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Setting a Vision for Change Leadership
In education, change is the norm. Four principals share their challenges and triumphs in leading their schools through shifts.
With Sandra C. Cox, Ayesha Farag-Davis, Carol Gibbs, & Jacie Maslyk
Principal, March/April 2013
In 2010, Ayesha Farag-Davis, then principal of Poland, Maine’s Whittier Middle School, faced a daunting challenge. Saddled with a dire budget crisis, her district voted to consolidate three schools. All seventh and eighth graders would attend Whittier in the fall, “despite considerable community disagreement and strife,” says Farag-Davis. The transition wasn’t going to be easy.
The saying goes that change is the only constant—but you don’t have to tell that to principals like Farag-Davis. In education, shifts—school consolidations, new instructional models and evaluations, fluctuating student needs—are the norm. And though the winds of change can be fraught with challenges, they can also bring new opportunities.
“Change has the power to help people envision new possibilities, invest in relationships, and unify communities,” says Farag-Davis.
As school leaders, principals are at the helm to make transitions as smooth as possible for students, teachers, and parents. Here, Farag-Davis and four other principals share the obstacles they faced with the Common Core, evaluations, data use, and more—and the keys to how they successfully navigated their schools through them.
What’s the first step for a principal to help teachers begin a large-scale transition?
Jacie Maslyk: Our team is very focused on our goal of student achievement. My teachers understand that changes in education are inevitable, that we work together to make change manageable, and that if I expect them to do something, I am going to be right there with them along the way. When we are faced with a large-scale change, we begin by gathering information to build understanding. With the Common Core, for example, our state didn’t develop a lot of resources early on, so we devoted professional development time to locating valuable resources from other states. Then, we met as grade-level teams to examine the standards at each level, designed lessons and common assessments, held peer observations, and devoted time at every faculty meeting and in-service day to build on our knowledge.
The first step to effective schoolwide change is to provide teachers with a focus. Then, support them as they work to implement the changes, and ensure that resources are available.
Sandra C. Cox: Last year, my Title I budget was significantly “tightened” and as a result, job descriptions changed and three Title I positions were lost. As soon as it was official, I let staff members know that they were going to be affected and broke the news as gently as possible. As difficult as it was, teachers eventually understood that decisions were not arbitrary, but budgetary.
I have found that what we don’t know can hurt us. I believe that total honesty and transparency helps teachers (and administrators!) face changes. When changes occur, I try to be the first one to explain them to the staff, communicating through a weekly email newsletter. Sometimes, grade-level or staff meetings are necessary so that everyone hears the information at the same time. I consider the teachers and their strengths, identifying those who I think will be on board quickly and who will need more convincing evidence.
The bottom line is this: As the instructional leader, it is my responsibility to impart new information to the staff in a way that creates enthusiasm and buy-in, ensuring a successful implementation.
What’s one key to working with school boards and districts on new initiatives?
Ayesha Farag-Davis: Principals can clarify how decisions impact students, staff, schools, and communities. Principals need to take an active role in communicating their knowledge of various mandates to district personnel and school boards. When principals are able to break down information in clear, jargon-free terms (for school boards, in particular), share real examples to illustrate their points, and propose thoughtful ideas for tailored implementation, they can help districts and school boards make better decisions.
For example, last year, I asked several teachers to present to the school committee on ways they were integrating the Common Core standards into their unit and lesson planning. Their examples helped provide the community with an accurate, concrete picture of how the school is responding to the Common Core, and reinforced the need for resources and assistance to help school personnel integrate the new information.
How do you help parents understand significant educational changes?
Maslyk: The best way to keep parents and families in the loop is to employ multiple modes of communication, such as a newsletter, websites (school website, district website, and individual teachers’ websites), and forums. I’ve also communicated the changes at our PTA meetings and parent workshops. Being available to talk about the changes is important. Attending a school sporting event or just standing outside at dismissal time provides opportunities to talk with parents.
Farag-Davis: The entire staff has to be prepared to provide families with clear, consistent messages about the purpose and value of the changes. While principals play an important role in communicating with families, teachers are often the first to be contacted with questions and concerns. My staff appreciated a “cheat sheet” of agreed-upon points and answers to frequently asked or anticipated questions as a helpful tool while navigating complex or controversial changes.
Helping families to understand and accept changes in practice requires not only highlighting what is working and going well, but acknowledging the challenges and the shortcomings of our efforts, as well. Sharing our struggles and inviting parental feedback helped us to successfully work with parents to navigate changes, big How have you dealt with changing student populations?
Carol Gibbs: Our demographics have been changing. Most significantly, the percentage of low-income students at our school increased from 28.1 percent in 1999 to 60.5 percent in 2012. Our school went from 21.5 percent ELL in 1999 to 48.5 percent in 2012.
We had to come to grips with the fact that the talents of the staff did not match the needs of our students. I had to state it openly and honestly: I said that all staff members needed to get ELL approval. The first wave of teachers found programs and took it upon themselves to start the endorsement. Quickly, the district began to provide resources via grant funds to bring endorsement programs on site.
