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Invest Now... Or Pay Later

As the Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning at an independent school, I set out to create a mentoring program as part of the onboarding process for new teachers and staff at our school. Previously, mentoring had been inconsistent and haphazard. I considered the challenges I had observed for years and interviewed teachers and staff in their first year about what they wished had been provided or avoided for them. Based on this information, I mapped out a plan for small-group mentoring. I presented the plan to division heads and sent an email to the full faculty and staff describing our plan. We launched the new strategy the next fall. And by January it was clear that it was no more consistent or less haphazard than before. What had gone wrong? I was convinced, and still am, that this plan was infinitely better than what we had been doing and was grounded in best practice. And yet, the plan failed.


“In my experience, either the time is invested upfront to get everyone on the same page, or there is a greater cost to be paid later in the form of resistance and undermining that can take place when a change is instituted."

As school leaders, it is often our charge to lead change – changes in policy, changes in daily operations, changes in content and curriculum, and changes in how we frame and brand our work. A common approach to these kinds of changes is to create a task team, usually made up of school leaders and sometimes a teacher or two, and to charge them with creating a plan or proposal which is then shared as the decided-upon plan to the larger group. While most of those teams know and even discuss the need for “institutional buy-in,” it is rare that a process for achieving that buy-in is created. Generally, leaders are ready to fast-track a change once a plan is in place and to mistake providing information or making a sales pitch as buy-in, which rarely results in shared ownership of the change. In my experience, either the time is invested upfront to get everyone on the same page, or there is a greater cost to be paid later in the form of resistance and undermining that can take place when a change is instituted. Sometimes that cost is so great that it can sink a new initiative and serve to solidify a culture in which people do not feel heard or included.




Self-Awareness: The First Investment


Seeking buy-in begins the day the task team is gathered, and that work begins with the individual members of the team. A group can function at a much higher level if each team member seeks to be aware of the lens they wear, their own biases, potential blindspots, and personal agendas. Honest self-evaluation, as a first step in leading change, supports a cleaner approach to the work at hand, unfettered by historical perspectives that can thwart a process.


It is helpful if the group makes use of some agreed-upon language and understandings as guides for their ongoing self-reflection and check-ins. There are a number of tools and resources for facilitating self-reflection and self-awareness. I recommend resources created by The Conscious Leadership Group, in particular a concept they call “the line.” The line is a strategy for reflecting on how you are functioning; it helps locate oneself either "above the line or below the line." This tool can support a group in setting a standard for individuals as to how they will function within the group. Regular check-ins to discern if group members are remaining open, curious, and committed to learning instead of being defensive, closed, and committed to being right can elevate individual and group functioning in significant ways. Functioning above the line facilitates an openness to new ideas and perspectives which is more likely to result in a plan or proposal that appeals to a wider audience.


Taking responsibility for whether you are below or above the line begins with self-acceptance and self-compassion regarding where you are. There are many factors that can contribute to functioning below the line. Certainly, a number of leaders and teachers reported functioning below the line during the pandemic, in which fear, overwhelm, and a sense of threatened security seemed almost ever-present. Even in more normal times, task groups responsible for leading change often feel a sense of vulnerability about how the change will be perceived and this can lead to feeling defensive and fearful of failure.


“Even in more normal times, task groups responsible for leading change often feel a sense of vulnerability about how the change will be perceived and this can lead to feeling defensive and fearful of failure."

Having strategies at the ready to support getting above the line again is very useful. Throughout the pandemic, I leaned on resources created by Caroline Webb, executive coach and author of How to Have a Good Day. She offers a number of strategies for accessing resilience, interrupting negative spirals, and getting distance from problems to provide fresh perspective. Sometimes in the process of creating a new plan, the whole group may need to access resources to reset themselves to be open and curious. In leading groups that need a mindset shift, I have sometimes moved meetings out of doors, created a game as the format for a meeting, or provided written affirmations to each member of the group at the start of the meeting. The strategies are endless. What must remain consistent is self-awareness, honest ownership, and a willingness to take the time to reset.

“Sometimes in the process of creating a new plan, the whole group may need to access resources to reset themselves to be open and curious."


The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Fact or Fiction


Before a task group is even in the room together for the first time, there is a swirl of stories in their heads about themselves and about one another. A lack of awareness about these inner dialogues can inhibit seeing one another and the work at hand with fresh eyes. Awareness of our own inner narratives about ourselves and about others is another key factor in preparing school cultures for change. We are wired to make up stories. Stories we hold about ourselves can significantly influence our functioning on a team and as a member of the wider school community. Even the most successful and mindful leaders and teachers have inner dialogues that can impede process and progress. In Disrupt Your Own Narrative, psychologist Michael Gervais offers examples of eight successful women and the strategies they employed to disrupt the personal and cultural narratives which could pull them off track.


