Moving any school forwards involves leading change, one of the most complex aspects of a school leader’s role. Transitioning to future-ready learning requires a fundamental and whole scale transformation of the way that our students learn. Successful change leadership in this context involves leaders not only developing a vision for future-ready learning and providing structures for implementation but also attending to the emotional climate in which they are operating.
It is clear from the research that the emotional landscape in schools is more intense than in most other types of organisations. Up until the late 1990s, emotions were largely neglected in educational research on teachers and teaching. What we know from the growing body of research that has developed since, is that the practice of teaching is essentially emotional in nature (Nias, 1996) and that this needs to be considered when embarking on any change process. The emotional nature of the teacher’s role is linked to the bonds that teachers establish with their students (Woods and Jeffrey, 1996) and the intimacy of student-teacher interactions (Nias, 1996). It is also a product of the way that teachers invest themselves in their work, closely merging their sense of personal and professional identity (Nias, 1996) in a way that other professionals do not. This leads to teachers experiencing a strong sense of vulnerability about lack of control in the workplace (Kelchtermans et al, 2011). Constant reform in recent decades has led to schools experiencing increasingly negative emotional climates and a rise in teacher stress levels (Hargreaves, 1998). This stems from a sense of grief (Blackmore, 2004) caused by perceived threats to teachers’ sense of identity (Van Veen and Sleegers, 2006) and their inherent beliefs and values (Schmidt and Datnow, 2005), leaving teachers feeling undervalued ( Carlyle and Woods 2002).
Successful change leadership in schools needs to be carefully orchestrated to ensure that teachers’ emotional responses to proposed initiatives are considered and planned for at the outset. This requires leaders to build understanding among their staff of the need for change, while at the same time ensuring that what is currently happening in the classroom is valued. Leaders quickly alienate their teams by suggesting that current practice is no longer fit for purpose, overlooking what teachers have invested and the extent to which the learning in the classroom is an expression of their personal identity. Finding ways to respectfully communicate the need for teaching to keep pace with current brain research and the nature of our fast-changing world is essential. Tapping into resources from the World Economic Forum, the OECD, and other similarly credible organisations, is a crucial part of demonstrating the changing landscape brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
A key to success in building understanding is to know your audience and to understand that innovation takes place on a bell curve, with only around 15% of individuals in any organisation behaving as early adopters. It is likely to take many educators longer than expected to understand why change is necessary. Providing opportunities to communicate the message multiple times and in different ways, to appeal to different learning styles, is important here. While a small number may be excited and impatient to forge ahead, others will need to process, ask questions and consider what this means for them before getting on board. There will inevitably be laggards, who are unlikely to move forward with changes to their practice in the required timeframe and who may well be encouraged to move on from the school. Concerns that these individuals will try to hijack the process can usually be dealt with by careful attention to the emotional needs of their colleagues.
Providing a forum for leadership teams and staff to share and reflect upon their fears around change, while at the same time focusing upon the opportunities that they see ahead, has been one of the most successful change leadership strategies we have employed at CDNIS during the implementation of Project Innovate. Acknowledging that fears are real and shared, not only by teacher colleagues but also by senior leaders, has helped us to move beyond those fears as a community of educators working towards a common goal to improve student learning.
Once the need for change has been established, the next step is to build understanding around what learning might look like. In the previous article, I shared the model of future-ready learning that we are implementing at CDNIS, built around the three pillars of foundational skills, 21st century skills and character. Providing a model allows everyone to understand what the school is aiming for. It is also important to unpack each element of the model in order to clarify the pedagogical approaches that will fit. Teachers need to feel they have agency in deciding which of these approaches will work well in their classrooms. Innovation is more likely to be successful if it comes from the grassroots so providing an environment where staff are encouraged to take risks and where failure is celebrated is key.
Once we have established clarity on what learning might look like it is vital to build capacity to ensure that teachers have the tools and support they need to successfully implement new pedagogies. Investing in relevant, external professional development opportunities is important in building a skill base but providing plentiful collaboration time for colleagues to share exceptional practice is just as important. Innovation is likely already happening in pockets around the school. Elevating early adopters as leaders in innovation is a key strategy in spreading future-ready learning to all classrooms. At CDNIS, embedding WeShare sessions, into PD days and staff meeting time, has been a highly successful strategy that has seen practice in experiential and hands-on learning transformed over a two year period. This kind of approach taps into teachers’ positive emotions, helping them to feel empowered, validated and in control of the change process. The role of the leader is to provide structures and support and to acknowledge and celebrate what is working well but to take the lead from those on the frontline.
There is no doubt that wholescale change is a messy and stressful business. It would be easy for leaders to panic in the early months of the change process and wonder whether innovation can ever take hold as some teachers push back against the need for change, afraid and confused about what this means for them. By understanding the emotional landscape, treating colleagues as individuals and providing multiple ways for them to take ownership of innovation, it is possible to turn a corner and begin moving in the same direction towards an exciting transformation.
Originally written for The international Educator