Navigating the Unfamiliar - Leading Teachers Through Change

I am what you might call a frequent flyer. I have flown in and out of many different airports for my work, and traveled internationally numerous times in the past for vacations. But none of those experiences prepared me for the frustrations I was to experience recently in the Mexico City airport.

My family was traveling with me to Puerto Escondido where I was to spend the week training a school of teachers. We were adding in a family vacation, and I was thrilled to include them on this trip. Since I am the more seasoned traveler, I was sort of leading our pack. Here’s the first issue: none of us speak Spanish. I can get by in a stilted conversation, but trying to read airport signs to direct my family through immigration, and find our connecting flight felt almost impossible. I felt like we were often wandering hopelessly throughout the terminal. Our boarding passes said Gate B, but the only signs we could find were all numerals. Anyone we asked, just told us we were too early and to check back later (check back where?!). I just wanted someone to help me navigate this unfamiliar place.

When I had time to finally sit down and relax (we still didn’t actually know where the gate was, but we had a long layover, and apparently they don’t assign you a gate number until 40 minutes prior to departure), I realized how our experience is so similar to people going through an organizational change.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.

Frederick Douglass

The signs in the airport didn’t offer much guidance. We looked puzzled enough, however, to prompt several people to ask if we needed help. They would give us a point in the right direction, or help translate something we read or heard.

Leading teachers through a new initiative often requires similar assistance. Sometimes they just need a sign to point them in the right direction. Sometimes it takes a leader to tell them where to go. And other times it takes an outside person to walk beside them and help translate what they’ve seen or been told. Each guide is helpful, and sometimes all three are necessary to enact sustainable change. I get to play a part in all three roles when having the pleasure of guiding teachers and administrators through changes that occur around improving instructional practices.

When people resist change, it is usually tied to some type of fear. If I can relieve some of their anxiety, they are more open to the change being proposed. Reasons for resistance vary. They can include a lack of credibility in either the vision or the leadership, lack of support, conflicting culture, fear of failure, and previous negative experiences. Some people are worried that the change will lessen the need for them or their role. Others think they won’t be able to learn the new information or strategies necessary. And others don’t even know why they resist change, but it’s just plain uncomfortable for them. How can I help alleviate their fears and relieve that burden? I listen. I hear their words and I listen for what they aren’t saying. I ask questions to guide the conversation, if necessary, but mostly I just listen. From that, I learn what is scaring them most. I also get a quick look at where they are in readiness for the transitional change.

We know people accept and adapt to change in different stages of readiness. Some jump right in (sometimes before the change vision has even been shared). Others join the mission with little need of leadership after the change is initially communicated. These folks only need leaders to check in with them periodically. Others are open to change, but need more guidance establishing a procedure to move forward. They benefit most from the professional learning and goal development I lead them through. Once they have a plan in place, they can see how to navigate this change. Then, we get to the people who are the most fearful and resistant. They require the most of my attention, and that of their leaders. We listen to their fears, and then we start to break them down, so we can disarm the anxiety surrounding the change. Professional learning and goal development still benefit them, but they need more one-on-one guidance, and more frequent face time as they work their way through the change procedures. Their fears may continue to resurface. They are often the ones who sometimes get frustrated enough to declare, “I just wanted someone to help me navigate this unfamiliar place!

Leaders need to keep a positive stance, and continue to communicate the vision behind the change, helping these “resistants” persevere to take small steps forward. Leaders will need to think through what knowledge, understanding, and skills are most necessary for successful change adoption. How might they, as the school leaders, help every employee develop these understandings and skills? And then break it down into their own next steps, and their employees next steps. By thinking through each detail, the leaders will better alleviate anxieties surrounding the change, and better equip their employees to make a smooth and sustainable transition.

Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only in constant improvement and constant change.

Tom Peters


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, alt-n-anela project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.