An Administrator's Guide to Change Management

Technology in education has reached a critical transition point — a virtual crossroads of sorts. While many schools now have computers in every classroom, Internet access, computer labs, mobile technology, and other technologies, most still lack the key factor in the technology integration equation — tech-savvy teachers. A change has yet to occur for educators who refuse to see the value of utilizing these new innovations to enhance professional practice, leaving students inadequately prepared for the new digital reality.

Change occurs whether we like it or not. Schools, teachers, administrators, students, parents, and all other stakeholders in education must come to grips with this fact right away or face being disappointed time and again. In fact, when educators assume leadership positions, they must move beyond acceptance of change to effective users of this phenomenon. Although many challenges and obstacles arise throughout the change process, leaders stay the course by employing an approach rooted in strong moral principals and an understanding of the nature of change.

Michael Fullan, an international authority on educational reform, lays out a framework for change leadership in his book, Leading in a Culture of Change.

According to Fullan, a mere understanding of the change process does not suffice. Rather, leaders must possess the symbiotic qualities within the circle of his graphic. Additionally, effective leaders act with energy, enthusiasm, and hope in order to make people feel that even the most difficult problems can be tackled productively. Technology integration is no exception to this approach — in order to help lead the mindset shift from old paradigms to new methodologies, leaders must show the way through their own actions.

With Fullan’s framework in mind, effective leaders can go about the business of assessing a system readiness for change by utilizing an understanding of the change process. In conducting this continuous assessment of a system’s readiness for change, leaders must be aware of how change will occur regardless of an organization’s desires for it not to transpire. Therefore, the leadership of a system must determine when and how to incorporate the emerging practices around technology into the culture of the system. Phillip Schlechty (1997) summarizes an effective way to determine readiness of an organization for change with four key questions:

  • Why is change needed?
  • What kind of change is needed and what will it mean for us when the change comes about?
  • Is what we are being asked to do really possible? Has it been done before? By whom? Can we see it in practice?
  • How do we do it? What skills do we need and how will they be developed?

School leaders must understand the need for a particular change related to technology before attempting to set it into motion. There must be a rationale based upon data analysis of student achievement. Otherwise, there really would be no effective way to justify change if there was not hard evidence to support it. Understanding the answers to Schlechty’s other three questions will clarify the readiness of a school to undergo a given change. If the implications for a change result in consequences that outweigh the benefits of the change, then the school leader must re-evaluate the planned change, making modifications that will address and avoid negative consequences.

Beyond assessing the readiness of a system to implement a change, school leaders must also ascertain the individual readiness for the proposed change. One effective approach to analyzing individual needs is the Concerns-Based Adoption Model, or CBAM:

By assessing individual needs and determining where each member of a system fits within the continuum of the Stages of Concern, a leader can begin to develop a broader sense of a staff’s needs. Consequently, a leader must meld this knowledge with the bigger picture of why the change must occur. As a result, the leader can design actions that address the individual needs while still maintaining focus on the reason why change was initiated in the first place.

Once a leader has established that the system and a significant proportion of its individuals are prepared to implement change, the task then shifts to creating the change itself. First and foremost, leaders must understand that change can be managed and led, but it cannot be controlled. (Schlechty 1997) Furthermore, careful attention must be given to the way in which change is initiated. Fullan refers to the work of Daniel Goleman, who describes six leadership styles:

  • Coercive — the leader demands compliance. (“Do what I tell you.”)
  • Authoritative — the leader mobilizes people toward a vision. (“Come with me.”)
  • Affiliative — the leader creates harmony and builds emotional bonds. (“People come first.”)
  • Democratic — the leader forges consensus through participation. (“What do you think?”)
  • Pacesetting — the leader sets high standards for performance. (“Do as I do, now.”)
  • Coaching — the leader develops people for the future. (“Try this.”)

Two of these styles, coercive and pacesetting, will create failure because they lead to resistance or a feeling of being overwhelmed. The other four approaches have their respective values, but can be effective only in a system or organization that has change mechanisms embedded within its culture.

If leaders wish to institutionalize change, which Fullan has described as a 3 to 5 year process, the organization must have change embedded within its cultural fabric. Several educational reformers have indicated this notion in their work:

If you intend to introduce a change that is incompatible with the organization’s culture, you have only three choices: modify the change to be more in line with the existing culture, alter the culture to be more in line with the proposed change, or prepare to fail. —David Salisbury and Daryl Conner

Structural change that is not supported by cultural change will eventually be overwhelmed by the culture, for it is in the culture that any organization finds meaning and stability. —Phillip Schlechty

To put it as succinctly as possible, if you want to change and improve the climate and outcomes of schooling for both students and teachers, there are features of the school culture that have to be changed, and if they are not changed, your well-intentioned efforts will be defeated. —Seymour Sarason

Rick DuFour (1998) likens a school’s culture to a garden — and as gardeners know, constant cultivation is required, a never-ending task. Prior to making any change to the “way things are done” in a system, particularly when dealing with technology, opportunities for the organization to find its moral compass — its direction and what it believes — must be allowed for to provide focus. As a result of this work on culture, a leader will have a clearer picture of where to begin to implement change.

