Change: Why so Difficult??

Are you a change agent, or does the whole notion of change create a feeling of unease? Perhaps you are in the middle, open to change, but experiencing a bit of initiation fatigue. Change is a complex, obligatory process for progress, yet frequently met with resistance and fear. Why? In the words of Karen Salmansohn, “What if I told you that 10 years from now, your life would be exactly the same? I doubt you’d be happy. So why are you so afraid of change?” I’m with Karen on this one. Let’s not be afraid of change.

Photo by Alexas Fotos on

I recently had the pleasure of doing a workshop on change with a group of school administrators participating in an Administrative Leadership Development Series sponsored by SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury’s Educational Leadership Program and WSWHE BOCES. I began with a think-pair share around these questions: What makes change so difficult? Think of a change project that worked, and how/why it worked. Think of a change project that didn’t work, and how/why it didn’t. We followed our discussions with some conversation around my favorite change models (Fullan, NASSP’s Breaking Ranks, Kotter, and Scharmer).

Fear, loss of autonomy, history of failed change efforts, being comfortable with present conditions, an implication of doing something wrong, and a lack of leadership were identified for why change was so difficult.

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For specific change projects that worked, efforts were research-based, had a sense of urgency with strong and passionate leadership, clearly-defined goals (“begin with the end in mind”), adequate resources, and data to monitor and adjust efforts. Change efforts that didn’t work had no buy-in, were inconsistent, tried to do too much too fast, or were burdened by an unhealthy school culture, lack of goals, and inadequate resources.

The administrators clearly had experience with change efforts, both good and bad. Change is not nuclear science, but it can sure be messy and painful. In many ways, change is an emotional rollercoaster with oneself and others that requires resilience, vulnerability, and courage.

Here are some change models to consider when seeking to bring about change (Click here to check out my post on Climate Change and Kotter’s 8 Steps).

Fullan’s Eight Lessons (From Fullan’s Change Forces)

  1. You can’t mandate what matters – The more complex the change the less you can force it
  2. Change is a journey not a blueprint – Change is non-linear, loaded with uncertainty and excitement and sometimes perverse
  3. Problems are our friends – Problems are inevitable and you can’t learn without them
  4. Vision and strategic planning come later – Premature visions and planning blind
  5. Individualism and collectivism must have equal power – There are no one-sided solutions to isolation and group think
  6. Neither centralization nor decentralization works – Both top-down and bottom-up strategies are necessary
  7. Connection with the wider environment is critical for success – The best organizations learn externally as well as internally
  8. Every person is a change agent – Change is too important to leave to the experts, personal mindset and mastery is the ultimate protection

Breaking Ranks (National Association of Secondary School Principals)

Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model (2002)

  1. Increase urgency
  2. Build the guiding team
  3. Get the vision right
  4. Communicate for buy- in
  5. Empower action
  6. Create short-term wins
  7. Don’t let up
  8. Make change stick

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U (2002)

We all have blind spots from which we function, and four levels for how we respond to change: reacting, redesigning, reframing, and presencing. Most systems remain at stage one and two, fewer get to level three, and level four is a special area where leaders and followers together reach their highest potential (p. 52). To get to presencing requires an open mind, heart, and will of all participants . Presencing exists when individuals go beyond their source of awareness or blind spot to one of possibility; where the future and present merge to act on “one’s highest future potential” (Scharmer, 2009, p. 8).

Whether we’re looking at Fullan, Kotter, Breaking Ranks, Scharmer, or other change models, entropy is at play and change happens, so go out and proactively address what needs changing. Good luck.

Fullan, M. (1993). Change forces: Probing the depths of educational reform. New York. The Falmer Press.

Kotter, J. P., & Cohen, D. S. (2012). The heart of change: real-life stories of how people change their organizations. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press.

Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges : the social technology of presencing. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

The (New) Teacher Recommendation Letter

One of my greatest joys is teaching graduate students in our Masters of Science in Teaching (MST) Program. Preparing future educators for the classroom is an honor and responsibility not to be taken lightly. Master Course Outlines and associated course syllabi define a program’s merits, and the very best offer a well-rounded student experience grounded in curriculum, instruction, and assessment (In my unbiased opinion, SUNY Plattsburgh’s Education Programs are exceptional). The tricky part I have found is writing letters of recommendation for students finishing their student teaching and preparing to find a job. What should one look for when writing these critical letters, and how best to convey one’s enthusiasm for particular students who have the makings of greatness? It is not an easy task writing recommendation letters for individuals without the track record of practicing educators, but there are some student dispositions, skills and understandings I believe tie to future performance.

Grades matter, certainly, but there are other, sometimes more important, measures to consider. The lens I start with is what I want for my daughter’s teachers. Compassionate, patient, dedicated, fun-loving, witty, smart, persistent, confident, unique and innovative, communicative, open-minded, and well-respected, are measures found in the very best educators–and these are measures I can evaluate in the graduate MST classroom. In other words, what I’m looking for in a future educator are habits of mind that lead to success. How do my students interact with one another? Are they collaborators, or prefer to do their work separate from others? Do they have fun in class, and enjoy each other’s company? Are they innovative, tech-savvy, confident and humble? Are failures or challenges seen as opportunities, and do they persist? What type of mindset do they hold, growth or fixed? And why did they choose education? So many things to consider.

It takes but a few years classroom experience for the “newbies” to separate themselves from others, becoming the teachers children adore, parents want for their kids, and principals protect and mold. Such educators develop into the informal or formal teacher leaders within the school, and embrace their work for what it is: shaping and molding young minds to become productive, mindful, knowledgeable, and able members of a democratic society. And that is why the letter of recommendation for graduate MST students is so important to get right.