Maslyk: Over the past five years, our school has had an increase in homeless students. We try our best to be a consistent place for the students to learn, and to provide families with services they need. We have also observed an increase in our population of students with autism. Our regular education and special education teachers work together to ensure that students with autism are receiving the support that they need in the least restrictive environment. Sometimes this means co-teaching, or employing additional strategies, such as offering sensory materials, or using visual cues. As we continue to see this population of students grow, we recognize the need for additional training for teachers so that they have the skills and strategies to be successful.
How have you managed new teacher evaluation processes?
Cox: As part of Virginia’s waiver from the components of No Child Left Behind, a new evaluation system that addresses student achievement was developed, and our district is implementing it this school year. I attended a three-day training last summer to help me understand the process. Then, I developed a four-month plan for introducing these ideas to the staff, beginning during pre-service week with a brief overview. I helped the teachers organize all of the paperwork requirements in a file box, which we supplied. To calm the anxieties that many staff members feel, I am introducing small portions in depth each month to ensure that everyone understands the whole process, as well as the latest requirements.
What’s one way to prepare yourself to transition to leadership of a different type of school?
Farag-Davis: Prior to working at Whittier [a middle school], I was the principal of an elementary school. I’d spent most of my professional career at the middle level, so returning to a middle school felt very familiar. But, having experienced a number of changes over time in my job as a principal, I was weary of yet another change and the need to start over.
During this time, reflecting with a trusted principal peer helped me to make sense of and process my own reactions to change. It helped me to clarify, confront, and name my fears and misgivings. Having someone with whom to process the change helped me to better provide the processes for staff, students, and families to voice and discuss their reactions.
What advice do you have for adapting to a change in course after an initiative has begun?
Gibbs: Change is messy. Focus on systems rather than initiatives. Alignment is key. Look at your school improvement activities and ask yourself: Are they aligned to your professional development program and to teacher development and evaluation plans? Cox: It is important to be open and honest about the change and why it is necessary. For instance, several years ago, I met with my direct supervisor for a mid-year evaluation and she indicated we needed to be more consistent with common formative assessments and data review. My teachers came on board immediately, seeing this directive as a challenge that we would face together.
We developed an assessment calendar and guidelines for reviewing data. Ultimately this process built stronger teams. Teachers soon began to trust each other enough to be able to say, “My kids bombed. What did you do?” These amazing and powerful instructional conversations have built teacher confidence and camaraderie. Sometimes the data is ugly; but we own it, discuss it, and move on to re-teach and reassess. This mid-course shift definitely changed the way that our teachers view the importance of examining and discussing data.
Maslyk: Sometimes, detours—like district, state, or federal mandates—are out of our control. As long as you maintain focus on the vision and communicate to your staff, you should be able to handle bumps in the road. A change in the course shouldn’t mean that your team isn’t still working towards the common goal of student achievement.
How can a change process benefit a school community?
Gibbs: Moving a staff from collegial to collaborative has been one of the best experiences of my life. It’s been about developing leaders and building capacity. We started out to reduce office discipline referrals by developing universal expectations for different school environments; gathering data; and changing, adjusting, and monitoring procedures. We implemented the PBIS System, which showed us that if we pull together, develop a common core of target behaviors, and align our resources great things happen. We’ve used the same process for academic improvement. It changes your community and culture because everyone has a stake in it, and you experience success and satisfaction.
The key is setting up observable practices and behaviors and holding adults and students to them. They are the elements that you have to be “tight” on as the instructional leader. With accountability, teachers and students realize that everyone is responsible for everyone’s success.
Farag-Davis: Although the decision to create a consolidated middle school was initially a source of community strife, a thoughtful and purposeful change process helped to heal the divide and position the new school to become a source of pride and accomplishment for staff, students, families, and the greater community.
Change processes have the power to help people envision new possibilities, invest in relationships, and unify communities. It is a messy, difficult process, to be sure. But it can yield incredible outcomes.
It seems cliché to say that from a crisis came an opportunity, but it truly became a launching point for explicit efforts to articulate our collective beliefs about the needs of middle school students and our hopes for the new school. It inspired purposeful engagement with students, families, and ourselves as a staff as we sought to build a strong sense of belonging and trust.
Sandra C. Cox is principal at Norview Elementary School, Norfolk, VA.
—Key Challenge: Losing staff from Title I cuts.
Ayesha Farag-Davis is a Doctoral candidate and former principal, Whittier Middle School, Poland, MA.
—Key Challenge: Facing a three-school consolidation.
Carol Gibbs is principal at North School, Des Plaines, IL.
—Key Challenge: Leading school with ballooning population of low-income and ELL students.
Jacie Maslyk is principal at Crafton Elementary School, Pittsburgh, PA.
—Key Challenge: Integrating technology at a 100-year-old school.
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