Is Change Ever a Welcome Guest?

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

Dylan Wiliam

I opened our CPD session last year with this quotation, in addition to every induction which I deliver in school, and I continue to return to it over and over again, because it breathes the notion of continual improvement as our focus, as oppose to whatever gold pot that we believe to be at the end of that journey. Perhaps it is the viewpoint that we can never truly master our profession which makes us most uncomfortable, and the statement causes us to hold this truth up for scrutiny. However, I think that if we shift the lens, and not view expertise as the unattainable object, but our capacity to know all that there is, the act of reflection and progression then become a rather symphonious process.

And so, this blog takes the assumption that, as our profession is vast and evolutionary in the way in which it presents itself, we understand we cannot be maestros of all. To truly grasp the notion of what it means to be an effective teacher, we must master what it means to be comfortable with the slow, steady adaptation of change, both as an individual, but also as part of a body of professionals, within our school community and as a consequence, the wider sector itself. It is this notion of comfort with change that I wish to explore a little: because, if this is the case, why does it present as such a challenge?

The process of change within schools suffers such tensions, because its necessity is tempered by the reception that it receives. We don’t enjoy change. We crave familiarity because it helps us to improve at something in a profession where milestones can feel so infrequent and miniscule- the value of education is recognised often by the adult retrospectively, seldom the child in real-time. In addition, to encounter the same solution to the problem, even if it isn’t the most effective solution, means at least we know what the solution available is: ‘that’s the way it has always been done’ rings true here. In Kegan and Lehay’s Immunity to Change, they highlight that often we are resistent to change because we ‘never had a language for it.’ Making concrete decisions to move from one way of doing something, to a new way is daunting, but beyond that, really problematic when the current way isn’t entirely broken, but it niggles at us that it might be better. To truly change, we start to mitigate the risk of continuation of our tolerance for the existing process, and the exertion required for drawing people together for curating a new process, and often, because the emotional investment and endurance required to bring about change through those discussions, we settle for good enough. And true, there are times (and it is this emphasis of time) where good enough is good enough, but we can only use this hedger for so long before the niggle gets the better of us. If, as a profession, we want to continually improve but don’t want to suffer this emotional fatigue that comes with change, it would be wise to then consider how to ease the emotional fatigue perhaps, as opposed to avoiding the change.

Again, easier said that done, because if order for us to create sustainable change within schools, we must acknowledge that adherance to belief is not the same as alignment. Vivianne Robinson shares that relational trust is crucial to change: not just to build strong professional relationships which then leads to more tangible outcomes such as retention, improved inter and cross-team collaborations which reduce workload, but also because any initiative will not last the course if people do not believe in it. We can communicate it as the organisation priority, we can explain the rationale behind these decisions, but to some extent, this is making noise as opposed to seeking alignment. For professionals to invest in a change which will potentially shift not only the way in which they work, but we want the same to happen to their mindset, they have to believe that: an accurate judgement has been made; the change is of value (wither through work reduction or an improvement to as aspect of their working life); it will not have a detrimental impact upon them in the process. The construction and frequent maintenance of relational trust is vital for this to happen, and much of this is about front loading trust before change. Looking at the problem as the problem and not the person as the problem is a solid starting point, alongside significant work in clarification as opposed to interrogation.

For instance, if multiple choice quizzes were being implemented within a department, but the multiple choice quizzes were too challenging for the students to access, then the problem is that the multiple choice questions need to be more accesssible to students for them to experience success more often. Working with the Head of Department, or the teacher using them, you might open with the judgement of the problem- ‘the questions appear to be too difficult for some students to access’ before then clarifying, ‘this seems to be as a result of the knowledge selected is not the declarative knowledge within the unit itself which has already been taught. How might this look if we used declarative knowledge instead?’ This discourse doesn’t shy away from identification of the problem, but the problem is the focus, before then evolving into a dialogue, as opposed to a monologue. Presenting the solution as the use of declarative knowledge, but as simply a start point and springboard to delve into further, means that we maintain the relational trust that is essential for micro-choices that we make each day which can then lead to improvement. Telling people that something is better will just lead to a process with minimal investment: we need to actualise value to feel truly invested in it.

If we want to see a move towards change, we need to raise the profile for meaningful reflection as an organisation, and again, frequency and quality is key here.

Lastly- change is something that must carry the caveat of a temperature check. Change initiative in schools has no doubt never experience such turmoil, as the changes we want to implement might be on pause because of a priority that has taken ahold, albeit a completely necessary one, to keep people in schools safe. Just as a series of rapid, hastily implemented change will stand to hurtle even the very best idea into a pit of instantaneous failure (I wrote a little about the danger of speedy change here). When working with school culture, we can usually make inferences and assumptions around where the staff body belief system is at with regards to alignment with school policy- after all, it is not often that a teacher will work in a school for an extended period of time when their values are in complete opposition to the school vision. However, a school culture is in conflict with the culture that the urgency of a pandemic brings, and we must be mindful of that. This upheaval and uncertainty means that even the very of plans may go to waste if we do not take the time to evaluate not just the quality of the plan, but how it may be received at the current time. True change, that brings on individuals in their thinking really is worth the wait.

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