Urgency, Change, and School Leadership

Urgency, Change, and School Leadership

One of the most challenging features of school leadership is developing a good strategy to correct a problem within the learning culture. As a head of school for two decades, I faced many such challenges. Of all the cultural challenges I faced, one of the most complicated ones was this: One year, it became clear to me that a mindset was creeping in among some of our teachers that the learning should be driven by tests. In other words, some teachers had adopted the habit of teaching to the test.

I learned about the emerging problem mostly by listening closely to the students regarding their learning experience. It was not merely that they were given what in some cases was an undue amount of testing; it was that some of their teachers were constantly framing lessons as necessary means to performing well on tests. In some courses, students heard the constant refrain: “You better learn this, if you want to do well on the test.” Tests are good tools but easily overused. Overuse can be a matter of default: a kind of paint by numbers way of executing a course. Even when this approach came from teachers’ desire to impart a lot of information, it resulted in students seeing test results as the most important part of their academic experience, and increasingly losing their love of learning in those courses.

When the alarm bell went off for me, I determined both to stop the problem before it got out of hand and to set a permanent remedy in place. I knew there had to be a change for the better and that I had to lead it. To correct course, I needed to design a kind of playbook. I turned to John P. Kotter, one of the nation’s most important management experts. He specializes in how to lead organizational change. You can find his work here: a clear, step-by-step process to execute.

Based on Kotter’s tried and true approach, I devised a set of steps to take in order for my faculty to change for the better. I have bolded the most salient features in the steps I took:

  1. I created a sense of urgency. First, I met with several core leaders on the faculty, who quickly understood what I saw. Because they saw the problem clearly, I was able to bring them on board to help lead the change. Second, I brought the problem to the attention of the entire faculty. My detailed presentation, developed with the help of the core teachers, informed my team of what we saw and convinced them of the urgency.
  2. I led a year-long collaborative effort to identify the problem in all its details and solve it. In other words, we worked together as a team to correct our culture. At the same time, we took note of healthy practices and developed ways to adopt and advance them.
  3. I had everyone work in subgroups, according to our respective fields of inquiry. Each group determined good and bad practices and, in response, practical remedies to the bad ones and practical ways to cultivate the good ones. Each group reported back to the faculty as a whole.
  4. In light of the collaborative reports, I identified and proposed a set of changes to make across the school culture. That proposal first went to the core leaders, who helped me tighten and strengthen the plan. Then, I presented the plan to the entire faculty. As a faculty, we agreed to those changes and how to implement them. Among the changes we made were the following:
      • Never use language that expresses “You better learn this if you want to do well on the test.”
      • Do not deliberately load up extra homework in the form of test prep on the weekends or holidays in view of a test the first day back.
      • Do not announce the next test on the day you return a graded test.
      • Give full consideration to all kinds of student work, not just test results.
      • Wherever possible, reinforce the culture of performance: labs, coding, translations, discussion, writing, recital, studio art, and all the myriad ways a student engages the culture of the school.
  5. We closed out the year with a vision for a renewed learning culture. It was not just that we were pulling up the weeds of teach-to-the-test habits, it was that we longed for the best culture and were renewed in our determination to give the students the highest quality learning experience.
  6. The process itself already fostered change for the better. That is, during the year in which we strategized on how to solve the problem, we already set the ship on a new course; students already experienced an improved learning culture. The next year and beyond, it was evident that the process had effected lasting change for the better.

Change for the better is possible if leaders are willing to lead through the challenge, and if the chief agents of change in a school’s learning culture, the teachers, are engaged collaboratively to see what needs improvement and to implement change. As a leader, I needed the guidance of seasoned change leaders. Kotter and his team were the ticket. As a faculty, we needed the year long effort to uproot a bad set of practices and the determination to make the change for the better. It worked. I grew as a leader, we grew as teachers, and our students grew as learners.

Andrew Zwerneman, join us for the symposium


Andrew J. Zwerneman is co-founder and president of Cana Academy, APEX Program Mentor, and Symposium 2022 Headliner


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