Change is cultural. We’d like to think that school change was about adding a new program, or providing new resources, or even hiring the “right” people. But it’s not. School change is about changing culture and that is hard-but not impossible. In fact, changing school culture results in increased motivation and enthusiasm. Cultural change is energizing.
Let’s look at the mathematics crisis in Ontario. It is not as if we have been giving teachers incorrect information over the last five years. No, the information being rolled out to schools from boards of education and from the ministry is research-based, current pedagogy. It is not as if we do not have the resources available in most schools, in most classrooms. No, Ontario teachers have access to professional resources, professional development, additional qualification courses, math manipulatives. It is not as if our Ontario math teachers are waking up every morning with an intention not to teach mathematics well. No, most teachers that I meet are deeply committed to doing the best job they can. It is not as if the demographic of students in Ontario has changed so radically that they are incapable to doing mathematics.
In order for there to be wide scale change, there needs to be a wide scale change in both beliefs and practices. In order to have wide-scale change, there needs to be a change in both school and board culture with regards to the implementation of change. Typically, in education, we focus efforts at the teacher level: they go to professional learning, they get new resources, they are charged with change implementation. eThere is a quick aside to the principal: “Just be the instructional leader here and make sure it happens.” And then, everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.
Unfortunately, change in teacher practice is messy and hard. It never happens like the video would have you believe. It almost never works out the first time. Teachers have to risk losing the well-oiled machine of classroom management when implementing a new pedagogical practice. Students, too, will be wary of new approaches. And, so, change happens in a very ad hoc manner, landing in some places but not others. In the face of messy, many individual teachers will abandon new practices or, adopt only parts of new practices that they think they understand.
But what if the implementation of change was a joint effort between all levels of the organization, both at the board and school level. And that effort meant taking a real interest in the change, not just managing one’s respective part in the process. For example:
- Principals take the same amount of interest in learning about the instructional change as their teachers do. They are not merely present but active learners. They don’t abandon the learning to deal with a small recess issue; they participate actively in classrooms instead of sitting back; they try teaching; they read the same resources; they engage in authentic discussions about teacher lessons.
- Principals actively monitor the change, and can do so because they understand what the change really needs to look like. This monitoring involves using both qualitative and quantitative data. The data helps them to know where to focus support.
- Teachers have the freedom to try out changes without the fear of being evaluated immediately. There is recognition of the messiness. The change process is honored over compliance.
- Superintendents have authentic and deep conversations with both principals and teachers about the work they are doing. Superintendents are also learning alongside teachers and principals.
- Professional development and training is not attended only by teachers but also by principals, vice-principals, and superintendents. It is visibly obvious that the change is of interest to all.
- The change is not invitational. Throughout the organization there is a recognition that the change is important. However, there is also recognition that the change will be big, and messy, and require support. The support is not provided only through training and resources, but also through authentic interest and learning by all levels of the organization.
We think that change is scary. But, my experience is that change is exciting. Change in practice that affects student learning energizes teachers more than anything else I know. But, change is cultural not procedural. So, ask yourselves, does educational change in my school/board/system create high levels of anxiety or high levels of energy? If it isn’t creating high levels of energy, then chances are, the implementation of the change is not affecting culture. And, in the end, there will be limited change. However, change the culture of implementation, and everyone will be excited to be learning-students, teachers, principals and superintendents.