Building Consensus for Change
Change involves managing the complex matrix of relationships and beliefs that exist in an organization and aligning them toward a mission of higher learning for all. In my career, there is no better example of this approach than when I recently implemented a new bell schedule to accommodate some critical interventions as part of my school’s PRTI efforts. Bell schedules and busing seem to be two sacred areas in public education, but they also serve to bubble up core beliefs and create healthy dissonance within a staff. Although difficult and time consuming, the effort was “well worth it” in the end because change happened; however, more importantly, clarity of our mission for learning and ultimate commitment to the change was the result.
The Intervention Committee, our guiding coalition in this effort, realized quickly that the current bell schedule was an obstacle for providing timely intervention for students who struggle to learn. The current schedule had a Silent Sustained Reading period just after lunch. The committee realized three things: 1) the SSR period was not being implemented with fidelity and coherence, 2) the allotted time was not long enough, and 3) being after lunch, students who struggled in the periods at the end of the day had to wait until the next day to get help. I had been through a feisty bell schedule change at a high school a few years earlier and warned the committee of the impending conflict this proposal would cause. I front-loaded this effort with a statement to the committee that it was critical to draw from the staff a mandate to provide this necessary piece of learning in our bell schedule. We followed Rick DuFour’s recommendation for consensus: “Do not move forward until all voices are heard and the will of the staff is clearly evident to all, even to those who most oppose it.”
The team, (the Intervention Committee and I), made a plan to draw out every voice on this subject. Our worst nightmare would have been in the end if a staff member said, “I had no idea we were changing the bell schedule.” We were after more than just knowledge; we wanted complete emersion of what was at stake. We fleshed out every voice in a myriad of ways--small groups, site visits, reports, department teams, common course teams, professional literature reviews, online discussion groups through Schoolloop, after-school “town hall” meetings, PTA meetings, email threads, student government, and department chair personal interviews with every member of his or her department. In each forum of discussion, some sort of summary document was produced to record the outcome of the discussion, supportive or otherwise, and published for all to digest. Revealing discussion came from the staff as this subtle process of alignment toward our mission for learning became central to the discussion.
As one could imagine, this was emotional for some folks. Some wanted to keep things the same; after all, we are a high-performing school and “should leave well enough alone.” Others felt we should rally to improve SSR rather than abandon this six-year effort. Some felt too many precious minutes were being shaved from the CORE instruction and it would hurt learning in the end. The intention of the team was not to come up with a new fancy bell schedule but to support learning, and we agreed to insert this distinction into every discussion. Team members also did some local research and interviewed teachers and administrators from other similar schools for input, advice, and guidance. These findings were also published for the staff. We coined the final document that contained every option for bell schedules, pros and cons for each, and opinions from every staff member. The “Voices” document was printed and placed in the hands of each and every staff member. There was no escaping this discussion. You had to be on a “leave of absence” to not know what was at stake.
Before the final “will of the staff assessment” was taken, the faculty was given a series of statements in advance of the meeting. Besides the single proposal of the final bell schedule (not multiple schedules), a statement was included that read in part, “My voice was heard and I had the opportunity to express my view.” The staff was also given a five-statement continuum from “I veto,” to “I can live with it” and “I’m all in!” Each staff member came to the meeting, signed in, and anonymously expressed his or her view. Two staff members (including the union rep) received the views (expressed on paper) and the staff members met with their common course teams in other rooms. The two staff members placed dots on a huge poster that included the statement and represented each view on the continuum.
Once completed, the staff returned to see a visual representation of the will of the staff on the posters. As they entered the room, they were given a final dot and instructions to place the dot on the final poster that contained the following statement, “It is clear to me that the will of this school has emerged regarding this proposal. The staff has given a mandate to move forward with this bell schedule to begin in the school year of 2009-2010.” The continuum was “I see clear disagreement and we should not move forward” to “Although I see reservation, the overall will of the staff to move forward is evident” and “It is clearly the will of this staff to move forward with this proposal.” Although only a few dissenting dots were placed, the team was prepared to revise the proposal and go through the process again had there been clear dissention.
My intention as principal was not just to get a new and improved bell schedule; rather, I desired to continuously bubble up the core beliefs and fundamental values associated with our mission for learning at Newhart Middle School. Since change is just as much about building relationships as it is alignment of values and core beliefs, I knew that I could accomplish both. As a result, there is absolutely NO resistance to implementation of the interventions. Although some clearly disagreed, they respected the fact that the process allowed their voices to be heard, and the chances of them undermining implementation efforts decreased dramatically. Lastly, this change process exposed the “voices” that are fundamentally NOT aligned with the agreed-upon mission of the school. These staff members are beginning to make choices to respectfully transfer to other schools that more closely align with their core beliefs. There are no hard feelings--just clarity. At our final staff meeting before summer, one staff member did his traditional end-of-the-year slide show. Admittedly a bit of a tearjerker, he added one photo of the dots on the consensus statement with the subtitle, “How Change Happens at Newhart!” (Click to enlarge image above right.)
I could not think of a better way to end the year.