In addition to mindfulness of our stories about ourselves, we must also attend to those stories we have created about others based on previous experiences and perceptions of what our colleagues believe, think, and feel. We like the comfort of certainty that we know someone, what they are thinking, and how they will respond and then, all too often, unconsciously look for confirmation that what we think is true. In these cases, we cease to be curious about how someone else might be perceiving new ideas and instead move below the line to being right about what we already know about them. Instead of being innovative about how to incorporate their ideas or how to support a colleague’s concerns, we write them off as “just how they’ve always been.”


“We like the comfort of certainty that we know someone, what they are thinking, and how they will respond and then, all too often, unconsciously look for confirmation that what we think is true."

If a task team takes on the work of seeking to function “above the line” and to manage their narratives about themselves and one another, it can result in a more cohesive, satisfying group experience that fosters a more solid and innovative plan. And it can lead to positive shifts in collegial relationships beyond the work of the group. At the end of a search process for a new teacher in which I had formed a search committee and employed work on negative narratives, one teacher on the committee reflected, “I had no idea how truly committed to diversity my colleague is. I will never see him in the same way again. I am looking forward to working with him on future projects.”



Investing for the Big Payoff


Nowhere is it more important to invest time and energy than when a task group or leadership team is ready to roll out the new plan to the faculty and staff whose daily lives are affected by the plan. Most leaders will have in their minds thoughts about who will have what objections. For people who have worked together in an organization for a long time, it can be very challenging to remain curious and open about one another. Examples of narratives I have experienced include, “You know how she is. She has been here forever and never wants to see anything change,” or “He thinks he gets this place and knows what we need but he has been here about a minute. He doesn’t have a clue,” or “Here we go again. One more shot at a curriculum map that we all know they are just going to ditch for something new in a couple of years.” Seldom are these narratives actually reality checked and they certainly don’t suggest an open mind that is curious about how we might get a new idea to work. If the change at hand involves things that impact the day-to-day work of teachers and staff such as the daily schedule, the school year calendar, curriculum, class size, or shifts in rituals and traditions, then the work of readying the group is substantial because each and every individual is personally invested in the outcome.


Just as the team needed support to become self-aware, so does the wider community. If the school culture is one in which this kind of work has already been done, then introducing a change can be easier. However, launching a new proposal can provide a rich opportunity for undertaking to build a culture grounded in self-awareness, openness, and curiosity.


“If the change at hand involves things that impact the day-to-day work of teachers and staff... then the work of readying the group is substantial because each and every individual is personally invested in the outcome."

One Case Study


Some years ago, I led a group of teachers in a process to reinvent our daily schedule. Teachers had identified a number of fault lines in our schedule including that the class length of 45 minutes did not allow for longer projects, science labs, and experiential learning. I launched a year-long process to research schedules and develop a new one. I let the faculty know from the outset that “the schedule train would not leave the station until everyone was on board.”


We began our work by identifying the narratives we had about the schedule and the potential schedule change. We had discussion circles in which faculty followed guidelines to fully hear the hopes and fears of their colleagues regarding the schedule. Once it seemed clear we grasped the challenges the current schedule posed for some and there was a demonstrated interest in creating a schedule that worked for everyone, we set about the work of actually designing a schedule. We spent 6 months researching, observing other schools, and sharing ideas. Then small groups each created a schedule and presented it, acknowledging its flaws and strengths. Then we worked to revise each of the three until a schedule emerged we could all embrace. We launched the schedule the following fall without a hitch. We evaluated and tweaked throughout the year with staff raising observations and concerns as they emerged. Was it a perfect schedule? No. Did some faculty get frustrated with how to use longer blocks of time and how to adjust to changes? Indeed they did. But what was notably missing was staff room gossip, undermining, and blaming. In fact, there seemed to be a higher degree of willingness to work together.




The Bottom Line

Any school-wide change impacting faculty and staff - and therefore students and families - will involve a considerable time investment. If that investment is made early in the form of supporting individual and group readiness for change, then the process of the change itself can provide substantial dividends for creating a culture animated by curiosity, openness, and joy. Shortcutting that early investment may result in costly losses to trust, connection, and innovation.


“If that investment is made early in the form of supporting individual and group readiness for change, then the process of the change itself can provide substantial dividends."
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