Trials of a First-Year Principal: The Change Process
Topics: Early Career Principals
Change is inevitable when taking on a new position. As principal, I am ultimately responsible for the learning outcomes and daily operations within our learning community. The journey, however, is not one that I can go alone if I hope to be successful in implementing change. Building capacity for change can be a slow and arduous task for any leader, but it’s necessary to foster growth in staff efficacy and student learning.
The Current Reality
Understanding the current reality of my campus was important as I began my new role as principal. Through working my entry plan, I listened to as many stakeholders as possible prior to laying the groundwork for the upcoming school year. I learned varying perceptions of the current state of our learning community. Teachers and campus support staff began to paint the picture of campus culture through their experiences. District administrators shared their thoughts on current operations, areas to celebrate, and ways to improve. Parents expressed their perceptions on what life was like for their children. And, once school began, I was able to hear what students thought about their learning community.
Sometimes these groups of stakeholders shared common themes about the current reality. Often, the perception differed from group to group and person to person. The most difficult task to tackle through the entry phase was to build the road map for our learning community based on the broad range of perceptions. When meeting with individuals connected to my campus, I would jot down notes of words and phrases that stuck out to me. I then looked for the “big words.” Words like communication, support, team, discipline, caring, and family. I organized these words into a spreadsheet and looked for common themes. As themes emerged, I created guiding questions on these themes for future conversations with stakeholders to either confirm a theme as something that needed immediate attention or to recognize a theme as something to consider down the road. This process allowed me to get a sense of how fast or slow to move in certain areas. With this information in hand, it was time to start laying the foundation for work to come.
Building Capacity for Change
In School Leadership That Works: From Research to Results, author Robert Marzano describes two types of changes: first order change as change that can be implemented based on current practices, with an existing knowledge base, and in the current paradigm of operations, and second order change, which will require new skills to be developed, new or different resources, and a break with the way it has been done in the past.
I began developing capacity for change through the administrative team. We met early on during the transition to start building relationships and understanding how we would collaborate within our new team. Including me, three of the five administrators were new to the campus, so the process of getting to know each other and how each of us operated within the team was vital to future success.
The most meaningful activity to me was a ghost walk throughout the building. Our newly formed team spent a full day walking into every classroom, common area, office space, and storage closet. We got a glimpse into understanding the physical plant of the building and veteran members of our team could share their experiences on campus. An organic discussion emerged of some of the great things already happening on our campus and some areas that required immediate attention. Instead of those ideas being my ideas, this opportunity allowed for the administrative teams as a group to own the ideas of what changes would be valuable to our campus.
Another opportunity to build capacity for change came while considering master schedule changes. I met with a group of teacher leaders, via Zoom, to get their feedback on what input they had on the master schedule development in the past and what they would like to see moving forward. I knew from previous conversations that changes to the master schedule were going to be needed, so this allowed me to give teachers a voice in this process. By asking for this feedback, teachers were predisposed to the changes that were forthcoming in hopes that this would ease the transition from what they knew in the past.
Change is hard. Change is messy. Change is critical for our organization to grow. I would love to say that all areas of change that were identified have been implemented smoothly and with perfect lines of communication. The reality is, however, that I have not communicated every change as effectively as I hoped. I have most likely failed in my communication about a change more times than I have succeeded. With change comes a spectrum of responses to that change. I have much to share on this topic next month.
Christopher Bailey, Ed.D., is principal of Clack Middle School in the Abilene Independent School District in Texas. Connect with him on Twitter at @stixbailey.