Monday, February 15, 2016

Transforming Your School: 8 Critical Steps

Guiding change may be the ultimate test of a leader. It's an exciting time to be an educator with the amount of change coming our way. No organization, even schools, can survive if they don't consider how to re-invent themselves.

As a gift from a manager in one of my first leadership roles, I received John Kotter's 1996 book  "Leading Change." This book has traveled to every new role as a staple on my book shelf. Kotter discusses eight critical success factors that leaders need to utilize if change and growth is to occur in your organization. This book wasn't written for educational leaders yet many of the strategies and all of the eight success factors can support change in schools. Kotter suggests that skipping any of these eight success factors creates an illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result.

So, how can school leaders navigating the waters of change using Kotter's model? Let's look at each of the eight steps below:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency: Schools should do "competitive analysis," paying attention to what's happening around them and the reality of how key stakeholders feel about the school. What do parents think, the board, the faculty themselves? This is especially important for independent schools where micro-schools like AltSchool and innovative programs like Acton Academy are developing. Schools should also regularly conduct community-driven meetings where SWOT Analysis and design charrettes can provide insight. School leaders may need to pierce through the denial that change may be needed and develop a sense of urgency among faculty and staff. This is a delicate process that needs to be handled with empathy, support and resources.
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition. Schools are great at forming committees, however they are often made up of the same people. Consider the diversity of your committee and include all stakeholders. I suggest designing committees after a small core team utilizes the design method from the LUMA Institute, "Stakeholder Mapping."  At my last school I formed a "Council on Innovation," made up of current and former parents, leading higher education researchers and educators and current faculty and staff at the school. This high-power group provided specific and actionable guiding steps for the school. 
  3. Creating a vision. Don't be one of 'those schools' that has a mission/vision statement that is only in a book or on a website. Design it together. Form community along the way. Hold participatory design sessions with students and faculty alike. Visioning is a regular activity, not a one time activity. Change initiatives should have a vision and actionable tasks attached to them. Without this critical step, faculty and staff will feel like they are on a perpetual treadmill where they have been talking for years about the same change initiatives. 
  4. Communicating the vision. It's important to share vision across the school network through multiple channels. From vinyl signs across campus, to social media marketing and even a twitter hash tag, building shared language and understanding is key.Perhaps starting every faculty meeting with an update of progress or status update or even better yet, create a flipped learning video to send to multiple constituents. For example, let's say your vision is "equipping students with the right stuff to make it," how do you plan to do that? What does it look like? What words, signs and symbols support the vision. Being sure everyone is on the same page with the vision develops shared understanding and likelihood of success. 
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision. This one is so critical. How many initiatives in schools fail because barriers were not removed or resources were not in place? If you want to create a more student-centered school, what systems are in place that will block the vision? Change them, remove the barrier and the idea will have a higher likelihood to succeed. Encourage taking calculated risks among faculty by offering peer mentoring, co-teaching, or innovation grants. Another idea developed at my last school is the Innovation Fellows model. After applying and joining a two-year commitment, innovation fellows were key peer mentors that helped to spread and support the vision to shift learning in grades 5-12 to be more active and constructionist. The school community began to flourish and adopt the vision with this support in place. Schools can also form PLNs - personal learning networks, where teachers get release time to meet and plan with the PLN. Last but not least, how are you empowering students to act on the vision? At my last school we formed the student "geek squad" to help others learn to use technology in innovative ways. This student run genius bar allowed students to develop leadership skills and student agency to come alive.
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins. Celebrate small wins and seek out "low hanging fruit" that support your vision. Develop logic models and metrics. This will be key to gaining renewed support from the board, foundations or other major donors. Communicate results to parents, the board and even to students.Developing community around these wins is the perfect opportunity to get slower adopters and wary parents on-board with the vision. Let faculty share their wins at faculty meetings, parent coffees, get and give them recognition for their hard work. 
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing even still more change. Consider conducting research studies both internally and with university partners to show the success of a pilot program. Many innovative teaching and learning methods, for example, show minor content gains - yet the gains in "soft skills" are often profound. A standardized assessment will not show key stakeholders these gains. Gather a team of teachers and administrators that are high-performers and give them the task of conducting action research as a professional growth opportunity. Send them to conferences to share what they learned, let them hold Google Hangouts as a form of outreach and ask them how to spread the pilot programs in bigger and deeper ways at your school. Learning walks, school visits and instructional rounds can also support the development of your transformation initiatives. Act on their suggestions and enter into the growth spiral that changes culture. 
  8. Institutionalizing new approaches. Benchmark your success against metrics and present dashboards regularly to key stakeholders that can spread your program or change initiative. Seek funding with your newly acquired data set or expand a program across the domains. If you launched an initiative around using human-centered design at your school, for example, spread it from being used in one class to being used across the entire school for decision-making. Make the shared language behind design everyday language at your school. Put funding, team structure and resources behind the approach to help it grow beyond a pilot program to a part of your everyday culture. Administrators that don't back these approaches in real and sustainable ways will doom the initiative and potential for long-term transformation at your school. Evaluate and constantly be looking to iterate programs and processes to continue to grow.
Setting the stage to transform your school requires a willingness to "roll up your sleeve and get messy." Some of us enjoy this process and like to get down to work. Administrators must know how to build empathy for multiple stakeholders when identifying and creating action around areas for change. Careful listening and being humble with self-reflection will serve school leaders well. In addition to paying attention to John Kotter's eight critical success factors, we must also be open to new ideas, have a growth-mindset and sell the need for change. Empowering others to be the architects behind school transformation will separate schools of the future from the schools who will be left behind.


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