A colleague recently asked me how to make things change at school. We were having lunch and I shared with her my thoughts on how change works at a 200 plus year old institution. I have been thinking about our conversation since then and refined what I would say were we to have the conversation again.
First, I would say the change can’t be all about you. There are always things we don’t like about out jobs. Is the change you want to make simply something you don’t enjoy or something that doesn’t play to a strength of yours? If this is the case, you can negotiate all you want, but it will be hard to alter. And, there are things that we just have to do. I don’t enjoy telling girls that their skirts are too short or that their bra straps are showing, its just part of the job of working at a school full of adolescents. We have agreed as a community to a certain dress standard, as members of the community we have to hold the members of the community to the standard. If it depends on an area of personal weakness (and we all have them and need to know how to lean into them), then looking for support or practice with a mentor or peer coach may be a way to better handle this task.
Second, and this is where change can actually happen, look around at roles (not people) in the community. Is there a reason someone else with a different role could do the task better. In the case of my colleague, she works primarily with Upper School students. She has one piece of her job that puts her with Middle School students. This is her only contact with them. The students don’t know her and she doesn’t know them and yet she is expected to supervise them and teach them in the fifteen minutes of contact she has with them. In this case, she could make a very convincing argument that this part of the program and the students involved would be much better served by an adult with whom they have an ongoing, well-established student teacher relationship.
This brings us to the third element of successful change, proposing a workable solution. By suggesting the solution, busy administrators are given a way forward without having to spend time coming up with a solution themselves. The solution might not work, but it might also suggest to the administrator another way forward. In some cases, the change might not involve administrative approval. I think the more we are empowered to make adjustments in the way things are done so that they are done better is all to the good. At our school, the change needs to be cost neutral. Also, to shift a responsibility from one job description to another means someone else has something added. The solution needs to address both of these constraints.
Any change needs to put the student in the center and be for her benefit. This is a school and our whole purpose is to educate young people to the best of our ability. Independent schools for all their independence are often quite averse to change. There are things we do because THAT IS THE WAY WE HAVE ALWAYS DONE IT (TTWADI). Creative examination sometimes shows that some of these sacred cows are no longer in our student’s interests. Now my friend’s actual responsibility within her job is not a sacred cow of her job. Until recently, it was done by a Middle School teacher. In my friend’s situation, I think she has a case for suggesting that the Middle School students are not getting all they can out of this key element of our program as she does not know them. When proposed changes benefit our students, it’s much easier to find a way forward.
Finally, if possible tie the change to a strategic initiative. Not all changes fit with strategic initiatives. Some are just better ways of doing what needs to be done. Switching from typing terms comments in triplicate to using a word processor and requiring that the whole faculty learn to do this is one of those non-strategic types of changes. But some are the small changes that help schools achieve strategic initiatives. One such apparently small change happened at our school a few years back with linking individual faculty goal setting (something we had been doing for a few years previous to this) to a three year cycle which coincides with faculty reviews. Five years ago, professional development was something a few individuals did just because and most goals written in September were forgotten by October; now there is a school culture of adult learning tied to our many roles as coaches, dorm parents, classroom teachers, and administrators. Those not participating or only going through the motions are a definite and increasingly noticeable minority. What’s interesting about this sort of change is that it feels small at first, but over time the effect is transformative.