In a learning community where change has been embedded, a school leader can look to those individuals who have demonstrated willingness to incorporate new ideas into professional practice. These people can be described as “trailblazers” — those who regularly venture into the uncharted territory that accompanies change. By having a clear, guiding vision for the trailblazers, a school leader will have empowered staff to begin to make the innovation their own. Consequently, the change lands on the track of sustainability as the other “actors” — pioneers, settlers, stay-at-homes, and saboteurs — begin to see how the change can apply to their work. A variety of approaches must be taken to address the needs of each type of actor, yet getting the trailblazers “on board” puts into motion a process that will sustain desired changes with the proper resources (Schlechty 1997).

Sustaining desired changes relies upon being able to provide support to teachers to address their specific needs. First of all, the trailblazers would need an opportunity for training and collaboration around the change initiative along with the opportunity to experience it for themselves in their classroom. Once these change leaders are comfortable with the initiative, the school leader can initiate a secondary step to bring more staff members into the fold. The trailblazers could utilize their knowledge to organize study groups, serve as peer coaches, mentors, etc. to work with the pioneers who would be most apt to take on the new initiative. From this work, dissemination and creation of knowledge would allow the innovation to begin to permeate the school culture.

From all of these methods, increased communication about the innovation will result. Effective communication has been cited as “the one major lesson that has emerged from the extensive research studies on innovation” (Kouzes & Posner 1987). When one examines the way in which knowledge best transfers to learners, discussion seems to rise to the forefront of methods for acquiring new information. As has been noted elsewhere:

Change cannot be sustained through a “sit ‘n git” approach where an expert talks at staff about how to utilize an innovation (Barth 2001). Rather, staff need to talk about the innovation and experience it — therefore, the innovation must be everywhere in the organizational structure of the school once it moves beyond the trailblazers and the pioneers. This way, Schlechty’s other “actors” will become involved in making the change become institutionalized through a collaborative, ongoing process. Finally, sustaining an innovation requires much more than congeniality alone — it requires common goals, collective efforts, and shared insights of people deeply engaged in their current practice and behavior (DuFour and Eaker 1998).

Innovation has many aspects — so much so that no one person cannot control it or expect to have a complete handle on it. “Leaders are judged on the basis of results that cannot be achieved solely by their own efforts” (DuFour and Eaker 1998). School leaders must immerse themselves in change — be the “lead learner” — the one who has the greatest thirst for knowledge, who experiences professional development side-by-side with their staff. Leaders must try out innovations for themselves — see how they work, how they don’t, and how they could apply to the school’s teachers. For instance, leaders motivated by the research around the effectiveness of Web logs, or blogs, must first demonstrate their understanding of this innovation and model its use for staff, which will eventually lead to staff buy-in around this concept. In the end, student learning will benefit from this experimentation with innovation.

The impact on student learning will not be attained without ambiguity and chaos due to the “messy” nature of change. Teachers will need the opportunity to experiment with the innovation, stay-at-homes and settlers will be slow in implementing the innovation in their classrooms, and saboteurs will look for opportunities to derail the progress. Once again, Fullan’s thinking must be applied — a leader with a strong moral compass will guide staff through these challenges while entrusting them with the opportunity to learn from mistakes that are inevitable from a new endeavor. A leader must continually offer the hope, enthusiasm, and energy required to help an organization ‘stay the course’ (sustain) through the murky waters of change to find the ‘safe harbor’ (desired outcome).

In the end, one must measure the impact of change upon the school. Thomas Guskey, in Evaluating Professional Development, describes five key areas to assess in evaluating professional development and change:

  • Participants’ reactions
  • Participants’ learning
  • Organization support and change
  • Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills
  • Student learning outcomes

The organization must come to terms with where staff members fall on the Stages of Concern continuum in order to determine how well they became accustomed to the change. This provides an effective evaluation method while determining future needs of the staff. In addition, anecdotal evidence must accompany the data from the CBAM evaluations to get a broader sense of the participants’ reactions to the innovation. Observations by administrators and mentors that demonstrate how participants have applied the new knowledge and skills would be valuable, as would analysis of relevant student data to shed light on the system’s effectiveness in adopting the change.

Guskey enjoys sprinkling memorable quotes throughout his book to heighten the reader’s understanding of the text. One such quote bears relevance to realistic expectations for change implementation:

It is a mystery why adults expect perfection from children. Few grown-up can get through a whole day without making at least one mistake. -Marcelene Cox

Leaders who effectively lead change keep the essence of this quote in their hearts and minds as they manage innovation within their schools. Change must be messy to work, and experimentation must be championed to provide fruitful opportunities for growth.

Barth, R.S. (2001) Learning by Heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998) Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
Fullan, M. (2000) Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Guskey, T.R. (2000) Evaluating Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Kouzes, J.M., & Posner, B.Z. (1998) Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Schlechty, P.C. (1997) Inventing Better Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Email:Benjamin B. Rudd