Managing Change In Your School

By Chris Faisandier.

I was a young school Principal in New Zealand during the tumultuous educational reforms that were implemented in that country on 1 October, 1989. The ‘Picot’ reforms, named after the Gonski-like businessman Brian Picot, were implemented with breathtaking immediacy on this date and the educational landscape has never been the same since.

The philosophical basis of these reforms were writings of Brian Caldwell and Jim Spinks on educational self-governance, with their seminal 1988 work The Self-Managing School being mandatory reading for all educators aspiring for any leadership role. Their writings on the subject since then have corresponded with my own school leadership roles in three different countries, where change management has been a constant theme.

A great deal has happened in New Zealand schools over the intervening decades, perhaps most notably the establishment of local Boards of Trustees responsible for school governance. These Boards are comprised of parent, staff, student and local community representatives and their powers and responsibilities include the appointment and review of Principals, monitoring of the entire school budget with direct funding to the Boards – including for all staffing, compliance requirements across administrative, financial, cultural awareness, school review and self-improvement provisions – and transparency in reporting to the school community.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
Twenty five years on and the movement towards self-managing schools throughout Australia continues with an inexorable trend rather than the tumultuous change experienced overnight across the Tasman all those years ago. The changes are occurring differently in schools across the three main educational sectors – Government, Catholic and Independent – and across the eight States and Territories that have their own approaches to the implementation of the educational reforms.

The plethora of literature on change management – educational or corporate – identifies leadership as a key component of effective change. Ironically, the ‘change management’ literature is not about management but about ‘leadership’. John Kettle, the American expert on change management, distinguishes the manager from the leader. The former competently copes with the smooth management of the status quote. The leader, conversely, is more concerned with facilitating meaningful change and this process is an ongoing dialogue with constituent groups to develop and refine a vision and to effectively implement that vision into a reality.

This leadership is practiced at many levels. In the self-governing school, the Board sets the tone for whole school development and improvement with particular responsibility for establishing and supporting the school leadership. Within the school, the Principal is central to the development of effective leadership, amongst the leadership team and in creating a whole school culture of school development and improvement. At the micro level, however, it is the classroom teacher who is the leader within the learning ‘community’ of a classroom. It is here that the greatest impact on students’ learning occurs and this surely is where it matters the most.

Experts in change management write of the cascading down of effective leadership change but there is no rule preventing individual school leaders or classroom teachers, for example, from implementing effective change within their own immediate school or classroom environment. In many respects, the most effective change in this fast-moving digital world occurs when individual practitioners adopt worthwhile innovations that have been shared through informal networks. ‘These schools don’t wait around for direction from the top’ (Brian Caldwell in a paper at the Annual Conference of the Australian Council of Educational Leaders 4 October, 2013) and the same can apply to individual teachers within a school.

What are these key principles of effective change leadership that might apply equally at system or classroom levels?

Kettle writes about the human side of change management – the alignment of a company’s culture, value, people and behaviour. This is not simply about having inspirational plans but about the interface of those plans where it counts as, for example, in school contexts – in the staff room or in the classroom. In a school setting this is achieved only through the collective actions of the front-line teachers and school administrators. It is achieved through plain speaking about the vision – articulating clearly what the underlying reality is, what the core values are, what is happening and why it is happening. It is more than clear and constant articulation though. It is also about modelling the desired behaviours on a continuous basis. Whether a school leader or a classroom practitioner is modelling the desired behaviours around change and its successful implementation is critical in others – in particular students – taking the risk of trying out similar behaviours.

Nor is it only about articulating the vision or modelling the desired behaviours. It is also about capacity building. In his recent writings, Brian Caldwell identifies the characteristics of transformational leadership. Cultural leadership, for example, implements the transformation from a culture of dependence on centralised systems towards self-management. Strategic leadership is about working with others to develop the capacity for state-of-the-art learning and educational leadership is about building the capacity among teachers, parents and students as a learning community.

Capacity building is about engaging constituent groups in creating their own place and this place is less a building and more a community. In his ACEL paper, Caldwell quotes Houle and Cobb ‘A transformed school will not look like that brick building set apart from the society it is intended to serve. A transformed school will be an integrated part of the community and its students will be active participants and contributors to the community. In short, a transformed school will look more like life’ (Houle and Cobb ‘Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education’ 2011: 72).

Despite the maelstrom of dissent and debate going on around them on matters of funding, restructuring, school autonomy and curriculum reform, front-line teachers and school leaders are ever striving to improve their practices where it matters: in the classrooms of over 10,000 schools throughout Australia. In our best schools, there is endless change and innovation occurring, both inside and outside the classroom. Sometimes this happens because of the existence of a strong culture of innovation in a system, or school or faculty, and sometimes it happens despite the existence of the very opposites.

However and where ever it occurs, integral to this vision is the need for easy and effective communications that enable shared decision-making and engagement by stake-holders in identifying problems and developing solutions. The communication processes themselves are part of the solution as they promote ownership amongst a faculty or within a classroom and this ownership is key to any change effort. Participants involved in thinking about the need for change and the options available to implement change are most likely to take the risky path of changing current behaviours and practices. This is what mastery of the change process is all about and many front-line teachers and school administrators by instinct and experience, have a strong inclination towards it.

However, it is easy to forget that the typical school in Australia is actually quite small (the average staffroom has 25 teachers) with a clearly defined and often well-engaged school community. In my experience as a Principal in three school systems in three different countries, and more recently as Director of Business Development for Musica Viva Australia’s music education program, it has become overwhelmingly clear to me that the staff in these schools are invariably overworked and time-poor.

A key component of any change leadership – whether system-wide, school- or classroom-based – is effective communication. Not top down communication alone but effective communication between constituent groups within a school community. The means of ready and effective communication is the life-blood of consultation, participation and engagement, and in turn these are the basis of doing things differently to effect improvement, whether in system- or school-wide policy development, or in teaching and learning. This is change leadership in motion. The advent of the digital world and the enormous growth in the capacity of web- and cloud-based technologies presents a magnificent opportunity to achieve this. Herein is the inspiration for the development of a small tool kit which colleagues and I have developed, called Edu360online.

What is Edu360online and how could it be used? Edu360online is a tool or survey engine that is easy to use, is completely secure and confidential, and allows for immediate communication and feedback across areas of school culture, governance, management and performance. Any survey is only as good as the survey questions and in Edu360online these have been designed by educators for educators, by coaches for coaches and by governors for governors. A teacher might use it to survey students, peers or parents on his/her own teaching; a stage coordinator or pastoral leader might use it to survey students and parents on homework practices, peer relations or bullying issues amongst a class or year group; a board of governors might use it to improve meeting practices or to consult their constituents as part of a periodic review; a sports coach might use it to improve coaching or to improve team performance and engage team members in promoting ethical sportsmanship; a school leader or school system might use it as an integral part of staff appraisal practices leading to more targeted professional development effort and expenditure.

There are many other potential applications. The overall intent is to provide front-line practioners with a simple and easy-to-use tool that enables effective dialogue – an integral component of successful change leadership.


Chris Faisandier has spent almost 30 years working in education, twenty of which were spent as a Principal running various schools. Chris runs Ahead Associates Australasia, an Australasian Educational consultancy which specializes providing advice and guidance regarding institutional performance and development, strategic planning, leadership appointment and reviews as well as academic and curriculum reviews, school acquisitions and start-ups and strategic development.




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