3 common change leadership mistakes in schools

change leadership in schools

My husband and I have always loved the outdoors. The bush is our defibrillator; it recharges us and brings us back into our natural rhythm. It clears the mind and fills the soul.

After months of not being able to get our fix of the smells and sights of the bush (thanks to Covid lockdown in Melbourne) we’re now in training to hike the 223km Larapinta Trail (in the NT) next year.

One thing we’ve noticed in our transition from long distance running to long distance walking is that the slower speed allows you to take in all the plants and wildlife around you. We’ve spotted echidnas and wallabies, bush mint and wild passionfruit.

leadership lessons for schools
The spear thistle: pretty from afar, nasty up close!

One plant though, that appears to be dominating the landscape at the moment, is the Spear Thistle. It’s not hard to spot- it has sharp and prickly foliage contrasted by a quite attractive purple flower on top. As pretty as they are (from a distance), it turns out that in Victoria these thistles are considered a noxious and fast spreading weed.

Alas, the Spear Thistle is not the only noxious and fast spreading weed that rears its head at this time of the year…

It’s term 4 in Australian schools; the term when leaders start considering their plan of attack for the following year and, unfortunately, the term when the dreaded ‘Lack-of-Strategic-Planning’ Thistle starts to bloom en masse in schools.

This thistle is characterised by grand plans that lack a carefully thought out (or possess an ill-informed) strategic approach to enacting them. It’s often evidenced as long shopping lists of new initiatives to be implemented within the next 12 months, with little to no detail on how these will be lead or implemented.

Run Larapinta trail running
Laurie and I ran 80kms of the Larapinta Trail in 2018 and now we want to hike the whole track.

And, as my primary school Maths teacher, Mr Scown, used to say: ‘You don’t plan to fail, you fail to plan.’

When it comes to planning change in schools, leaders are generally good at planning the WHAT, but too often fail to strategically plan the HOW.

In a bid to stop the spread of the noxious ‘lack-of-strategic-planning’ weed, let’s look at 3 common mistakes leaders make when leading change in schools:

#1 focussing on too many initiatives at once

There’s a finite amount of nutrients in soil and these nutrients have to support all of the plant life in the area. When a noxious weed like the Spear Thistle pops up and spreads, it robs the nearby plants of precious nutrients and negatively effects their successful growth.

Similarly, when change leaders attempt to introduce multiple initiatives at once, they risk spreading the already-limited nutrients (resources, time, budget, PL, staff buy-in etc.) to a point where the success of all of the initiatives are compromised.

In other words- when they’re doing everything, they’re doing none of it well.

As occurs in the natural world, the nutrient and water requirements of plants change and adapt as they become established (i.e., although they may have intensive food and water requirements in the early part of their lives, this should taper off as they mature).

In the school environment, leadership teams need to focus their limited resources on supporting the new practices to become embedded to a point of automaticity for staff and students.

Then and only then, should they consider adding new initiatives.

Effective change leaders develop a relentless focus on doing less and doing it well!

#2 coming up with a solution without knowing the problem

Working in a school means working in a constant state of problem solving- (Paige has hurt her leg, what can we do about it? Luke is about to blow up, how can I stop that? Graduations have been cancelled, what’s an alternative?) All this problem solving means staff are classically conditioned to come up with solutions in a time efficient manner.

This is great for some things, but not so great when it comes to leading change.

In their haste to implement teaching and learning related solutions, many schools skip the all-important step of diagnosing their own symptoms before prescribing their solutions.

Rather than setting aside 6 months on school planners to “investigate new approaches to teaching spelling/reading/writing” for example, leaders would be much better off spending that 6 months investigating how spelling/reading/writing is currently taught in their school:

  • How do individual teachers currently teach spelling/reading/writing? How do you know?
  • What (and who) are the strengths of the current approach(es)?
  • What are the possible issues with the current approach(es)?
  • What impact is/are the current approach(es) having on student learning, motivation and engagement? How do you know?
  • What supporting resources (documentation/PL/professional readings etc.) do staff currently have access to in this area?
  • How much time is currently allocated to teaching spelling/reading/writing?
  • What are the levels of staff confidence and/or competence in teaching this area?

When leaders take the time to learn more about the current teaching and learning practices in their school, they’re better able to search with precision for solutions that are specific to the issues they have identified.

Eg. If an audit on the teaching and learning of spelling in a school uncovers a lack of teacher content knowledge as a contributing problem, an effective solution must address this specific symptom in order to bring about sustained change.

#3 forgetting That leading change is all about leading learning

All change involves learning- be it unlearning, new learning or relearning.

Fortunately, in schools we happen to know a LOT about effective teaching and learning practices.

We know that learners thrive when they’re provided with differentiation, explicit teaching, goals, feedback, repeated exposures, worked examples and collaborative learning (just to name a few).

Unfortunately though, this knowledge about evidence-based teaching and learning practices is regularly pushed to the side when it comes to adult learning.

When leaders forget that leading change is all about leading learning, they forget that learning is a journey and not an event. They forget that learning takes time and is best delivered through an ongoing drip feed of ‘just in time’ support and teaching, rather than a one-off ‘just in case’ PD day.

They forget the old adage “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

Those who do acknowledge the learning required in change, provide time for staff to engage in ongoing cycles of learn, trial, discuss-> learn, trial, discuss.

They acknowledge and respect the time that deep learning takes (and the fact that the pace and required support is different for all learners).

They know that aiming for automaticity with new learning requires prioritisation of the limited resources their school (and staff) possess. This includes prioritising the budget, the Professional Development calendar, the staff conversations and the timetables.

Effective change leaders carefully and strategically plan all the small drips of teaching, support and resourcing they will need to deliver along the long and windy path towards automaticity for staff.

There you have it- three of the most common change leadership mistakes I see in schools today. Hopefully by talking about these, we can stop the spread of this noxious weed and clear the soil for more fruitful approaches in the future.

In the meantime, Laurie and I will be prioritising our budget, time, conversations and mental capacity to learn everything we can about hiking. Wish us luck!

Share your ideas on effective change leadership in the comments below or over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.

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2 thoughts on “3 common change leadership mistakes in schools”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your insight! We are currently in a ‘planning for next year phase’. Focusing on the few things that will make the biggest impact and doing them really well is certainly where the focus should be.

    You mentioned that schools are good at the ‘what’ and need to get better at the ‘how’. I agree and the other thing I will add is that we should also spend considerable time on the ‘why’. I think your second point about knowing the problem alludes to the same concept. We want to ensure we have a shared belief in what we are doing and a crystal clear purpose (Why) is integral to that. It remininded me of the Einstein quote that if had an hour to solve a problem he would spend 55 minutes asking questions and only the last 5 minutes working on a solution (the quote was something similar to this-sorry I didn’t do a google check on that one!)

    I hope you enjoy your training and even though weeds can be bad I hope we can all enjoy the learning they might offer…


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