Five Ways to Sustain School Change Through Pushback, Struggle and Fatigue

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Teaching through projects, interrogating the value of grades, attempting to make learning more meaningful and connected to young people’s lives and interests, thoughtful ways of using technology to amplify and share student work. These are just some of the ways teaching and learning are changing. But moving to these kinds of learning environments is a big shift for many teachers, schools, and districts; it’s hard to sustain change once the shiny newness wears off. That’s when people tend to slip back into old habits, relying on what they know best. The transformation requires a leader who understands how to manage the change process.

“Sustained modes of change can be incredibly meaningful and yield for your community in huge ways, but you have to be incredibly intentional in order to make space for these things to happen,” said Diana Laufenberg at an EduCon 2018 session about how to lead through change. Laufenberg is the executive director of Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit working with schools around the country to make these shifts. She has come to the conclusion that there are five pillars to sustaining change: permission, support, community engagement, accountability and staying the course.

PERMISSION

Many educators have become accustomed to working in a suffocating system that doesn’t allow room for their professional judgment or creativity. Leaders have to give teachers permission to try new things in their classrooms in order to gain educator support for the changes. It’s easy to say “give them permission to fail,” but much harder to be clear about exactly what that means in a teacher’s daily life.

“Most of these adults have been successful,” Laufenberg said, “so then when you tell them to try things they’re bad at or not successful at, you need to tell them it’s OK, and give them a structure to get better.” She suggests giving teachers specific examples.

The principal of Enosburg Falls High School in Vermont, Erik Remmers, gave several of his teachers permission to experiment with getting rid of grades in their class. Teachers wanted to do a competency-based assessment model in the hopes it would train students to focus on learning instead of grades. The teachers tested the approach by waiting until the end of the first quarter to give grades, updating students on their progress through conferences instead. Remmers made sure the two teachers clearly communicated the goals and expectations to students and parents, but then he took the heat when parents felt uncertain.

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“I like to frame it as permission to learn,” said Zac Chase, a Language Arts coordinator for St. Vrain Valley Schools who co-presented with Laufenberg. “We assume that people are really good at learning, but learning is really hard, especially for teachers because we’re used to making other people do it.” And learning how to teach in new ways often requires teachers to feel uncomfortable and disoriented at times.

Often a leader thinks they are giving teachers permission to try, fail and learn, but teachers don’t trust that the permission won’t eventually be revoked. Laufenberg suggests that leaders and teachers forecast together how the experiment or change might play out, and what permission will be needed down the road. Naming those things early, and getting verbal agreement from a leader, can free that teacher up to confidently experiment.

SUPPORT

Teachers have a lot going on, and while it’s tempting to think that setting them lose to try to fail will transform every classroom, in reality there are always bumps along the way. Teachers need support through those moments, and once again, it helps to forecast what support might be needed, confirm it is available at the start, and make sure teachers know how to ask for it.

In San Marcos, California, the district is pushing teachers to use technology to let kids create and showcase their work with a broader audience. There’s also a lot of pushback and fear from educators. It’s Adina Sullivan’s job to support their skill building, highlight teacher successes, and support teachers to go deeper after an initial attempt. Sullivan says it helps when teachers are willing to acknowledge their fears or concerns so she can address them. She bases her support on a strengths-based approach, pointing out brave teacher attempts and successes as often as possible.

The goal is to build the capacity of the teachers and leaders in the system gradually over time. That means the level of support should gradually diminish; if the changes don’t continue without the highest levels of support, something is wrong. Another way to offer support is by connecting teachers doing similar things so they can learn from one another. Whatever the support, it’s unrealistic to ask teachers or systems to change without it.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

Big school changes don’t just affect the educators in the building, so bringing students and parents into the conversation early is crucial. And as learning shifts to become more interdisciplinary, connected and real-world focused, there may also be community partners who can help support the vision.

“I walk into meetings assuming that everyone is on my side, whether they know it or not,” Chase said. Assuming good intent and getting other people excited about the vision of change helps provide energy to teachers and administrators as they slog through work that can feel hard.

The gradeless experiment at Enosburg Falls High School has since grown into a schoolwide effort to abandon all traditional grades. It started five years ago when teachers began moving to standards-based grading. But the more they tried to focus on learning, the more grades got in the way.

“We tried to use different scales to change things up,” said Gabrielle Marquette, who taught junior English at the time and is now the district innovation coach. “And the reality is kids were focused on the grade and not the learning.”

The whole staff decided to go to a competency-based model with the incoming ninth-grade class, but knew it would be a big change for parents. Their engagement efforts started early and focused on personal, relationship-based strategies. For example, before the year started teachers invited incoming eighth-graders and their families to come to the school, eat pizza, and talk about what learning would look like.

They also introduced every ninth-grade parent to the online system measuring competency individually. Teachers volunteered to walk each parent through the online portal, explained what the visualizations meant, and answered questions with nearly a hundred families. “It was way more one-on-one conversations and really just trying to be personal about it,” Marquette said.

