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How School Leaders Can Attend to the Emotional Side of Change

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During his work consulting with school leaders around change strategies, psychologist Robert Evans has found it tremendously important for leaders to understand that for many people, change -- at least at first -- isn’t about growth or capacity building or learning; it’s about loss.

“All of us respond to a change that someone says or does not because of what it is, but in terms of what it means to us,” said Evans during a keynote speech at the Building Learning Communities conference in Boston.

“Resistance to change is normal and necessary,” Evans said. “If you are part of some big change in your school and you aren’t expecting resistance, there’s something wrong with your plan.” But he also points out that resistance can be overcome when leaders understand its source and empathize with teachers.

It’s rare for anyone’s first reaction to a call for change to be all positive. Much more often those pushing for change don’t realize that they are devaluing everything colleagues hold dear. Sometimes the call for change makes people feel like everything they’ve been doing up to that point has been wrong and bad for students. Worse, it can sound like a devaluation of how the teacher learned and, by extension, those who taught her. That’s a personal loss. Educators react negatively when they are asked to change not because they don’t want to do what’s best for kids, but because they feel bereaved.

It doesn’t help that education is full of tensions. Teachers are supposed to prepare students for the future, but by default they have to teach the past because they haven’t yet experienced the future. And, while innovation may be the watchword, there are many good qualities inherent to school that educators don’t want to lose.


“It’s a conservator’s occupation,” Evans said. “Tons of what we do in school are about values that don’t, we hope, change. It’s not just about things that do change.”

These tensions inherent to the system mean that what educators most need is not constant change, which can be off-putting and stressful if sustained for too long, but creativity. There is value in much of what schools currently teach, but there’s also plenty of room for creative teaching strategies to reach all students.


One of the most difficult things about leading change in schools, according to Evans, is that there often aren’t clear structures to deal with conflict or disagreement. Leaders usually try to sell change as though it will be good for everyone, but that isn’t true. At first, there are winners and losers. In other professions people hash out these types of conflicts, addressing them head-on, but that’s rarely the case in schools. The maxim, “it’s not personal, it’s business,” doesn’t work in schools because teaching is a very personal profession.

“In school, everything is personal, which is how we want it,” Evans said. Many of the most powerful aspects of school community, relationship-building and support develop out of a work environment that is, and must be, personal. “But when it’s only personal it’s very hard to talk about, is it working out, is it not working.” The result is a lot of conflict avoidance.

Evans draws on the work of Roland Barth, who describes the difference between congeniality and collegiality. Barth says congenial relationships are personal and friendly. Positive interactions with colleagues are a crucial part of why teachers come to school each day. And congeniality is a requirement for the even more important, and elusive, collegial relationships that indicate the educators in the building are working together.

“If you take the congenial out of the school, you strip it of all the connective tissue that makes it a decent place to be,” Evans said. “But you can be the most congenial school in America and not talk about teaching and learning.”

Evans acknowledges that creating a school culture that encourages productive conflict, the hashing out of ideas and differing opinions, is particularly hard because the qualities that make someone a great teacher -- nurturing, extending beyond themselves, pulling out the best in people -- are not typically the characteristics of someone who is skilled at adult conflict. And yet, Evans encourages change leaders to think about structures that allow adults to disagree constructively. Without a forum for disagreement, grumbling about change moves underground and can undermine the whole project.

But no matter how productively colleagues can disagree or how much they work to improve, schools are only one part of the achievement puzzle. Evans wants education leaders, policymakers and the public to be aware that educators can only change so much about a child’s life. What happens outside of school and at home is as important, if not more important, for educational outcomes than anything within the control of teachers.

“The correlation between money and scores is tighter than it has ever been,” Evans said. How well students will perform on standardized tests is much more correlated to income than what school they attend. “It’s possible to be a school that’s doing lots of really amazing things for kids and see slower progress than anyone who is busting a gut hopes for.”

While Evans doesn’t pull punches about the challenge of effectively leading and implementing lasting changes in schools, he has seen it happen. He’s well aware that most school leaders have an “overloaded change agenda,” and that they are trying to implement it on a ridiculously short time line. He advises leaders to choose one big thing to change at a time, and to think carefully about what other things will compete for colleagues’ time.


Evans shared several tips on how to manage change.

Have a set of non-negotiables. There will always be resistance from staff, but when they understand what is negotiable and what isn’t, it’s much easier to move on and actually start making change. “As long as people imagine that if we keep talking about this it won’t really happen, they don’t have any motivation to do anything,” Evans said.

Change requires the deft use of both pressure and support. Without pressure no one will change; without support all the resistance will go underground, where it often lives in schools. Getting buy-in is important, but it can’t hold up action. “Buy-in is an end state, not a beginning condition,” Evans said. “The bigger the change you want to promote and the more loss it will cause, the less likely people will voluntarily bereave themselves to get into it.”

Evans cites a headmaster he worked with at an elite private school who struck a good balance between pressure and support. The headmaster decided that in order to attract more students the school would start a mini-term between semesters, but he wanted staff input on how to do it well. At first all the meetings focused on whether they should do a mini-term, but the headmaster quickly stepped in and made it clear the school was implementing the change -- that was a non-negotiable.

“Almost all of us would rather work with someone who disagrees with us, but who is clear, than with someone who seems to agree with us, but isn’t clear,” Evans said. That’s why it’s important for the leader to draw clear lines and then back them up. He also noted that far too often the people tasked to lead change in schools don’t actually have the authority to apply pressure, which isn’t fair or effective.

Leaders need to tell teachers they are asking to change what, how and why. Evans has watched many leaders explain what staff will be expected to do and how they will do it without offering any explanation of why it is important. “The why is far and away the most important because this is what bears on the motivation of people,” he said. However, it’s also what causes loss, a necessary condition to begin making change. Evans advises leaders be direct and honest about why change is imperative, but to do so in ways that don’t demonize or humiliate those who are experiencing a loss. Leaders can’t let them off the hook, but they can be respectful.

Recognize that flexibility is required. Evans likes to cite a retired school superintendent from Massachusetts, Matt King, who says there’s a difference between problems and dilemmas. Problems can be solved, but dilemmas are revisited. The issues educators face in schools are more akin to dilemmas than problems with easy fixes.

“Most things we’re trying to fix in American education were once the solution to something else,” Evans said. The issues are often cyclical and require patience. And, because the work is difficult and stressful, it’s even more important that change leaders celebrate small successes and compliment staff along the way.

“The evidence is clear that the most productive, the most successful, the most engaged and happiest people are those who have someone who cares about their development, and people who get to do every day what they’re best at instead of dwelling on what they need to change,” Evans said.

A positive school climate helps teachers feel like change is possible. And when school leaders can help teachers build on their strengths, instead of only remediating weaknesses, everyone will feel more competent and able to continue pushing for change.


Robert Evans in the author of two books, "The Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance, and the Real-Life Problems of Innovation" and "Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving."

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