Jacqueline Heller

Jacqueline Heller is a literacy teacher and coach at Mason Crest Elementary School in Annandale, Virginia. She is a former classroom teacher, mentor resource teacher, and reading recovery teacher.

Educators as Change Agents

"When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills." –Chinese proverb

I’ve recently had reason to want to grab some bricks and build that wall around me. My twins graduated high school this summer, and I just packed them off to two different colleges 600 miles apart. Change is hard. Another dynamic duo in my life, my assistant principal and principal, both retired in July so our school’s leadership is now in flux. Change is hard. I am a literacy coach in a district rolling out a new language arts pacing guide that changes how we approach reading and writing at every grade level. Change is HARD!

The funny thing is, one of the reasons I’ve stayed in education for 20 years and gravitated towards working with adults on school improvement is that I yearn to be an agent of change. Nobody likes it when change is thrust upon them, but I do love making change happen. It’s the reason I’m drawn to the primary grades where children’s literacy skills change at such an astonishing rate. It’s why I love mentoring new teachers and helping them realize the growth and change in their own practice. Most significantly, it’s the reason I thrive in a Professional Learning Community at Work™ where change is the proof that we are doing it right.

If a professional learning community is defined as “educators engaged in an ongoing process of collective inquiry and action research in order to achieve better results for the students they serve” (DuFour, 2016), then we collectively use evidence of learning to inform and improve our professional practice in a constant search for ways to get higher levels of learning for our students. Continuous change. And yes, it is hard, but it is so good. As my retired principal, Brian Butler, often says to teachers, “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” This is a journey and a process. Each step on the journey is a change, and the process is messy at times.  If change is so hard for us humans, yet necessary and expected in a PLC, how do we sustain continuous change in a positive environment? It helps to understand a little about how to manage complex change.

The infographic at the top of this post shows five elements that must be in place in order for change to occur with success. Interestingly, it also shows the unintended consequences when just one of the puzzle pieces is missing. Can you think of a time in your personal or professional life when you did not have either the vision, skills, incentives, resources, or action plan necessary to implement a proposed change? How did you feel?

My district has a vision about how language arts will be taught using the new pacing guide but unless that is clearly communicated to teachers there will be confusion as to why we must change. My job is to help teachers develop the skills to implement the new lessons in order to ease their anxiety and show them how it will lead to higher levels of learning for their students so they have incentive to try it, or there will be resistance. We’ve got to be sure to provide the resources, both human and capital, they’ll need to implement the new pacing guide with fidelity or it will cause frustration. Finally, during our collaborative planning time we will collectively create a manageable action plan so that we don’t have the false starts that happen all too often when we have great intentions with change initiatives, but lack clarity about how to proceed.

Rick DuFour says “The journey will undoubtedly require hard work.  But if there is one undeniable reality for every educator every year, it is that we are going to work hard. The real question is this:  Will we work hard and succeed or work hard and fail?” (DuFour, 2015). In my experience working with collaborative teams, those who understand how to work hard together to build windmills instead of walls when dealing with change are far more likely to succeed and become highly functioning teams. That, in turn, helps their students to succeed, which means the ability to deal with change is crucial in order for teams to uphold the mission of their PLC.

Are the teams in your PLC ready to lean into the winds of change and embrace the chance to grow and change their practice to meet the needs of your students this school year? When there are struggles, ask yourself how you can be a positive contributing member of the team by ensuring you’ve considered each of the five elements necessary for change to be a success. Change can be overwhelming and difficult, but in a PLC it can also be rewarding, exciting and fulfilling.

“Recognize that the road to becoming a learning community is dotted with many tempting parking places. Push on! Obstacles and others can stop you temporarily; you are the only ones who can do it permanently.” –Rick DuFour

 

References:

DuFour, R. (2015). In Praise of American Educators: And how they can become even

 better. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T., Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by Doing: A

handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN:

Solution Tree Press.

 

Comments

Regina Hermann

Jacqueline,

As I read your post, I kept coming back to the phrase "Change is HARD." It's so true change is hard. PLC changes in my building have been a work in progress. My goal is to be an agent of change in my building. As I looked at your chart, vision and resources resonated with me. When the vision is missing, there is a lot of confusion amongst the staff. I've also realized that when building administration and teacher leadership do not share their vision with classroom teachers, classroom teachers have no idea what they are building towards. So many teachers will tackle change, but when the goals are not shared with the staff, I almost feel as though anxiety sets in. Teachers are natural planners. They need to understand what the end goal is in order to feel as though they are contributing to that goal. The second part of your chart that jumped out at me was lack of resources. When resources are missing, frustration sets in. So often, as teachers, we are asked to do more and more with less and less. How do you maintain your positivity towards change when this sets in?

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Regina Hermann

Jacqueline,

Thank you for your post! I work to be an agent of change in my high school. Two areas of the chart (Vision and Resources) resonate with me. My building is in the process of implementing many changes. Most of our changes are in reaction to the students, expectations, and staff that we currently have. We are striving to meet the needs of our ever-changing population.