Shifting to the new grading system has been hard for everyone. The competencies aren’t pegged to grade level and each assignment might include only a few competencies, so it can be hard to tell how a student is progressing. Teachers who were excited about the change initially are struggling. But despite the challenges of upending the traditional school model, the community tends to trust those working at the school. The intense community engagement and transparency around the goals and reasons for the change have given the educators some breathing room to figure out how to make it work.

ACCOUNTABILITY

“This word is fraught with peril and has all sorts of connotations,” Laufenberg acknowledged. “But if you do something, and faculty has been through all kinds of initiative burn, and there’s no wraparound to make sure it’s happening in a productive way, there’s a good chunk of faculty who will sit and wait it out until that next initiative comes through.”

In addition to gaining community support, giving teachers permission to try new things and supporting them as they experiment, leaders have to check in to make sure the changes are happening. Laufenberg worked for a district where all the elements of support were in place and the principal instructed teachers to leave their doors open so he could pop in and make sure things were moving forward. In rebellion, the teachers turned the lights off and taught in the dark.

“We had to have this massive intervention,” Laufenberg said. “We gave you all these things, you said you got it, we gave you the permission, but no one was doing it.” Especially when teachers are used to a new initiative every year, it’s important that leadership send a consistent message and ensure it is happening.

Henry County Schools in Georgia is a big district spanning 50 schools in urban, suburban and rural areas. For the past four years, they’ve been steadily shifting toward a more “personalized” approach to learning. Each year eight or nine schools in the district go through a redesign process, so some schools haven’t started the change while others are several years down the road. It’s an unwieldy change process, but one with a clear vision.

“For us the full answer is kids being good decision-makers about what they learn and how they learn,” said Karen Perry, the district’s coordinator of personalized learning.

To keep schools accountable to the redesign plans they set forth, Perry sends teams of people representing different roles in the district to evaluate how well schools are implementing and give feedback. The school itself will have done some self-evaluation and compiled a portfolio of evidence to show how they are carrying out their vision. The district also provides a school change rubric that helps provide consistency.

Perry says the model is based on a long-standing district practice of “loose and tight.” Schools have always had a lot of autonomy in Henry County, and they still do, as long as they are moving toward personalized learning. For example, the district says schools must have some kind of advisory, but the school decides how it looks, where it fits in the schedule and what curriculum it follows. The district says kids need to be setting goals, but the school decides what that looks like in practice.

The outside team highlight bright spots at the school and areas of growth, based on the school’s own plan and the district rubric. “Almost always those things come back in ways that schools already knew,” Perry said. But the advantage of having an outside group of educators present is that they may have some new ideas about how to solve the issue.

Perry says often the district has supportive resources that she can send to the school. For example, if a school’s teachers are struggling to make projects deep and rigorous, she can send them a project-based learning coach, or recommend teachers visit another school in the district that has already confronted that problem.

“It’s this balance of mostly support, but some accountability as well. You’ve got to do what you said you were going to do,” Perry said.

This project has also created more upward accountability. For example, as the schools began to make changes, their principals made it clear they needed the ability to flexibly staff their schools. And, they want more individualized professional development keyed toward their specific redesign plans.

“Principals have been asking for this school redesign rubric for a long time,” Perry said. The district created it in response to principal feedback. “What they want is an outside point of view because they’re down in it all the time.”

The district has also recognized that in order to sustain this change, they need leaders excited about it. The GOLD Academy is a district leadership program centered on what it means to lead change. District professionals who want to improve or assistant principals who want to become principals can enroll, challenge their beliefs, think with a systems lens, and ultimately become the “bench” that will hop into action when leadership positions open up. Kerry hopes this emphasis on leadership will help sustain the changes they’ve made.

STAYING THE COURSE

“There needs to be a real timeline of three to five years, where you understand you are on a path of change, and you have to hold the line,” Laufenberg said. “You can tweak, but the big idea, you’ve got to give it some time to take hold.”

She says when leaders don’t do this the staff stops trusting them. She knows that this kind of change work is hard and that at times it will feel easier to start over with something else, but she also believes that when change can be sustained it’s incredibly rewarding work.

After four years in Henry County, Perry is already seeing the effects of staying the course. Despite the inevitable challenges, schools that are just entering the redesign phase are still enthusiastic about the process and the goals. Even better, “the quality of their conversation is so much better than our first cohort because we’re so much farther down the road,” Perry said.

Schools that have gone through the process later are learning from those that came before and they’re seeing success. And it’s easier for teachers to buy into the vision when they can see a class that looks just like theirs down the road, already succeeding.

“The district needs to be consistent in the message that this is what we’re doing in Henry County schools,” Perry said. And despite the fact that her district is on its third superintendent since the project began, that message remains loud and clear. In fact, the new superintendent came to the district because she wanted to be part of the innovation.

Laufenberg cautions change leaders to attend to all five of these areas to successfully make change. “This is a constant, persistent conversation you have to have in your system when you talk about changing something,” she said. “It’s all these things in concert with each other and constant re-evaluation of the full picture.”

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She suggests scheduling ways to check in with people in various roles across the district on each of these pillars to make sure the change effort stays on track. It’s possible to continue pushing forward without one of these elements in place, but it’s a lot harder.

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