Our Blog

Stop Asking For Permission to Change

It’s our school culture – not bureaucratic hierarchy – that provides the constraints to meaningful change.
69 votes
+
Vote up!

Often the things that we believe to be obstacles before us actually lie within us. This is an idea I've wrestled with for much of my career in public education and rests at the core of my belief about why change is such a difficult process in our field. Teaching is a cultural act – the norms and traditions of education are deeply embedded within the classrooms, hallways, and staff lounges of schools and these cultural norms are highly resistant to change. This is actually a good thing in some ways. Deb Meier reminds us that if teachers actually changed each time an element of society demanded, the job would be impossible.

As an elementary principal, my perspective on change, and the barriers to change is informed by the role I play in our organization – serving as both a buffer and conduit of ideas, expectations, and policies between the district and the school. I'm witness to the lurching and lumbering transitions of large hierarchal districts that are entrenched in credentials, expertise and massive pools of research and data while the practitioners who toil away in isolation to make sense of the multitude of initiatives and directives; like trying to drink from a fire hose. A few years ago I ventured out to the initial ConnectED Canada Conference in Calgary and offered a talk on the ways that the web and it's limitless capacity to connect was re-shaping and rendering hierarchal systems (like schools and school districts) more and more irrelevant. The past few years have only, in my opinion, accelerated this inevitable process.

I'm witness to the lurching and lumbering transitions of large hierarchal districts that are entrenched in credentials, expertise and massive pools of research and data while the practitioners who toil away in isolation to make sense of the multitude of initiatives and directives; like trying to drink from a fire hose.

Recently a classroom teacher asked one of those "so, you're a principal..." questions about what I thought we could do to combat the reluctance many of us have to incorporate connected technologies into practice. My response went something like this: stop asking for permission, learn what the policies and procedures will permit in your context then look to the strengths and needs of your students to guide your decisions and do something about it.  

My belief is that any sustained, meaningful change requires a collective buy in, and buy in is a by-product of both autonomy and connection. It is a myth that we operate under a set of oppressive bureaucratic constraints. In reality, teachers have a great deal of autonomy in the work they chose to do in their classrooms. In most cases it is our culture that provides the constraints. For individual teachers, trying out new practices and pedagogy is risky business and both our culture, and our reliance on hierarchy, provide the ideal barriers for change not to occur. As Pogo pointed out long ago, "we have met the enemy and it is us." 

File 5103

Copyright Walt Kelly, The Pogo Papers, first published in 1953

However, if we have erected the barrier then, logically, we can also take it down. If we are prepared to see our students, their parents and our colleagues as collaborators then we remove a barrier. If we are brave enough to make our practice visible and are open to feedback on our practice from our teaching peers, another barrier is removed. If we are willing to step out from behind our stack of curriculum documents and content and engage in a process where our learning as professionals is intertwined with the learning of our students, then we will have removed a critical barrier.

My belief is that any sustained, meaningful change requires a collective buy in, and buy in is a by-product of both autonomy and connection. It is a myth that we operate under a set of oppressive bureaucratic constraints.

Richard Elmore reminds us that internal accountability structures trump external accountability measures every time. We actually have the capacity to do these things; if school leaders are willing to invest their resources, time and trust on building connected, collaborative learning structures within the schools they lead, then the resulting synthesis of autonomy and connection is both possible and, more importantly, essential.


This blog post is part of a series of thoughtful responses to the question: What’s standing in the way of change in education? to help inform CEA’s Calgary Conference on Oct 21-22, (#CEACalgary2013) where education leaders from across Canada will be answering the same question. If you would like to answer this question, please tweet us at: @cea_ace