By Maury Grebenau
When I was teaching in the upper school of a Jewish day school, we’d meet as a community for mandatory prayer after classes. Despite required attendance, many students began skipping prayer, and administrators would give consequences to those who skipped. Observing the issue upon his arrival, our new head of school implemented an elegant solution: moving prayers earlier in the afternoon between two classes. Students could no longer leave before prayer without skipping class, and the issue stopped.
Student behavior can certainly be improved through structural changes. And organizational changes can also take hold with strong leadership. In the 2010 book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath share a framework for influencing change using the imagery of an individual riding an elephant. The elephant represents an appeal to the emotions, helping others feel the need for change. The rider represents an intellectual argument to persuade others to change. And the final part of the imagery is the path that the elephant and rider travel—it refers to controlling the context and environment to pave the way for the change. Although emotional experiences and intellectual arguments should be marshaled in leading others to change, manipulating the path is a powerful tool that is sometimes overlooked.
School leaders are change agents in their organizations, controlling the pace of change amid external factors and sowing buy-in for intentional and proactive change. The ability to manage change is often one of the greatest challenges with which new administrators struggle. Many of the leaders I work with in the Jewish New Teacher Project’s Administrator Support Program grapple with how to implement change as they work to shift their school culture. Once a leader understands the issue, there are several levers they can pull to move the needle toward positive change in their communities.
Tweak the Environment
Many times, the quickest and most painless way through change is not to convince people emotionally or intellectually but rather to make environmental changes, such as changing prayer to earlier in the day. However, it’s important for leaders to remember that no change can happen without involving people. A leader always needs to forge relationships and lay the communication groundwork to get buy-in.
One example that arises often in my coaching sessions with school leaders is the challenge of a school where grade-level planning and team meetings are not built into the school day schedule. There isn’t a culture of collaboration and teamwork, and a minimally engaged teacher culture may develop where teachers become protective of their time, not wanting to take on additional duties or stay at school when they are not teaching. To shift the culture, a schedule change needs to accommodate the type of group activities and planning the leaders want to introduce. It’s important that this change is communicated to teachers before they sign their contracts for the following year so that they are aware of the change in expectation.
Another way that school leaders can change the path is through hiring new staff. When a leader wants to adjust the culture of pedagogy in the school, hiring new teachers who teach (or aspire to teach) in a way that is in line with the new vision can make a powerful impact. When the teacher next door is teaching in a more student-centered, engaging way, students and parents begin to talk about this wonderful development. Other teachers will take notice of this positive buzz and be more open to learning and developing their teaching in a similar way.
Humans are creatures of habit, and when the people in our buildings—students or teachers—get used to doing things a certain way, that helps bake new behaviors into the culture of the school.
When I was a high school principal, I remember a few of the older students consistently driving off campus when there was a program of any sort. Other students noticed their absence at the programs but didn’t always know about their consequences. This created a sense that there were no consequences for cutting programs. We began to station an administrator in the parking lot any time we had a program and called this the “reverse fire drill” (instead of ushering students out into the parking lot, as we did during fire drills, we were guiding them back into the building). After a few “reverse fire drills,” students stopped trying to leave. They got used to the new reality and knew leaving was no longer an option.
Another example that comes to mind around forming habits occurred when I was a principal. I’d send a weekly update to teachers that contained all the information they needed for the week ahead, including dates and upcoming events. Teachers would still regularly come into the office or stop me in the hall to ask when events were happening. Instead of giving them the details, I referenced the email and asked if they had received it, sometimes waiting as they searched their email on their phone to find it. Patiently guiding them back to the email built the habit and the constant flow of questions stopped.
Rally the Herd
A high school educator at a large independent high school in California I know uses the power of “rallying the herd” to combat substance and alcohol abuse in her school. She knew that even though most students did not engage in this risky behavior, student perception was the opposite. Those who engaged in this behavior got more attention and created pressure for other students to project the sense that they also were part of this crowd. The inaccurate sense of what “normal” high school behavior entailed created peer pressure around this behavior.
To combat this issue, the head surveyed students about how often they engaged in a variety of risky behaviors and then digitally shared the results. Students began to see that most of their peers tended toward less engagement in these behaviors, and this helped bolster their resolve.
The same concept is true for less extreme offenses. When I began as principal, there was student apathy toward rules such as dress code and tardiness, and in some cases, parents enabled this behavior. I heard from students and parents that “everyone” was not following certain rules so my enforcing them with them was not fair. Through parent meetings and student contracts, I communicated clear expectations and that enforcement would change. Over just a few months, I began to follow through and drastically reduced the number of students who had disciplinary infractions. Behaviors that had become “normal” now became unusual rule violations with clear consequences.
Use the Path
Even issues that do not immediately present as solvable through a path approach may just call for more creativity. In my first principalship in a K–8 school, we had just shifted fifth grade to being the final grade of the lower school. After listening to the experiences of all involved, we realized that the best solution was not to move the boundary of lower school to middle school but to create a transitional grade. We structured the fifth grade to have only half of their subjects with individual teachers who would come to the fifth grade homeroom to teach. We also introduced lockers in the middle of the year and dedicated a period for the students to practice locking and unlocking their new lockers with a few faculty members there to help. What had previously been a very stressful part of beginning in middle school now became a symbol of stepping up and getting closer to being one of the “older kids” in the school.
Tweaking the path to facilitate positive change is a powerful tool for school leaders. As leaders plan change in their schools, considering strategies of manipulating the path will be beneficial.
Maury Grebenau is a program consultant at Jewish New Teacher Project and co-leads the Administrator Support Program, providing professional development and coaching to new school leaders.