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Response: Avoiding 'Trust Busters' When Making Change in Schools

(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is from "Anonymous":

I have spent years working at a district, Territorial level attempting to bring new initiatives into the classes and schools. Time and time again I am confronted with the "no time" to do anything new. These are well meaning teachers so I have attempted to give them "bites" or "snippets" of info that they can run with, without having to spend much time. How can I get administrators to run and lead new changes and initiatives. I am working through policy but I would like to find other effective ways. Same holds true with the traditional teachers and the nay-sayers. Do you have any hints or tips on how to support teachers "take to" and then embrace change?

In Part One, educators Sally Zepeda, Bill Sterrett, Pete Hall, and Opal Davis Dawson shared their responses to the question. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Sally, Bill and Pete on my BAM! Radio Show.  By they way, you can now access a list of all my previous shows -  with links and descriptions.

Today's contributors include Catherine Beck, Paul D'Elia, Michael Lamond, Julie Combs, Stacey Edmonson, Sandra Harris, PJ Caposey and Kirke H. Olson. In addition, you can see quite a few comments from readers.

Response From Catherine Beck, Paul D'Elia & Michael Lamond

Catherine Beck, Paul D'Elia, and Michael Lamond worked together at a small rural school in Colorado. Read about their successful school reform story in Easy & Effective Professional Development: The Power of Peer Observation to Improve Teaching. The author team has experience in coaching for effective instruction and leading change:

Establishing buy-in is paramount to introducing new initiatives. Teachers' plates are incredibly full, as we know, and administrators are ever protective of their time. With that said, principals love to be agents of change and teachers want to spend their time on initiatives that will bring about results. We would approach the principals with answers to the following questions:

• What does the data say in regards to needing this new initiative? In other words, why does the school need to embrace this new program? Create a sense of urgency in regards to this initiative.

• Who else has used this program and what were the results? Is it research based?

• How is this going to improve student achievement?

• What kind of support is available for teachers in regards to implementation?

• Is there something else that can be taken off the plate that perhaps is not getting the desired results?

• Who is going to oversee this new initiative?

Teachers and administrators today are under more pressure than ever to produce results. They do not have time to "try" something out and hope for positive results. Once you have the answers to the questions above, then your chances of getting everyone on board will be strong.

Once you have the answers to these questions, you could offer to do the initiative with a pilot group and gauge the results. Finally you could use the Peer Observation Process to monitor the fidelity of implementation and ensure support for all involved. People embrace change most when they see continual feedback (or results) from incremental behavior changes and then periodically connecting those results to a larger mission. That is the goal of the Peer Observation Process. Staff starts to feel less fatigued from change and challenge and more energized about the possibilities of achievement. Good luck!



Response From Julie Combs, Stacey Edmonson, Sandra Harris

Julie P. Combs ([email protected]), Stacey Edmonson ([email protected]), and Sandra Harris ([email protected]) have served in various roles as school and district leaders, currently working as professors of educational leadership at the university level. They are the authors of The Trust Factor: Strategies for School Leaders:

Making time to implement new ideas and strategies with limited resources is seemingly an insurmountable challenge for educators. After experiencing years of new programs, evaluation systems, and leadership changes, teachers can become disengaged and apathetic to yet more changes imposed upon them.

Change is an area where relationships and trust are strengthened or weakened. Effective leaders understand how to facilitate change so that once the initiative has been implemented, people are still following the leaders. Leaders can boost trust levels during times of change by:

  • understanding the needs of people in the change process
  • helping others move through the stages of change
  • serving as "agents" for their teachers and students by advocating for their needs

Unfortunately, many leaders are impatient with the transition process of others. As a result, they commit several trust busters. One of these busters happens when leaders tell teachers to "get over it and move forward." As a result, the outcomes are superficial and the process can destroy trust.

Specific leadership strategies that can boost trust during transitions emphasize the people skills of inquiry, listening, and empathy.

  • Inquiry: asking questions to understand teachers' positions, their resistance, and their fears
  • Listening: responding with attempts to understand their positions rather than justifying the changes
  • Empathy: understanding the teachers' points of view, needs, and desires

By applying skills that meet the needs of the people who will be implementing the change, leaders understand better what their teachers are experiencing. Thus, to boost trust, leaders need to openly address the process of the transition and acknowledge where individuals are in the process.

