Managing Change In Schools

change_195147317By Lisa Burrell.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

— Niccolo Machiavelli


The above quote, from 1532, calls to mind the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Whether you are a principal, an e-learning co-ordinator or a department head, change is a constant, and successful change is one of the key challenges faced in every profession. In an environment where technology is evolving on a daily basis, and becoming a larger and larger focus in education, the rate of change can often speed up and overload can occur as increasingly ‘out there’ ideas are tried.

Working with various groups to implement change, I have seen and been part of a myriad of change approaches and environments within a variety of workplaces. One of the main observations I can share from this is that no matter how good the idea, if it requires staff engagement but is handled poorly from the outset, the change process will be significantly more difficult and could fail.

In the context of the workplace, whether it be a business or a school, change can be defined as a variation to the current workplace practices, structures, direction, workforce or any other key aspect of an organisation. Education change comes in many forms, including:

  • implementing new technology
  • adding new premises
  • restructuring the school, including mergers
  • changing the way lesson are taught
  • curriculum change.

Change management is the process by which you transition your school and classroom into the future framework. So how can you manage change for maximum effectiveness to reap the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls? There are many recognised models around change management; how these are interpreted and implemented in each school can vary wildly.

Regardless of your school type (ie. Secondary or primary) and change issue, there are some key steps that can be considered if you are to successfully introduce change.

Taking The Long View
A first and key issue for the school is whether you are equipped to see change coming, or whether it is effectively forced upon you. Not all change will be expected and it is important to regularly and critically consider your school in a ‘worst case’ scenario. If you found out you were about to lose a significant portion of your student population to a rival school, is there something you would be doing differently now to change your business? What if your top performing staff member left? Are you equipped with an adequate plan to protect your school? Equally, what opportunities may be currently out there, or can be created, for your school to benefit from?

It is often easier to think of change if you think of the school in terms of it being a business. Even the largest of businesses are not immune from a failure to successfully plan ahead. The Kodak story serves as a stark reminder of this. An industry pioneer, Kodak was once the name synonymous with photography. However, its inability to embrace and lead change in the world of technology led to its demise and saw the organisation fail in core business areas. However, in the case of schools, the consequences can be even worse as failing to embrace change means you may be disadvantaging an entire future generation of students.

Undertaking this regular review of how you are travelling will assist you to identify factors that are within your control right now. It also assists in avoiding reactionary solutions to longer term issues and a considered approach to change management.

Working On Your Culture Now

At one time or another, most of us have had the experience of sitting in a room while a new idea is rolled out and will remember thinking “that’s not going to work”. What happens next is almost wholly dependent on the culture already in the school and the manner in which the idea is presented.

There are few things more frustrating from the perspective of senior leaders than hearing staff say, “I didn’t say anything, I thought you’d have already looked at that”, when an obvious issue emerges later on.

Schools that elicit the required feedback at the first meeting, rather than after the fact, have strong tendencies to actively listen to their staff and present ‘ideas’ as exactly that, rather than a fait accompli. Even if you are not considering major change, you can make some major investments in your school’s future by seeking feedback from your staff on a regular basis. While you do not have to act on every idea, you may get some fantastic ideas and also get a far clearer picture of your faculty’s views of the school.

Giving your staff feedback on ideas that are taken up, and not shying away from commenting on those that are not going to be implemented at this stage, can play a core role in engaging your team with the business’s success.

Is Change The Answer? If So, How Much?
In order to successfully answer this question, first you need to be able to identify the following:

  • What is the issue?
  • How big an issue is this – can you quantify the impact of the change?
  • What are the possible solutions?
  • What are the risks of both implementing and not implementing?

Having a sounding board in the form of someone you trust and who understands your school’s issues can be a great asset in shaping your thinking around an issue. Do not be afraid to ask others for input. Often undertaking this analysis at an early stage will show that the benefits may not outweigh the risks for a particular concept.

Planning And Counter Planning For Change

We have all heard what can happen to the “the best laid plans”. The quote is derived from a Robert Burns poem and speaks to how these plans “can often go astray”. This does not mean that planning is ever a wasted exercise; however, it neatly encapsulates the necessity for flexibility in implementation and ensuring that a good ‘Plan B’ is part of your overall change plan.

