“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” — attributed to Yogi Berra
When I was a principal, standing in front of the staff with any proposed change to present, felt like standing before a fork in the road. I was reluctant to put anything more on their plates, but I also wanted to make positive changes in the school. I finally learned that neither backing off or charging ahead with the proposed change would suffice. Instead I figured out what the “fork” was and how I had to take it, if I wanted to connect with the staff and facilitate positive change.
The “fork” is the conflicting, often contradictory mindsets that educators present back to any principal or administrator presenting to them:
“Offer us something that we can use to do our jobs better.”
“Don’t imply in the slightest way that we need to do our jobs better.”
I translated these mindsets into these statements about educators:
- Educators have a difficult job and do it well. Affirming and acknowledging their competence makes them more likely to accept any proposed change in practice.
- Educators want to do their jobs better and rightfully don’t like the implication that they don’t.
- Educators don’t want to be fixed or think they need fixing.
- Educators prefer to build on their successes rather than feel like they have to start from scratch.
- Educators care deeply about what they do, feel tremendous pressure for doing it well and have little patience for wasting time on anything they don’t feel will them help do it. This care must also be affirmed.
- Educators need to trust that the person proposing a change wants to help them rather than control them.
- Educators want and need to have some choice and control over what it is they decide to change about their practice.
- Educators’ sensitivity to criticism is heightened by implications that they are the reasons why schools are in trouble.
- If an idea for change has any value and educators think it will help them, they will embrace it enthusiastically. It just needs to be presented in the right way.
Taking the “fork” means crafting the message/presentation by accepting and addressing both of these mindsets simultaneously. It means putting the contents — new ideas or changes — in an acceptable package, removing any implied criticism, and replacing it with acknowledgement and affirmation of the work they have already done.
It is easy in their haste to make change, principals and administrators can forget about creating the right package that the change comes in. The resistance that many administrators sense from educators is more a result of their poor packaging than it is a staff’s lack of openness or resistance to new ideas. Get the packaging right and the contents of the package are more likely to be accepted.
Here are some ways for creating the right package for change:
Make sure staff members know that the principal/administrator and they are in it together. Many times, principals become middle managers having to impose changes that were decided by district office, school boards or state policies. Adding something new to a full plate is a form of adversity for staff. Adversity can split a team apart or bring it closer together. Expressing a need for help is not a sign of weakness; it is being honest, transparent and shows.
Don’t pretend it is going to be easy or it is “no big deal.” Sometimes to make a change more acceptable, a principal will downplay its impact. Although you want to avoid a “oh woe is me” mentality, acknowledging the difficulty and the impact of the change shows empathy and reinforces the “we are in this together” mindset.
Although there may be no choice in accepting the change, find ways of offering choices in the implementation of it. Involve staff in the decision-making process of how the change is going to manifest itself in the school. It will increase their ownership of it and also provide a great source of feedback on how it is working.
Use the group to change the group. Don’t worry about gaining universal acceptance of the idea. It is not the principal’s job to get everyone on board. If staff members are involved in the decision-making process and have say in how it is implemented, they will have greater influence in getting others on board.
Baby steps are okay. Make it clear that change doesn’t have to happen all at once. Staff can be involved in determining how the change can be broken into smaller steps. Be clear with staff that the goal is progress not perfection.
Make sure that staff members know that the change is a work in progress. Let them know that their feedback is needed to revise, tweak, modify the change in order to improve it. Make it clear that change is a process. It is about learning not performing.
Plan a specific time to get together to check in and see how things are going. Many times a principal will indicate that staff will have an opportunity to provide feedback, but fail to provide a time for it. By setting a specific date and time to do so, staff will know in advance their input will be welcome.
Use a McDonald’s for Lunch strategy. My son told me about an article he read about the McDonald’s for Lunch strategy: A group of people are trying to decide where to go to lunch and someone announces that they go to McDonald’s. Since everyone in the group probably doesn’t want to go there, it triggers a wave of suggestions that ultimately leads to a better choice. Sometimes to get started a plan has to be put on the table, a principal can do that, but should announce it as a McDonald’s for Lunch strategy. This will tell staff members that it is safe to raise objections with it and propose alternate ideas.
Present the change as a familiar surprise. Find a creative or unique way to introduce the change. This will avoid the “here we go again” response that staff have to change. Use video clips, photos or stories to introduce the change, not to sell it to staff members, but to get them thinking differently about it. However, once it presented, make sure that staff members understand how it is connected to established practices.
Convey confidence and your belief that positive change is not just possible but is inevitable. When staff start to own the change, they are writing the story of how the change manifests itself in the school. Remember, when you are writing your own story, you can write a happy ending to it.
By taking the fork and crafting the right package for the change, you are sending this message to your staff: You are competent, successful educators who want to get better. I have great faith and confidence that you will continue to do your job well but here is something to think about and learn more about. It is your choice. We can do what we need to do to make our school an even better place.
Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at www.jim-dillon.com.