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Always Strive to Be a Better You

3 Steps to Embracing Change

Mountain View Elementary School in suburban Alta*, Illinois, is in a world of hurt. The students are not achieving on state assessments, the average daily attendance has dipped below 80 percent, violence and graffiti mar the playground, and coercing substitutes to spend a day on campus is like trying to teach an ostrich to fly: painful and fruitless.

We've all heard of schools such as Mountain View Elementary. Some of us work in schools that match that distasteful description.

For the majority of school administrators, however, schools are happy, positive, and productive places that are good for kids. But are they the idyllic havens for self-actualization, hubs of academic achievement, and breeding grounds of critical thinkers and lifelong learners that we all profess to cultivate? Can we do more for our prized clients, the children themselves? Can we do better?

Since that is a rhetorical question, we'll proceed to the how part of the conversation. How can we improve? How can we make our schools the places we would like our own children to attend and flourish? In my research and experience, I have encountered one undeniable fact about school improvement that we as school leaders must understand before we can begin to realize the benefits of a true improvement effort: Change is a prerequisite to improvement.

We all know that if we keep doing what we've always done, we'll keep getting what we've always gotten. So why don't we change what we're doing? Because change is difficult, that's why. That is the way we've taught for the past 20 years, and it works. Change is scary, intimidating, disconcerting, nerve-wracking. It involves stepping out of a comfort zone and into a new realm of reality, one that we call the unknown. And we're all afraid of the unknown. That's why Stephen King's novels sell so well.

So, as leaders of the school improvement movement in our schools, we are faced with the daunting challenge of making change a necessity, a known quantity, and an enjoyable prospect. Yes, you heard me correctly. Change is fun!


We can use our site achievement data and changing demographic information to graphically demonstrate the need to change the way we operate. Pressure from the public, district accountability measures, and Federal programs can help nudge us into a state of understanding that change is necessary. That is not always a pleasant, fun step, but it's crucial. We need to help our staff and school community discover that what we are doing right now is not working, is not sufficient, or is not sustainable.

If you need more information to help you and your colleagues "confront the brutal facts" of change, I suggest you take a look at Jim Collins' book, Good to Great.


There is more research on the stages and process of school improvement available today than ever before. We can dig it out and begin to appreciate what is in store for our schools. We know improvement generally follows a cyclical, self-regulating schedule: define the issues, determine strategies to approach the problems, initiate changes, and evaluate progress and effectiveness, ad infinitum. We can share that information with our school communities so they know and understand the stages, what characteristics each stage exhibits, and how to proceed productively around the cycle. If we continue to revisit these stages while in the throes of the process, we can discern the big picture and understand where we are on the map. Recognizing the steps alleviates the fear and dread that accompany the unawares.


Change is fun. That's right, say it with me: Change is fun. That is a secret the auto industry figured out long ago. That's why they invented that "new car smell." It's enjoyable to the olfactory sense but, in actuality, it's merely symbolic of the fact that you have traded in the 1985 Toyota Tercel wagon for a 2006 Ford Freestyle. We can all upgrade our skills, knowledge, and practices. And what's better than starting a new school year with a new roster of students? Deep down, teachers and everyone else in the school community love change and yearn for a publicly acceptable manner to alter what they do. So let's open the doors for change, celebrate the arrival of new materials, rejoice in new ideas, and revel in new professional discourse.

Personally, I cannot imagine a more apt description of our profession than, "Well, it changes a lot." Change itself is intimately related to our work: it is, in a phrase, the nature of the business. Students enter our doors only to eventually leave -- through promotion, graduation, or otherwise moving along. Teachers come and go. Administrators switch and are replaced every several years or so. Textbooks and curriculum alter with the changing times. Neighborhoods transform. Technology innovations revolutionize the possibilities within classrooms. And a million different experiences assault us every day.

It would almost appear foolish to place much stock in the way things were, or even the ways things are -- because it won't be like that much longer. We're left with only one reality if we're to improve the way we conduct our business: change. As the leaders of our schools, it's our responsibility to recruit the support and backing of the entire school community when embarking upon the school improvement process. And we can get them on board by explaining what change is all about.

Always strive to be a better you,

* Alta, Illinois, is not a real place

Article by Pete Hall
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