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The details of effective change management vary from school to school, but breaking it into smaller pieces lets people manage change better.

8 lessons to help school leaders manage change

The details of effective change management will vary from school to school, but breaking change into smaller pieces, allowing people to change at their own pace, and being aware of everyone’s social and emotional wellness are keys to making it manageable wherever you are

Key points:

  • Patience will go a long way in ensuring all members of your school system are comfortable with change
  • Keeping wellness in mind goes a long way in ensuring effective change management
  • See related article: These 2 things can guide your change management

As a former turnaround principal, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to manage change within a school system. That’s why, when I retired from the school system to pursue my PhD, Industrial Organizational (I/O) Psychology seemed like such a perfect fit. I/O Psychologists concentrate on systems improvement, focusing on how individuals and organizations work together. I loved helping school systems that needed improvements turn around and become environments where students grow and thrive, and here was a whole field full of insights and strategies to help people adopt a growth mindset and learn to embrace change.

Education, like the world we prepare students for, is constantly changing, yet it sometimes seems to have one foot in the past. Teachers are always striving to understand how they can work through change to best help their students. Administrators are managing and supporting not just their students, but their faculty as well, even as they are dealing with new initiatives, new federal laws, new local regulations, new testing mandates, and more.

All the disruption caused by COVID in recent years is a good example of how I/O Psychology can help schools. A lot of people focus on the trauma students experienced during the pandemic—and that’s important—but there were also students and teachers who thrived through virtual schooling. Sometimes change is inevitable, but what can we do to ensure that fewer students experience trauma as a result and more find success?

Whether you’re overhauling a process that you’ve wanted to redesign for years, introducing new technology to improve student outcomes, or holding on as external circumstances force your school to adapt, here are eight lessons from Industrial Organizational Psychology that will help you make the best of that change.

1. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to change.

There are many theories of change, and none of them are going to work for everyone. A rural district with 20 teachers may not deal with change the same way as an urban district, considering that the larger number of people might lead to less interaction. Look to successful changemakers in other schools and districts for inspiration, but be ready to forge your own path in ways that make sense for your organization and the people in it.

2. Don’t expect people to change at the same pace

When you’re initiating a big change, one of the first things to do is to dig into the change process itself. Every organization has early adopters who are eager to jump out front and try something new, as well as people who need to contemplate big changes before they can embrace them. It’s okay to let those who are chomping at the bit get started while those who need time to adjust hang back a bit. The change-averse may even help you avoid some rough patches by giving the early adopters a chance to highlight unintended consequences so you can address them before they become a challenge across your entire district. Allow people to share out during the process. This will often ease others who might be nervous about changes.

3. Understand that change can feel personal.

Education is work of the heart. Teachers don’t just teach, it’s who we are as people. That means that for some, when you ask them to change what they’re doing, they will hear you asking them to change who they are. Their first thought might be, “What am I doing wrong? Are they asking me to change because I’m a bad teacher?”

Often people who are dragging their feet when asked to change aren’t actually opposed to change. Some of them are simply comfortable with what they’re doing already. Others may feel a bit of fear or worry that they don’t know how to do what’s being asked of them.

4. Break change into smaller pieces.

For those who are worried, it’s helpful to break any change down into simple, manageable steps and help them adapt one step at a time. Your early adopters can be a resource here, helping their colleagues understand not just what’s being asked of them, but providing an example of the benefits your change brings with it.

It can also be helpful to offer slow changers material that helps them understand the “why” behind the change while they adjust to the idea. When they do take a step, be sure to point out how it’s helping or ask them what positive benefits they’ve seen since dipping their toe into the change pool. Focusing on the positives of each step they take will help them build the confidence they need to move forward. Don’t forget to congratulate them on each step they take and celebrate wins!

Regardless of the size of your school or district, make sure the steps you’ve broken your change down into are small enough that everyone can feel comfortable with them, even if they won’t take them at the same pace. Make sure everyone knows what the short- and long-term goals are and make sure you’re supporting your teachers along the way. Then, check in frequently to find out where everyone is. They won’t be on the same page, but gathering input frequently can help you better understand where more or different supports are needed, identify unintended consequences, or simply allow your faculty to feel heard as they wrestle with the discomfort of doing things differently.

I generally tell administrators to stick to five items—a literal handful—at a time. Let your people know, “We’re going to practice these five things. We’re going to have partners and coaches checking in with us about it. We’re going to work on it together and then we’re going to move on to the next five things.” Differentiating the professional development and coaching support for educators is just as important as differentiating instruction for students.

5. Help contextualize change and connect it to continuing practices.

Help your teachers put change into context by connecting it to practices they’re already comfortable and familiar with.

For example, I am working with a district right now that is redesigning every one of their classrooms. They’re starting with their middle schools, and it’s a big change for everyone there. Instead of just throwing the furniture into the classrooms, I went in and helped their teachers learn how to use it for small-group work and individual work. We then connected these to strategies already in use in the district. These are strategies every teacher knows, and now the teachers in that district see their new furniture as a tool that helps them implement those strategies more effectively, rather than something entirely new.

6. Keep everyone’s wellness in mind.

Don’t forget to take the health and wellness of everyone in your buildings into account. That’s students and teachers, but it’s also custodial staff and office staff. That includes you and your own well-being, because I know administrators can become so focused on taking care of everyone else that they forget to care for themselves.

When you put something on someone’s plate, make sure you take something off it, too. When teachers are off the clock, let them be off the clock. Don’t give them extra things to do after school or on the weekends. It’s easy to just keep piling stuff on, but that’s a route to burnout.

7. Get involved yourself.

If possible, get in there and get your hands dirty with your teachers. Learn alongside them and practice the change you’re asking them to make. Jump in and try a lesson of the new reading or math series you’ve adopted. Reconnecting yourself back to that teaching will not just be a morale boost for your faculty, it’ll help you understand the discomfort or confusion they might encounter along the way.

8. Encourage your changemakers.

Encourage your people along the way. You don’t have to go buy elaborate gifts, but putting a nice note on their desk or stopping in to say thank you will let them know that you see and appreciate their hard work. You could even jump in their classroom and give them 10 minutes to go take a break or observe another classroom.

Give your teachers high-fives in the hallways. This is just one way to show them you are present and appreciate them. This means you’ll also have to put yourself in the hallway to do it, and the more your teachers and students see you out in the school excited about change, the more likely that they’ll get excited about that change themselves. You’re in it together, and public encouragement is a great way to demonstrate that while acknowledging teachers who are working to make your initiative a success.

No two schools or districts will manage change exactly the same way, but by breaking change into smaller pieces, letting people go at their own pace, and keeping everyone’s wellness in mind, administrators can find a way forward no matter the circumstances.

Related: Four strategies for helping educators embrace change

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