Personal cost of change

An experienced principal at a new school tries to bring about changes that will lead to a more supportive and inclusive professional culture for the improvement of teaching and learning. The staff are resistant to the changes and wish to continue with the status quo. The four-year change process was more complex, longer than expected, and resulted in much stress and heartache. It caused the principal to question her values, beliefs, and leadership style.

Changes ahead

Some years ago, I was appointed as an experienced principal to a high decile school. The previous principal had retired and most of the staff had been there for many years. They were happy with the way things were and expected the status quo to continue with my appointment. However, the appointing board of trustees recognised that it was time for the school to undergo some fundamental changes in its operation and relationship with its community. This was where I came in.

It seemed to me that there was a smug mediocrity about the school. The students were performing well, and the general feeling was, "Why make changes when everything is fine?" This included continuing to keep parents and the wider community at arm’s length through the staff’s "them and us" attitude. Soon after I was appointed, there were board elections. Most of the board who appointed me left and a new board arrived.

There was a lot to tackle, so where to start… and how to prioritise what seemed the insurmountable list of issues that I identified?

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The new board of trustees works well

In terms of making a start, it seemed to me that my first priority should be ensuring that the new board of trustees would work alongside me in the best interests of the school. At the outset, I stressed to them that successful schools have strong and supportive boards.

The new board chairperson had been on the appointment panel and had a very positive attitude. New members who arrived with an agenda of change found that this was what the old appointing board had also wanted, so I didn’t have any battles to fight on this front. I made myself available to discuss, get to know, and work with them so that we could develop a strong relationship.

The board chair and I set out to share good board practice with our new team members. We worked together on determining how they might work with me on what we were trying to achieve – improvements in teaching and learning for all students. I distributed professional readings and we discussed the change process and the length of time it can take to implement change successfully. I emphasised that we were all in this for the long haul.

The board was a very successful team. Open and honest communication between us meant that we were able to work well together. They supported me and developed a trust in my abilities and decision making. In turn, they supported staff in the area of resources, professional development, and in the school community.

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Staff members develop factions in response to changes

The long-established staff members didn’t want things to change. They didn’t like the idea of improving or changing their teaching, being accountable, or involving the wider community in the school. To me, it seemed that they regarded their power base as threatened by the "new broom".

Teachers in another group were more dynamic, willing to learn and grow, try new things, and look at the way things worked. However, the dynamic group felt both intimidated by the long-established staff members and frustrated with them. They saw that they were planning more effectively, but working harder and had more expectations on them than the "anti-change" group. I was also new to them and knew that it would take time to build trust and gain respect as a leader. And I didn’t feel as though I had a lot of time. There was so much that seemed to need change and each part brought stress.

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The changes begin

The deputy principal (Helen), one of the senior teachers (Toni), and I decided to look at planning in relation to our literacy programme. We did this through staff and syndicate meetings. We brought in advisers and developed school-wide planning requirements. Improvements in teaching and learning, professional development, and using exemplars were seen as threatening.

Our approach wasn’t very popular with some, as it wasn’t very consultative. While we provided in-service training, the management team developed the expected outcomes and everybody was required to achieve them. In this way, expectation was the same for all staff. The intention was that workload would be the same, standards would be set across the school, and there would be no opting out by one group of teachers to do it "their way" (or no way, as the case may have been without this approach).

A "mutter group" developed. They sat in staff meetings and would not contribute. Instead, they rolled their eyes and sighed, then disappeared to a corner to groan together! They saw me as someone who did not value them as teachers and who was making them change for the sake of it. Because I had developed a positive relationship with the community and board, I was asked whose "side" I was on by some of these teachers.

I didn’t know which one of the "anti" teachers would have the next "problem" or perceived injustice for me to face first thing in the morning. It seemed that a child bouncing a ball in the wrong place was more important to this group than learning. I felt that this group of staff had such different values from me that it was nearly impossible to find common ground.

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The consequences for the management team

As a management team, we still weren’t completely cohesive either. While we agreed in private on the direction we needed to move in, a few were still unwilling to acknowledge this beyond the team.

Many of us didn’t feel very welcome in the staffroom, where the negative atmosphere was palpable. Celebrations that I tried to introduce, such as acknowledging people’s birthdays, shouting morning tea, or acknowledging successes, were countered by negative comments and criticism. I used to look to see who was in the staffroom at lunchtime before I entered. During this period, I often felt physically sick as I arrived at school.

I doubted my own values and my interpersonal skills. Was I walking the talk? Could I carry on with what I believed a school should be like, or had the way I led in my previous school been wrong? My leadership style had changed to manage the situation at this school, and I wondered whether I would be able to change it back to a collaborative one when the school was ready.

So the challenges for me at this point were:

  • a new board – some with their own agendas
  • long-serving staff who were suspicious of and against any change
  • a group of younger staff who were aware that change was necessary, but as yet were unable to feel safe supporting a new principal or standing up to the old hands
  • teaching and learning programmes that were outmoded and mediocre
  • a culture that was strong, but not in line with my thinking or values.

