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What a Photograph of a Tree Can Teach Leaders About Change

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What people resist is not change per se, but loss.- Ronald A. Heifetz

One of the most difficult challenges for schools is in the knowing that things may not be as they should be 100% of the time. Those dark corners where we have yet made a difference or that we haven't yet discovered are often the worries that trouble us as we drive or as we can't fall asleep. They may also be those places and issues where the greatest backlash will come when we disturb the status quo. Sometimes we enter those places because our leadership conscience forces us not to ignore it any longer and sometimes because the bear is poked by an incident or a person we didn't see coming.

There are few in our field who defend, with evidence, the way schools are organized and teaching and learning takes place.The only large industry that has not adapted to the times, education remains primarily unchanged.  The following  photo was recently shared with us by friend and colleague Peter Brouwer, Professor of Mathematics at SUNY Potsdam. It struck us as a metaphor for change.

Peter Brower the donut tree.jpg

It appears there was a competing good that needed to be addressed: a healthy and beautiful tree and the power lines for the community. One or the other had to go or some next right answer had to be envisioned. Hence, the tree was formed.

Leading Change in Schools

Let's look at the tree as the school and the wires as the need for change. In this case, the tree would cause damage and might even die if the branches that were in the way weren't carefully removed.  It is true that there are branches in our systems that need to be removed. (They are practices that no longer serve). But the tree is valuable, healthy and worth saving. (Public education is also valuable, healthy and worth saving, right?).   And so, those who are in authority find a way for the tree to be retained. (Schools will remain).  In this case, the tree can continue to thrive because of the care taken to remove the branches that were endangering or impeding further growth within  the community. 

How can those who are reticent to begin change in schools develop confidence that the risks taken to change current practice will result in a new and better structure?  How do we convince them that, thought the tree is a bit different and even odd, it is that exact capability of the tree to accept a loss that allows it to be preserved. It is, of course, a leader's job to do instill that confidence within the system but what if the leader her- or himself is not the one with the vision and without the desire for change? These are serious problems.  It is an equally serious a problem if there are those who believe change is simply motion and it is the same as progress.

There are always some in an organization with vision and energy for change. If the positional leaders lack the desire, there is always another principal, an assistant superintendent, a teacher leader, parents, and other voices somewhere in the organization that will inevitably gather and be heard. 

In the metaphor of the tree, some might have assumed those missing branches were personnel. That is fear.  "If we engage in changing how school is organized and thinking and learning takes place, jobs and excellent educators may be lost." If protecting jobs is a priority that comes before developing more dynamic, educated, thinking, creative, confident learners, the road to change will be barricaded by a tenacious hold on the past.  In trees, the branches were removed to allow power lines to pass safely through.  In schools, the branches might be the rigidity of a school schedule, how courses are organized as separate entities, or the way lunch is offered or how counseling services reach children. Maybe it is the way grading is done and communicated to parents or students or buildings are organized by grade levels or the way lesson plans are gathered and reviewed. There are leaders who are always scanning the horizon to see where the next right answer is emerging. They develop a community of teachers and leaders and parents to collectively sift through the new ideas and decide which of those horizon answers will work for them. 

It is not just the fear about loss of jobs that keeps change at bay. Our critics may think that but it isn't the whole story. The big picture is the loss of familiar practice, practice with which many of us and the students we serve have experienced success. It is also a loss of control, loss of comfort, and loss of power, all connected with that deep discomfort most associate with loss of any kind.  When leading a change of practice, leaders keep their eyes on the goal, encourage forward movement, and acknowledge the small successes along the way. It is also important to recognize those who are suffering from the loss of things that were near and dear to them.  A lecture centered classroom shifting to one based on PBL, a paper based grade book shifting to one that is digital, a scheduled 40 minute period shifting to a voluntary length coordinated among interdisciplinary peers,  any of these can be exciting or a loss or actually a combination of both. The successful change leader pays close attention to where the people are in the loss/grief process. Grief will exist whether it is obvious or not.  When loss is encountered, grief follows. 

Those engaged in the move forward are helpful when they recognize and acknowledge the grieving by listening first. Being heard helps.This is not a discussion to convince or sway opinions. Just listening is helpful. There will be continuum of readiness. There will be those who are actively changing and those who are cautiously observing, those who are grieving and those who are energized. Take care not to leave people behind. Change matters. Leadership matters. Most importantly, children matter.  When care taken in the effort to change allows for inclusion of those who are fearful and hesitant, when leaders help everyone understand that fear and hesitation are different form opposition, and when a leader is strong enough to persist with the change momentum and hold the patience allowing all to come along, when everyone feels heard, the children will benefit. Leaders do need to attend the adults in schools but students need every adult they encounter daily to focus entirely on them, to make them the center of attention. That is the uncompromising essence of our work.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools.  Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo shared with permission of Peter Brouwer. 

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