Cultivating Sustainable Change

Consider one change that, if achieved, would greatly impact your school or district.  Think about the number of people and their role in your school organization who would be directly or indirectly impacted by this change.  If you could nearly guarantee this change could be achieved and sustained, dream of the difference it would make!

Achieving transformative change in a school organization is monumental. Sustaining long-term change is complex.  Under the leadership of a guiding coalition, within a conducive environment, united with a clear vision, empowered teachers and staff can take steps toward measurable change.

Within Article V: Organizational Transformation of the Visioning Document, we read:

V.a Excellence emanates from a shared commitment to values and standards, high levels of engagement, and strong leadership at levels functioning within an accountability system that inspires.

With this as our goal, qualities of successful implementation are articulated in the Implementation Matrix at Level 4 as:

District internal accountability systems and structures are based upon the power of shared co-accountability for excellence and while they result in high levels of performance on state/federal accountability systems, these systems are not the key driver of the instructional work in schools and classrooms. District leaders have engaged district staff, parents, and community members in the articulation of the district’s purpose and values and have translated these into a culture of excellence that inspires students, staff, and community to commit to and engage in the work of making this vision a reality for all students. Across all levels of the district and across all schools and classrooms, the adults in the system understand and have committed to the district’s purpose, values, and standards toward this common goal for all students. Students understand and are engaged in a learning path toward successful post-secondary experiences and future meaningful life opportunities.

Three books: Leading Change by John Kotter, Drive by Daniel Pink, and Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, are often utilized as resources when looking inward at an organization and considering the task of leading transformative change.

To parallel the description above with Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change, we see evidence of the guiding coalition (district leaders), developing a vision or strategy (the district’s purpose and values), and looking for long-term change (aimed toward successful post-secondary experiences and future meaningful life opportunities for the students).  As school leaders, we must recognize that transformative change includes certain prerequisite conditions: establishment of a shared responsibility with teachers, communication of the vision, removal of barriers, empowerment of stakeholders, and the building of capacity through ongoing professional learning.  These foundational steps are necessary in order to lay the groundwork for lasting change.

In Drive, Daniel Pink articulates the necessity to aim for engagement because this is what will lead to mastery.  He emphasizes that our abilities have what can be described as an unending supply of room-to-improve and this progress-making is the motivation enough to keep us engaged.  As leaders, if we can establish an environment with “flow” in which the experiences (“Goldilocks tasks”) are optimally challenging, we will set our teachers and staff up for success.  As school and district administrators we must learn to be leaders and commit to growing professionally.

In a similar way, Chip and Dan Heath outline surprises about change that should be considered by school leaders in their book, Switch.  The authors articulate the necessity to recognize what we would categorize as people problems, laziness, and resistance as actually situation problems, exhaustion, and a lack of clarity, respectively.  Intentionality is key as we learn to motivate the elephant (the emotional side) and direct the rider (the rational side).

Through the lens of all three of these books collectively, we know transformative change is more likely to occur when we:

  • lead, don’t manage;
  • share responsibility and empower others;
  • communicate the vision;
  • remove barriers;
  • consider flow and Goldilocks tasks; and
  • look for the reason behind perceived resistance.

Aim toward making these shifts in order to lay the foundation for change.  We must go slow to go far, operate with intentionality, and understand that cultivating sustainable, transformative change is work worth doing well.


Have you organized sustainable, transformative change in your district?  We would love to hear about it!

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