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Reflective questions 1

  • The principal identifies a series of challenges that she has encountered. Are there any other issues that you are able to identify?
  • What would you do at this point if you were in this principal’s position?
  • What are the principal’s options for dealing with all of these complexities?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1. At this point, I would call in an external consultant or expert to give the message. It is often easier hearing it from someone else, even if the message is the same as the one you, as principal, would give!
  2. When the "anti" teachers do something that is publicly negative, the principal could address them individually and state what she or he wants from them in terms of their behaviour and actions. If problems recur, go back to the people involved and re-state your expectations. Model good problem-solving behaviours yourself. Actively talk about approaches to problem solving with the staff, and discuss why it is important that, when (any) problems arise, they deal directly with the people involved.
  3. Find an external mentor to support you when the going gets tough. Starting a job in a new school can be hard – you are not alone. You need to be consistent and brave, but you need support too. Internally, start building your circle of influence among staff by getting to know people personally and by working with those who want to change first. Not everyone travels at the same pace in the change management process.

 Principal two

  1. It is important that new principals do not make assumptions about student performance at their new school. It is not enough to sense that there might be a problem. As a principal, you have to prove that there is a problem through the analysis of learning outcomes for students. It is through providing data and feedback to the students and staff that we can see how effective learning and teaching is. This is an accurate way of highlighting exactly where learning is at in each classroom and across the school. Keeping the board of trustees informed about student progress and learning outcomes is important to ensure adequate resourcing.
  2. A new principal has to move slowly. Staff will often throw up barriers to change because the principal has not involved them in the process or targets too many areas for change at once.
  3. The areas of change to focus on should be decided on only after review.
  4. Be open and visible. Visit classrooms and the playground regularly to observe how things happen, be in with the students, and acknowledge staff. Staff and students have to know that you value them from day one. Give genuine feedback.
  5. It is important to plan meetings that are highly focused and ensure that meeting procedures and protocols are closely adhered to. This helps to avoid situations where the "anti" group has opportunities to be counter-productive to the intended outcomes of the meeting.
  6. When first attempting change in a school where barriers are thrown up, even by a few staff, it is important to get small, influential groups on board. The most influential groups in any change are the senior staff and team leaders. These groups have to be embedded in the direction and climate focus of the school if any progress with change is to be made. We have to be prepared to resource this area in terms of funding development and be prepared to accept that the process may take a frustrating length of time. It will be worth it!

 Leadership adviser

  1. Networking with other principals would be of real benefit in this situation. Often principals feel isolated and alone, and think they are the only ones who have difficult situations like this to deal with. Of equal benefit would be meeting with a leadership mentor.
  2. At a school level, I would consider developing a common set of values and beliefs around school culture. This could be done at two levels: senior management and whole school, including the board. This could then feed into the development of a school vision and strategic direction.
  3. It may also be necessary for the principal to have one of those "difficult conversations" with certain staff.

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Actual courses of action taken by this principal

Although the process took three years, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We now have a school to be proud of and a cohesive and supportive staff. This came about through a range of actions:

  • I ensured that I kept a good relationship with the board. Throughout, they fully supported me by providing good resourcing as changes occurred and also emotional support when I needed it. This board has stayed on for a second term.
  • I stayed true to my beliefs and values.
  • I accessed some mentors to work with. They supported me professional and personally.
  • We changed and strengthened the senior management team. The first deputy principal (Helen) retired. She was worn out by trying to bring change about by herself before I arrived. Our new deputy principal in the junior area has proved to be exceptionally capable and we work together well. A new assistant principal in the senior area (Tom) has also added to the dynamics. Toni, the senior teacher, has continued to assist. With the help of staff development for this team, we have all learned to "walk our talk" and have a united viewpoint.
  •  I undertook some professional development in dealing with conflict and difficult people that was extremely helpful and gave me a framework to use.
  • Staff changed. Some decided that the new direction was something they did not like, so they retired or went to other jobs. One was offered a support and guidance programme, but decided teaching was no longer for her.
  • We changed the syndicate groupings of the school and split them into three areas – this split up the "mutterers".
  • We had two days in one of the school holiday periods to work with a coordinator on our values and beliefs as a school, and also on our communication styles. All teaching and support staff attended.
  • Leadership is situational and while it wasn’t my usual style, it was essential that I was more of an authoritarian leader at the start of this process or no change would have been accomplished. Many staff members had amazing avoidance tactics! Later, I was able to revert to a consensus style and we now work well as teams.
  • We have changed the management structure and I now have the senior team (DP and AP) in charge of half the school each, with senior teachers leading the three areas. This has allowed more focused professional development and assessment, and helped develop better communication and collaboration. The senior team can now take more leadership roles in curriculum and so on. The school is "cooking with gas".
  • Me? Well, I have come through this slightly battle-scarred and weary, but with a knowledge that students and their learning matter at our school; that the community and staff are working with me; and now I have time for some balance in my life.

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Reflective questions 2

  • This principal describes leadership as "situational". Do you agree that the principal’s usual consultative leadership style had to become authoritarian to manage this situation?
  • What do you think about the ways the principal dealt with this dilemma?
  • Can you take any learning for yourself from this principal’s story, and the comments offered by others?
  • Can you identify the crucial decision-making points in this dilemma, where one course of action rather than another was taken? Would you have made the same decisions at these points? Why? Why not?

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Writer’s reflection

This process probably had to happen. This school was in a place where it had to change, and we know that the change process is chaotic. The curriculum areas had to be the first priority, as we were due to have an ERO visit. We could at least then show we were aware of what changes needed to be undertaken. It was important that I accepted the existing staff’s culture, even though I didn’t agree with it, which is why I didn’t work on culture change, values, and beliefs until after two years into my new position. As a principal, you often have to "stand alone, take the heat, bear the pain, and tell the truth". (De Pree, 1992, p. 226).

De Pree, M. (1992). Leadership Jazz. The Business Library: Melbourne, Australia.

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