Change in an Institutional Bind

How does the leader of an institution support a culture of change? Is it even possible? This isn’t the climate of a cowboy start-up, where changemakers are on the edge and told to fail and fail fast.

The challenge of changing an institution is especially true in education where there are many interest groups at stake. Teachers don’t want to be sent in pursuit of the next shiny object and parents don’t want their children treated like guinea pigs.

So what is a forward thinking leader to do? How can she be the wise steward of tax dollars while pushing for excellence and innovation in the way the next generation is taught?

The Power of Social Capital
The process begins with building trust, or social capital, in your community. This is not easy, but is essential.

At Thoughtexchange™ we facilitate community engagement processes in school districts across North America. From what we’ve seen, there are two factors integral to growing trust: vulnerability and learning.

Vulnerability in a leader is being able not to have all the answers. It is knowing that no one has all the answers and acknowledging this isn’t a sign of weakness or poor leadership. The next factor, learning, relies on vulnerability because you can’t learn if you already know it all. The beauty in becoming this type of learning leader is that you set yourself up to honor the knowledge and expertise of other people on your team. This engenders social capital because people feel valued.

Stakeholders Driving Change
The next step is to capitalize on the knowledge of those within and outside of the institution in a way that affirms their contribution. A great example of this is the Spirals of Inquiry process by Kaiser and Halbert.

Using this process, teachers are turned into learners who are able to directly improve the experience of students in the classroom. They are treated as professionals with passion for their craft rather than passive receivers of knowledge who need an expert parachuted in to launch the next best thing.

One way the Thoughtexchange™ process supports both leaders and teacher innovators is by providing an opportunity for open and transparent community feedback. If a teacher-driven program is working, the community will let you know. They will also let you know if it isn’t working. The insights surfaced during these community conversations can help inform the next iteration of a program, ensuring true impact on student learning. Beyond program improvement, the community feels like they also have a valuable perspective and that they too can shape the education system.

Leadership: Creating Safe Spaces
Developing this capacity in teacher stakeholders – and supporting it – then becomes a key part of leadership in education. The leader models openness to criticism by being responsive to it in her work. In the Spirals of Inquiry model, reflecting on feedback aligns with the ‘Checking’ stage and encourages teacher innovators to admit when something isn’t working and self-correct.

Creating a space where it is safe to “fail” encourages innovation and further reinforces social capital. Teachers feel trusted to dream and then check, which encourages bigger ideas and deeper reflection. Change is then driven by those on the front line, people who work day in and day out touching the lives of students, and informed by the community.

The Real Leadership Challenge
Creating the momentum to realize a culture of change takes time. A leader with a vision of a responsive and dynamic education system needs to cultivate not only passion, vulnerability and learning, but also patience and steadfastness. The embers at times need to be sheltered and at others fanned, but always nurtured and carried forward.

About the Author

Shonagh MacRae

Shonagh is our Director of Discover and describes herself as continually curious about people. This curiosity led her to a Master’s in Organizational Psychology where she learned a whole lot about how humans interact in groups and how to support them. Shonagh has also spent a lot of time in her community supporting at-risk populations. This work further honed her ability to connect with a broad range of personalities. When she’s not working with Thoughtexchange, Shonagh is most often found out in the garden with her hands in the soil.

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