Often we see schools that identify the need for change but may be inflexible in how they achieve this. We have all seen this time and again in the area of technology implementation, where a school identifies the need to implement a new form of technology program, such as BYOD. Where that school may fall down is having correctly seen the need for a BYOD program, they are not open to how it is achieved or sufficiently nimble to work around obstacles that come up around ‘Plan A’. This is where we often see money being wasted on ill thought out solutions.

Explicitly Factor In Your People
I spend a lot of my time dealing with the ‘unknown’ of how people may react or respond in certain situations. In this type of environment, we often need to be armed with a number of different scenarios to allow us to respond effectively to factors that may be unknown to us prior to commencing the meeting. We have found that thinking through, and planning for, each scenario allows us to best prepare and influence an outcome.

A simple example of this is considering a proposal to a group of teachers around a change of curriculum delivery involving new technology. In this situation, the best outcome is that no one has any concerns with it and you can proceed. Worst case scenario could be that you are faced with a disgruntled employee group, potential industrial action, concerns around their students being raised, and no clear answers to “what now?” So, how is your staffing group going to react to change?

As managers within a school, you are uniquely placed to consider what may be the sticking points for your people, and this can equip you for best determining the approach that is most likely to succeed in engaging your school. Will you potentially have champions within your work team for support around particular ideas? Can you pinpoint resistance areas and address them proactively? Schools that can identify and harness these factors are generally more effective at change management.

Change Is On The Way – How Do You Now Manage It?
Regardless of your school type and change issue, there are some key steps that can be considered if you are to successfully introduce change. While there are many views on this, in my view the key aspects are as follows:

The first introduction to your staff of the idea of change and how well it is done can make or break in terms of achieving ‘buy in’ from your staff.

A key step in mapping out a communication plan is anticipating what may be the concerns of your teaching staff when they first hear about the change. In any planning scenario involving communicating with your staff, you need to consider all possible responses and ask yourself the following questions before commencing:

  • Why am I proposing the change (what are the benefits)?
  • What are the potential negatives (and how are these offset by the positives)?
  • Is there a timeline for implementation and can I be flexible on this?
  • What if I meet with strong resistance – is this change a must-have, or nice-to-have?
  • Am I asking, or telling?

The above answers will strongly influence how you can communicate in a particular scenario. For example, knowing that if there is no ‘buy in’ from staff, that you will not go further allows you to genuinely float the concept as an ‘option for feedback’. If, however, it is something that must happen, the outcome would be best presented as a given, however you might need to work on the path to get there.

If you have a situation where you have already identified the outcome (e.g. we need to be able to introduce tablet computers to the classroom), you may need to put to your staff your analysis in getting to that point and what options you have considered. You can then seek to elicit and understand their views on the challenges and opportunities.

Prior planning should hold you in good stead and allow you to sell the benefits of the change, as well as demonstrate that you are aware that there may be negative elements and have given thought to how you will manage these.

Once a final decision has been reached, an implementation plan should be clearly communicated to your relevant key stakeholders. This may include parents, suppliers and staff, and should include timetabling, responsibilities, impacts and contact people in the event of any issues.

Your implementation process on the change should include:

  • training requirements, costs and timelines
  • key milestones and measurements
  • feedback to stakeholders on progress and/or changes to plans
  • project completion timelines.

It is vital that having decided to implement change, the process undertaken is consistent with your earlier communications, and that regular assessment is undertaken to measure the gains and refine where necessary.

Planning your assessment timeframes and measurements will assist in ensuring that your process remains on track and within budget as much as possible. Any ‘wins’ should be celebrated as this will help your teams in continuing to focus on the original goal and vision. Issues should be recognised and dealt with promptly, and mistakes acknowledged where appropriate.

Where the change is significant, such as a loss of team members, the workforce may feel unsettled. Regular communications regarding the progress and current outcomes will assist in managing this issue.

Where To From Here?
Change is inevitable and can be challenging. Seeking professional advice, where needed and appropriately, early in the process can best prepare you for identifying and implementing changes successfully. Having a clear vision of where you want your school to be, and a well thought out plan to take you there, will underpin a successful process.

Lisa Burrell manages the Workplace Relations Consulting, Training and Helpline teams for VECCI. Lisa has a diverse background in workplace relations, and has recently completed post graduate qualifications in Law from Monash University. VECCI is a membership organisation for employers, providing expert advice and assistance in all aspects of employment. For more information, please visit


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