Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

The Narrative We Need for Strategic Change


Yesterday I found myself in a discussion with a head of school who was decrying the ways in which—in his opinion—the tradition of teacher autonomy has limited the development of new and improved practice in independent schools. Taking the long view, I have to say that I think he is spot on in his analysis, although I see increasing signs that many schools and teachers are approaching a kind of springtime in our thinking around this issue; I hear people in schools where change is coming slowly, in fits and starts and with some pain, talking about the need to approach teacher development, and curriculum and assessment, from a more institutional perspective. 

What has been missing, I think, is language to describe this shift toward what I call strategic change, a narrative that makes talking about it easier—easier both to understand and to experience. 

In the standard narrative—and I think in my practice as an academic administrator ten years ago I subscribed to this narrative—has been “We’ll institute some basic changes in our work based on ideas put together by an enthusiastic administrator or two and supported (at times) by a consultant or a couple of TED Talks and a few seminal articles. This will be hard for many teachers, but we will press on, working out the kinks as we go, because we know that the new thing will be the best thing for kids. People will need to go along, because this is where the school needs to go to fit new and improved ideas of 21st-century learning into its programs.” 

In other words, we often initiate change, and it is often perceived, as a body of top-down, administration-driven ideas that are full of good intentions but kind of fuzzy in their origins and their purposes. Teachers, being people of good will, generally want to go along, but there is a sense that change is almost by definition an attack on their current practice, and there never seems to be time and space for the kind of professional development that would make it all better. In fact, even when there is solid professional development, it often doesn’t make it all better. 

I am fanatical about the need for schools to align what they say about themselves to what they are actually doing. It dawns on me that the internal marketing of new initiatives puts the same requirements on the administrators or curriculum team or whoever is behind them: be clear about the purposes, exhaustive in explaining what is going on and why, and above all, marry the worthy but sometimes suspect rhetoric about the new thing “being good for kids” to the equally important message that the new thing, the strategic change needs to be, in ways that are clearly connected to such things as mission and values, good for the school

Thus, when you have expectations that a faculty will embrace, say, a laptop initiative of one sort or another, the case must be made in terms of strategic need, along the lines of “Our school will embrace the use of laptop computers (or iPads or whatever) as part of a strong strategic vision designed to enhance the educational experience of students in connection with specific aspects of our mission and values and our longstanding beliefs about teaching and learning. Every student will encounter this new practice in every classroom as part of his or her overall learning experience.” 

Sanctification from the very top—the board—wouldn’t go amiss here, either, whatever the school’s approach or language regarding strategic thinking, visioning, or planning. And note that the last sentence becomes a kind of promise or covenant to be kept. 

While this forthright statement of strategic purpose doesn’t solve all the problems, it does lay out both need and purpose. This is where we are going as a school, and this is what all our students will experience. There’s plenty of place for explanations, but the explanations have been raised to a strategic level; we’re not doing this just because “it’s good for kids,” although this in fact remains the primary underlying purpose. There’s even more room for a further explanatory narrative that turns the initiative into a logical, connected part of the institutional whole. 

The change will still be hard, and asking teachers to change their practice will still be disruptive and challenging. Some will not like it, and some will grump loudly. But they won’t grump that it’s just an idea cooked up by that new academic dean who doesn’t even know our school or just one more thing they’re making us do to keep up with St. Basalt’s down the road (and anyhow, we tried that fifteen years ago when that guy was head—the one who left after two years). 

At my school, when we have incorporated new practices (like a laptop program, some serious work around design thinking, and lately a programming initiative) we have both raised the ante and raised the bar for ourselves by working hard to embed these practices “across the curriculum”—making sure that students will indeed experience these practices in every discipline. Maybe the laptop program was made easier because we didn’t already have multiple labs that were seen as special places under special management, places where “computing” took place. Maybe design thinking took root because we were already thinking hard about upping our project-based learning game. But I doubt it. 

These things have taken root, as our coding across the curriculum initiative is taking root, because they are strategic changes that are part and parcel of who we are as a school and where our established strategic directions have been taking us. They have taken root because the professional development we experienced was for everyone, with a clear expectation that the learning would be incorporated, over time and thoughtfully, into our culture of pedagogy and curriculum and assessment design. 

Have our teachers sacrificed all their autonomy? I don’t think so. Teachers are still idiosyncratic in their ways and very much individuals as to how they teach their courses. Expectations for the integration of these practices enhance teaching and learning, and they are creatively taking each in very clear and specific directions toward goals that flow from our mission and values.

One other thing about strategic change, change based on articulated goals and needs, is that it actually imposes discipline on the school and especially the administration. The idea of the moment, the great thing a division head heard about at a conference, cannot become the immediate, top-down, unanchored change that unsettles everyone. 

In the end, students experience a consistent kind of educational program delivered by teachers who are very much themselves and empowered to be creative using some pretty exciting tools. I don’t think, either, that it’s a coincidence that the school has never been in better shape; prospective students and their families can be pretty secure in knowing that what the admissions office says about the program will be the student experience, and they seem responsive to this idea. 

It takes a certain amount of faith, maybe even chutzpah, to boldly proclaim that a new initiative is strategic and that it for everyone—no escape clause for grumps, no opting out for resisters. It also takes the will to offer the tools and professional development to make the new thing work. But above all, it takes the belief that making programmatic change at an institutional level is indeed a better thing for kids than localized or ephemeral initiatives or having the overall student experience be catch-as-catch-can with regard to things the school maintains are priorities.

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  2. Peter,

    As someone outside the independent school world, I’m curious: to what extent are teachers involved in strategic decisions? Because the language used to describe the “strategic changes” that teachers are expected to implement will sound, to many, like yet more top-down initiatives that may work, may not, may stick, or may not.


    • Great question, and to a degree your supposition is correct: these are often top-down, in the end. Independent schools tend to undertake periodic “strategic thinking” or “strategic planning” exercises. The very best of these are very inclusive, with significant participation from faculty and staff as well as (often) parents and even alums. The idea is to assess where the school is and where it needs to go, using mission and values as anchor points.

      In the end, though, most strategic directions/priorities/thinking/planning exercises wind up generating what we used to call a “plan” but is better seen as a set of priorities or directions. These are ratified by the board and become guidelines for the school’s action in the short future.

      Not so long ago schools went through exhaustive self-studies to create these plans, then generated a 5-7-year plan or blueprint, and then tucked the whole thing away neatly in a fire-proof file drawer. The current best practice is to work on a shorter horizon and a more nimble, principle-driven (and less principal-driven, if you see the difference) set of priorities or guidelines.

      So, yes, top-down, but with very much less of the capricious or “in the moment” or “where the heck did this come from?” and “we’ll try it and forget it” kinds of experiences that we have all had along the way.

      I will say that doing this well requires a faculty that buys into and actively supports the directions. This involves including them in the process and communicating expectations clearly. I would argue that many initiatives fail because our kindly, conflict-averse administrative selves have taken a “you oughta go this way but we’re not going to tell you exactly where or how until you have failed” approach, without clear expectations, that can devolve unintentionally but perniciously into something that feels very passive-aggressive. The strategic change approach can reduce that part, at least.

      I guess the bargain we make in choosing to work in mission-driven schools is that we have to support and participate the furtherance of the mission. For me it’s been worth it (with those moments, of course, over 30+ years), but “fit” matters for teachers as well as for students in independent schools.