leading change for school improvement

Leading Dynamic Change in Schools

By Dr. Kristy L. Beam, Faculty at University of North Georgia, Former Principal at American School of Valencia, Administrator and Independent Consultant

As school leaders, we often imagine ourselves as the confident ship captain, steering our precious cargo confidently through calm waters:

However, constant changes, initiated at the top, can leave staff feeling more like they are navigating the river wild!

Sometimes, it feels that changes occur  simply for the sake of change. Once we get comfortable with a new initiative, it is time for something new. The nature of education makes it a dynamic field. There are always new mandates, standards, programs and research concerning how to improve teaching and learning. School leaders must be ready to navigate the constant evolution of school improvement, but the challenge is:

How do we lead change without everyone getting seasick?

Utilizing well-established leadership models, protocols, and having a clear understanding of the stages of group change provide school leaders with the tools to lead change within the organization.

Many school leaders are educated as teachers. What we know about management comes from what we learned managing our classrooms. However, to be transformational school leaders, we need to take a look at the models successfully used in the world of business to lead organizational change. Transformational leadership is a term first coined by James MacGregor Burns in 1978. According to Burns, transformational leadership is a process in which “leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation”. Many have built on this concept throughout the years, defining how to be a transformational leader versus a transactional leader.

Leading Change: An 8-Step Process

John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School introduced his eight-step change process in his 1995 book, “Leading Change”. The process is adaptable to school leadership providing a framework to successfully lead change. The first step in Kotter’s model is to create a sense of urgency. Depending on the school, this can be quite simple or a huge challenge. For example, I worked at a public school that faced one challenge after another. By county evaluation standards, it was the worst, by far, of all 79 schools. The administrative team had been removed and a new team, of which I was a part, was brought in. There was no challenge in “establishing a sense of urgency” to make changes. And, by following the steps of Kotter’s model, we did successfully lead sustainable, measurable improvement.

Your school may not face these challenges, and setting the stage for the need to make changes may be a challenge in itself. Another leadership guru, James Collins writes, “Good is the enemy of great”. If your school is “fine” and everything is “ok”, yet you can see the potential for so much more, you know the frustration of convincing stakeholders that school improvement needs to occur. However, utilizing Kotter’s model for predictive planning can be a lifesaver!

Whether implementing a new initiative or transforming an organization, this model provides the framework to plan for success. Within the framework, utilizing data and protocols, gathering feedback, and maintaining clear focus leads to successful change.

Anyone that has ever led change knows that obstacles occur. In 1965, Bruce Tuckman developed the stages of group development-forming, storming, norming, and performing. For leaders, awareness of these stages can help predict and prepare for obstacles that inevitably arise as a response to change.

Understanding the concepts and models associated with transformational leadership alleviates frustration for school leaders allowing them to recognize and prepare for the natural progression of leading change. Determining school need, developing the vision, and maintaining focus allows passionate school leaders to steer their school on the course of transformative change.

Kristy Beam has a diverse background in education as a teacher and administrator. After 15 years in a large public school system in the US, she spent the last four as principal of a private, international school in Europe. Currently, she is working in curriculum development and has taken on a greater role with the University of North Georgia, where she has taught in the graduate education program for the last four years.

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