schools can ill-afford to waste precious teacher energy and the creation of frustration does just that. Energy expenditure owing to being frustrated in not being able to do what schools are being asked to do is particularly costly. The impact magnifies when teachers get together to discuss their frustrations, affirming their beliefs about change, so school leaders are required to manage change effectively to ensure that frustration is minimised.
Rather than seek to lead change first, school leaders have to re-think their role. It starts with appreciating that change happens in schools from people in both formal and informal leadership roles and change can equally happen from grass roots movements as well as top-down driven initiatives. Leaders have to get a to get to grips with the strings that at being pulled and the notes being blown before the orchestra loses its harmonious sound.
Richard is currently Secondary School Principal of Suzhou Singapore International School, one of China's leading international schools. He leads workshops across the Asia-Pacific region for the International Baccalaureate in the areas of pedagogical leadership and approaches to teaching and learning. Richard consults with schools on the topics of school improvement and effective implementation and use of technology.
With a background in public and independent school education in the UK and Australia, Richard is enjoying his international school adventure in China. He is passionate about developing and supporting educational leaders, as it is essential to improving all schools.
Richard is a proud family man and feels lucky to be married to Kim and father of their son Austin.
In his spare time Richard enjoys to swim, bike and run and is a now retired football player and coach (with occasional guest appearances)