Lack of vision leading to confusion has become a daily occurrence for many of our teachers. Talking to teachers about how making changes will lead to growth in our students, but not being able to show them how building our students capacity led to this specific growth has become increasingly confusing for many teachers. Our building leadership has a vision, but when it is not communicated to staff looking for a roadmap, the staff tends to become confusing and try to fill in the missing pieces. Missing resources are typically out of our control. Teachers are being asked to do more and more with less and less. The frustration that is being felt across schools nationwide.

I found myself agreeing every time I came across the phrase "Change is Hard" in your post. I think back over the past ten years I have spent in the classroom and think about my own personal changes in those years. The teacher who began her career ten years ago is not the same teacher that is currently in my classroom. Maintaining a positive attitude has been instrumental for me in my classroom.

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Darla Jackson

Jacqueline,

I enjoyed reading your blog as I too want to be an agent of change in my educational community. As I took a look at your graphic, I found myself relating to three categories: lacking skills which would lead to anxiety, not having an action plan which leads to false starts, and being frustrated due to a lack of resources. Some of these are beyond my control, but as teachers we are so often asked to perform tasks we know little about, and implement change to processes without clear guidance on what it should look like. Those five steps you listed to manage complex change are crucial to any method of change that is being pursued especially within a professional learning community. I also agree with you when you said repeatedly, "Change is Hard!" This is my second year of my teaching career and I have been through more changes professionally within the past two years than I have been my whole life. Education in itself is constantly changing, for me the pressure of state testing, learning content and standards, managing my own classroom, and the biggest change this year was switching grade levels from 6th to 7th grade. This meant adapting to new learning standards, and teaching new content than I taught the previous year. I definitely experienced what your principal said about "getting comfortable with being uncomfortable." My school is located in a urban poverty stricken community, and as we strive to make changes within our professional learning community it is also important to connect to the community outside of the school to get their input on changes that the school is making to improve. Being an agent of change includes being a leader and a collaborator. Working with others within your PLC and maintaining a positive attitude towards change will produce the desired result of success when change takes place.

Thanks for posting!

-Darla Jackson-

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Jacquie Heller

There are a few strategies like developing a growth mindset, explaining the why behind the what, and leading with guiding questions that help somewhat when we want teachers to change their practice but the thing that has made the most difference is the work we do to cultivate a collaborative culture at our school. I reached out to the teachers I work with and asked them to share their answers to your question since I can tell you what I THINK helps them take on new learning and change their practice but they are the ones actually living it. As I read the half dozen email responses that I copied below I could hear the influence of the 3 Big Ideas of a Professional Learning Community, which are a focus on 1. Collaboration 2. Learning (our own, not just the students) and 3. Results.

Teacher 1: I think that we do it in small realistic steps, and we have the attitude if it doesn’t work we will learn from it and try it a different way. And I think the teamwork is so important. When everyone is trying it together and helping/supporting each other it makes a huge difference. Hope that helps coming from someone experiencing a lot of change right now!

Teacher 2: I think clarity is critical for me. If I know what to do and how, I'm always willing to try or do something different towards changing and improving. I always think "when you know better, now do better". I also think achievable increments towards a larger/bigger change helps with buy-in, confidence, and persistence.

Teacher 3: Change is hard because people are afraid to make mistakes and fail while going through the process. Instead, we must accept that mistakes are a GOOD thing! You don’t know how something will turn out unless you try. If it is successful, great! If something was a failure, then you have to be reflective, look at the reasons why it failed, change them, and try again. Being in the same boat with the teachers on your team will help make the difficulties of change not as challenging, because you’ll grow and learn together.

Teacher 4: I think making a change that the whole team does – ideas can be bounced off one another and you feel like you can ask for help/advice if you aren’t sure what the change might look like. I think another is the support that is given once a change is brought up. For example, when we talked about interactive and shared reading, we talked about what a lesson might look like, we saw examples, actually planned lessons out, talked about WHY it is beneficial and important to change, etc. Also, I know that if I need help implementing a change that you or another teacher would co-teach or help me! Definitely helps to make a change in my instruction with all this support in place!

Teacher 5: I think getting buy in! A lot of the decisions that we make are not “top down” decisions, but decisions that come from our colleagues.

Teacher 6: Change is so hard! Coming from a person who does everything the same. Taking that leap is harder than actually trying out something new. Creating an environment with the mindset that being transparent is effective in developing support is helpful. People are more inclined to try something new if they know they have others who are going to be real about how it went. They are less likely to try something new if they feel they will be judged for not doing it “right” or not having the results that are “expected”. When this positive and transparent environment is developed it’s like a trampoline that helps guide you back up after your leap. If not your leap could lead to you falling (feeling like failing) and not wanting to try again.

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erika handwerk

It is great that you are so passionate about being a change agent! I think that in a way many teachers are change agents for their schools. What strategies do you implement to help change be easier for teachers you are working with?

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