Leading Change: The Steady Path on the Roller Coaster

By Mary Coverdale, Executive Director of The Learner First, Australia.

I work with courageous leaders. They have a profound sense of what’s right for their students and teachers—not just with regard to curriculum, but to the skills and dispositions that, when embedded in the classroom experience, can enrich the social and emotional “humanscape” of the environment. Time’s up on the old models of textbooks, experts, and hierarchies. Time’s up on the one-size-fits-all mindset. Time’s up on the idea that we prepare our students for a job. We prepare our students to be confident, resilient, purposeful people who are able to contribute meaningfully to people’s lives and the world. The earth has shifted off its axis, and there are leaders out there who know and live this with a perspective spawned by a true moral compass.

Leading change in a changing world is like riding a roller coaster that continues to speed up no matter how hard you pull on the brakes. “Can we please just consolidate this year?” is a common refrain in staff meetings in schools. Teachers yearn for stability and clarity. The comment, “We can’t take any more changes,” indicates how overwhelmed they feel as they manage the competing demands of their students, the school, and the system. Resistance often emanates from the echo chamber of groups who feel that the efforts they expend on shifting practice amount to a waste of time. So they find their own coherence and reassurance by defaulting to what is easiest and quickest to deliver, like a PowerPoint, a worksheet, a lecture on a particular subject—a recipe for student disengagement and low-level learning.

Successful change leaders are able to create a new social contract with their teachers. They co-create a compelling frame of reference, a sense of coherence around a new, collaboratively and locally developed ecosystem of learning. They are non-judgmental, and they deeply value the human as well as the professional assets that every teacher brings to their work. When they know that something isn’t right, they are able to take risks, and they understand that creating a safe, trust-based environment is the essential precondition to any case for shifting practice. They are humble in their awareness that the collective intelligence of the group is a gift, and they carry a powerful, driving belief that if people share the way, the way will work—and it will be the right work, work that engages and motivates the children they serve.

So, what makes these change agents successful? Successful leaders:

  • Are non-hierarchical—they understand that peer validation is important, and that sharing, belonging, connecting, and caring are the new workplace norms. They make sure their people know they are valued and that they matter, and that humanity is common ground, not rooted in meritocracy.
  • Enable their people to feel a genuine sense of agency. They promote active engagement so that everyone can own and shape ideas, and they lever the intellectual and relational assets of the group through action, trust, and the cultivation of community.
  • Are open, participatory, and peer driven. They create a compelling context which becomes a blueprint for action, enabling both teachers and students to transform from passive consumers to active developers. They help creative and actionable outcomes emerge from what initially seems like a chaos of ideas.
  • Know that mindsets have to change. They possess a deep belief and understanding that it’s not more of the same, not just getting better at what we currently do—our work in our classrooms must now be different.
  • Are co-creators and collaborators who instill energy and passion. They know that leadership can come from anywhere—teachers, students, and others—and that reimagining together is a recipe for sustainable change.
  • Activate change through the values of transparency, ongoing feedback, and open sharing. They understand that the days of the “secret business of leadership”—we’ll tell you what you need to know when we think you need to know it—are over. The days of trust and transparency are here.
  • Demonstrate value for their people by joining in, knowing the work, and using the “wisdom of the group.” They build safety and trust by accepting mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth.
  • Remove barriers to action by making it easy to participate. They know how to manage a volunteer, “opt-in” environment that kick starts change through prototyping, finding out what works, and then scaling successfully for second-stage adoptees.
  • Have and share an articulated moral purpose that drives their work. They make sure people know what they stand for, and that the students will always be first.

Change leaders deeply understand the way that meaning and purpose link to engagement and success for all. By helping teachers, other staff, students, and more find their purpose in relevant, contributive learning, they motivate everyone to be the best they can be.

Effective leaders must use strategies that relate to people first—their teachers, learners, and community. They must know how to take the pulse of their people and be prepared to be a follower as well as a leader, a listener as well as a talker, and a person who clears away the perceived chaos of the work and finds the flow space of creative change. Compassion, empathy, and kindness underpin the trust that comes from a leader saying, “I believe in you, have a go.”