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The School Principal as Change Agent

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By Matt Doyle, Interim Superintendent, Vista Unified and Gerri Burton, New Learning Ventures

True transformation in a school district, the kind that sticks and disrupts standard operating procedures, is fueled by school principals. It is true that the actual magic of meaningful, authentic transformation in learning happens in the interaction between the teacher, the student, and the content. Richard Elmore calls this the Instructional Core. However, the school principal sets the conditions within which transformative practice and change happens. In other words, principals must become change agents in order for education to transition from assembly line efficiency to learner-centered agency.

In recent posts, we have described Vista Unified's design of the three brushstrokes to guide its transformation: Early Education, Personal Learning, and the World of Work.  Early in the process, Vista Unified leaders realized that truly sustainable transformation required a deeper layer of change around the role of the principal.  Following lessons from the corporate world and the mentorship of international consultants, including Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda, this post's co-author Matt Doyle led a new and exciting initiative entitled "Principal as Change Agent," now in its third year.

"When you think about it, the principal is the pedagogical gatekeeper at the school level. If we can fully engage the principal in understanding and really owning the change needed to promote a learner-centered experience, then there is a significantly greater probability that change will become infused into the school culture."  -Matt Doyle

"Principal as Change Agent" is designed in a seminar format offering principals the opportunity to learn from each other. A moderator sets the agenda for the discussion and provides relevant reading materials. The seminar typically meets twice monthly in a virtual format using Google Hangout. The choice to use a virtual setting was deliberate. The Innovation Department suggested that since we are talking change, why not change-up our culture around meetings to a medium that lends itself to more interaction among participants?

On the surface, virtual meetings may seem like a less engaging medium, but this is not what we have found with this seminar. We made attendance voluntary.  We believed that if we made the sessions compelling then principals would want to participate. In each year to date, an average of two-thirds of principals have attended, with over 90 percent of them actively participating in discussions.  

Aligned to the three brushstrokes, Doyle compiled a reading list for principals that builds the necessary background for resetting culture and pedagogical perspective.  

Change Agent Principal Book List 

  • Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems by Fullan and Quinn
  • The 4 Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Covey, and Huling
  • Learning to Improve: How America's Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LeMahieu
  • Learning Personalized: The Evolution of the Contemporary Classroom by Zmuda, Curtis, and Ullman
  • Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind by Kallick and Zmuda
  • Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments by Jacobs and Alcock

The initiative has, at its heart, the evolution of the role of today's principal in an environment of school choice where parents have increasingly more options available. The traditional neighborhood school is simply not compelling enough for parents. In order to attract parents and students, the principal needs to work with her or his staff to develop a new identity that is relevant to the modern learner and academically challenging enough to satisfy state and local criteria.  Constructed in three parts, "Principal as Change Agent" views the changing role of the principal in three consecutive phases.

Phase 1 - From Static to Strategic

In this phase, principals collaborate on building the requisite capacity to break out of the traditional role as the "manager" with static tasks that ensure staff show up, books are available, and the school is safe.  Their role shifts to a more strategic approach to leadership; one that is user focused and problem based. Adopting an improvement science approach to leadership shifts the narrative from grabbing solutions as silver bullets to setting the conditions for continuous improvement through inquiry via the PDSA cycle (Plan, Do, Study, Act). This is consistent with the transition of schools to personal learning environments with each school evolving toward its own identity, mission, and culture.  In this phase the principal becomes a strategic thinker.

Phase 2 - Agent of Change

This phase empowers the principal as a leader of change.  Change management requires new leadership skills that influence the working relationship between principals and school staff as well as the relationship between principals and district office staff.  In both instances, principals take on the role of active agents who have the bandwidth and authority to create a movement at their schools.

In a traditional environment, leadership is located at the district office which takes a centralized, top down approach. Principals, in this top-down environment, simply carry out initiatives, programs, or mandates that are handed down. This approach is antithetical to personalized environments that inspire ownership and creativity. In a more innovative environment, change is decentralized.  The principal is free to work with the staff at the school to tap into continuous improvement inquiry cycles that lead to more relevant and authentic programs and initiatives.  

This is not to say that the district loses its role, but, rather, that the district shifts positions to a more general role setting overarching goals, policies, and simple rules that underscore academic and social-emotional achievement. In other words, the district administrators shift to a servant leadership role, one that places priority on encouraging and supporting the principal as an activator of change.  The principal's role is to confidently lead staff in a new direction while leveraging the district administrators to support the strategies that best serve school transformation.  The turning point of this phase rests on the ability of school principals to change their own behavior, serving as role models for the future.

Phase 3 - Communication is King

This phase addresses the principal's relationship with the school community.  In an era of school choice and an unrelenting barrage of social media pummeling our smart phone and email, the principal must become a master communicator. Principals require new and expanded communication skills to serve as community leaders. Families need to understand what school choice really means to their students.  Parents need effective, accessible communication tools in order to grasp that school choice is just the beginning of a broad set of choices and engagement they are faced with as their children arrive at school.  This is a big decision and most parents need assistance in the form of understanding their child, understanding the school mission, and understanding their role as parents. Communication is key to this process.  

Principals must be able to articulate and communicate their "school promise," engage parents and students, and return feedback regarding the success of the match.  In the first two "Principal as Change Agent" sessions of this year, principals discussed the clarification of their school promise as the foundation for the next level of communication internally (staff) and externally (parents and community members).  The point was made repeatedly that communication strategies that are not built on clear articulations of identity, vision, and promise are limited in their ability to succeed.

Vista Unified principals developed these key communication highlights:  

  • Communication strategies, internal and external, are built on the foundation of clear, thoughtful school culture, mission, identity, and promise.
  • The role of the principal in the era of school choice is to build trust and engagement proactively with both internal and external stakeholder communities.
  • Empowered principals, leading change, must use an increasingly wider variety of communication tools to reach their multiple audiences.
  • These tools increasingly resemble corporate tools of influence and outreach including building social media networks, engaging and relevant websites, video and audio media, authentic celebrations of learning, and more.

Communication, like learning, is following a strategy of personalization and feedback through real-time analytics. Managed for ongoing improvement and refinement, communication is becoming a key part of the continuous improvement ecosystem that supports education transformation. 

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