Although these skills are important to help others deal with change, more advocacy is needed when changes are imposed from external forces. Leaders should collaborate with the decision makers, if possible, as to why the changes are needed. In some organizations, leaders can act as skilled negotiators between central office staff and their teachers if they know the needs and desires of teachers. When change is considered, school leaders should act as "agents" for their teachers and students by keeping the focus on student learning.



Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is Superintendent of Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois. PJ is an award-winning educator who has become a sought after speaker throughout the nation. Additionally, PJ has written two books in the past two years including Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders:

The frustration described in the question above is understandable. A devoted, progressive educator wants to implement programs and initiatives they believe will best serve students and they continue to hit roadblock after roadblock. I would encourage this educational leader to consider some of the lessons I have learned when trying to lead change in schools.

  • The most important rule of educational leadership is to always remember that people, not policies or programs, are what drive highly effective schools.  
    • There is not a singular curriculum, instructional methodology, or philosophy that works all the time. If that were the case, then every single school in the country would employ said program. It is important to remind ourselves of this fact that seems self-evident when we occasionally lose sight that the people within our organizations are what is going to determine our success. The quality of an education system simply cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
  • Great leaders are growers, not doers
    • I would advise the person who wrote this email to focus on helping teachers and leaders grow - instead of figuring out ways for them to implement new idea after new idea. Build the capacity of your people; help them develop their vision for the future, and tie everything back to our common purpose of serving children and people will be compelled to grow under your leadership.
  • Do your people feel free to fail?
    • At a very personal level - it is difficult to try something new if support is not present or trust does not exist. I was once told that if I don't fail significantly each year I am not trying hard enough. I was clearly supported, but also had to live up to high expectations. People simply will not extend themselves for a leader when they do not feel supported - and I don't blame them. I would not jump out of a plane without a parachute either.



Response From Kirke H. Olson

Kirke H. Olson, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist, has devoted a career of nearly 40 years to helping teachers at pre-K through graduate levels apply research on human relationships, neuroscience, and mindfulness to educate even the most complex students. He writes a regular column for the GAINS (Global Association for Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies) journal and  is the author of The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience & Mindfulness in School (W. W. Norton; 2014):

There are predictable stages for change that are based on a large body of research in psychology. Two books can help you dive deeply into the topic and will help you focus your energy on where it is likely to do the most good. The classic book is Changing for Good (Prochaska, Norcross & Diclemente 1994) and a more recent book based on updated research is Changeology (Norcross 2012). Both books describe the five stages of change: Precontemplation ("I see no reason for any change."); Contemplation ("I see the benefit and I'll get around to it eventually."); Preparation ("I like the idea, how exactly do I do it?"); Action ("I'm doing it."); and Maintenance ("I'm working to keep it going."). The trick is to help people move from one stage to the next. Sorry no short cuts--the research suggests you can't skip any stage.

The stages of change may seem too abstract, but the point is that we can't underestimate the power of consistently applied "bites and snippits." Let me give you a personal example: Like most school staff I have often rushed from bus duty or the last period of the day to a faculty meeting feeling tired and frazzled. I spent years in the Contemplation stage thinking about some changes, but not seriously planning anything. After studying the positive effects of mindfulness about ten years ago, I spent a few minutes in the Preparation stage (a stage that can be quite short) and moved abruptly into the Action stage. Just before the principal started one meeting I announced, "Like everyone here I'm tired and frazzled. Let's just all take one minute to focus on our breath and just listen to the silence. I'll keep time." The principal was a bit surprised (I should have included him in my Preparation stage.) Anyway it worked well; after the minute everyone seemed calmer and some thanked me for the silence. I did the same at the beginning of the next few meetings; people felt the benefit and began to expect it. It became part of every meeting, with the principal leading the minute. This simple minute expanded and became the foundation of a mindfulness program that has been used throughout the school for about a decade.


Norcross, J. C. (2012). Changeology: 5 Steps to realizing our goals and resolutions. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. , (1994). Changing for Good: A revolutionary Six-stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively. New York: Harper Collins.


Responses From Readers


Thanks to Catherine, Paul, Michael, Julie, Stacey, Sandra, PJ and Kirke, and to readers, for their contributions! 

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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