Sometime ago, I taught a one-day session for 30-plus secondary school principals in the San Francisco Bay area. The subject was “Principals as Change Leaders.”

Seems like a contradiction in terms at first since these principals from affluent suburbs and inner cities are often caught in the middle between bosses who tell them to implement district policies in their schools and teachers who want to be buffered from intrusive parents and unpredictable youth. Keeping the ship afloat and passengers happy seems to be the major task, not leading change. But it isn’t a contradiction because these principals—ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-50s and running small high schools, large comprehensive high schools, and middle schools–were mid-career, savvy about organizational politics, and wanted to improve their schools.

So if you are caught in the middle where you look upward to your bosses for direction, sideways to your teachers who do the daily work with students, and outward to parents many of whom believe they know more than you do about schooling–how exactly do you make changes, much less lead others?

They knew well the instructional, managerial, and political roles that they had to perform (see here and here). What they wanted to discuss was not these roles but how do you lead change amid contradictory demands from parents who want particular changes, bosses who expect policies to be put into classroom practice when you are utterly dependent upon teachers to get the daily work done, and, of course, teachers who seek support and resources, not reforms designed by others.

So before we turned to case studies of principals in action, I spoke briefly on principals as reformers. Here is what I said without the pauses, uhhhhs, and hmmmms:

Leading change begins in your head. Knowing which questions you have to ask about the change you want to make in the school and sharing your answers to those questions with staff, parents, and students is the single most important leadership act you can perform.

Exactly what are those questions?

1. What theory of action is driving the change you want to make?

Every change has an implicit theory guiding it. Behind placing carts of 30 tablets in each classroom, for example, is the theory that using these devices will produce more, faster, and better learning in students. Laying out the theory explicitly to those who are expected to make the changes is a minimum obligation of a leader who aspires to be trustworthy, honest and transparent with those he or she serves.

2. What are the problems you seek to solve? What are your goals? What assumptions are built into the change? What strategies do you intend to use in solving those problems?

Every change is a solution to a particular problem. For example, the problem of low test scores in reading, math, and science on the state test converts easily into the goal of raising the percentages of students being proficient in reading, math, and science.

Every change has implicit assumptions built into it that need to be made explicit. Consider the popular change of creating professional learning communities (PLCs) among teachers. One assumption is that PLCs where teachers observe one another, receive coaching, read and discuss books, will get teachers to alter routine teaching practices.

And then there are the strategies to put the change into practice. Take, for example, the common strategies used in creating small urban high schools of shifting to block schedules to gain instructional time and establishing advisories of 15-plus students for discussion of non-academic issues. Assumptions underlying those two structures are that more instructional time will lead to more learning and advisories will make school more personal, more motivating hereby leading to engaged students who will want to learn and achieve. These assumptions are seldom examined publicly.

3. What capacities (knowledge and skills) are needed to carry out the change? Who has them? Where to get them?

No elaboration needed for this question since if it goes unasked then the chances of most teachers implementing the change go down drastically.

4. What school and classroom changes have to occur for the policy to be completely implemented?

If changes aimed at improving student performance are NOT spelled out explicitly for classrooms (e.g., changes in how teachers teach, the content of lessons, student behavior), then kiss your change goodbye. Without changes in classroom practices, not much worthwhile will happen.

5. How will you know that changes worked in the short-, mid-, and long-term?

This question asks you have to figure out and state for teachers, parents, and students in specific terms the results consistent with the changes that can be reasonably expected over the next months and years.

Before moving to the case studies of principals who sought changes in their schools, I did a Q & A where the principals challenged these five questions, asked for evidence to support the claims that I made. They asked me whether hard-working principals caught in the middle of performing three roles for their bosses, teachers, and parents could, indeed, ask and answer those questions I posed. I answered their questions the best that I could but to their last question, I said quickly and emphatically “yes.”

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