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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Principles and Programs

The Peaceful School Bus program will NOT solve a school's bus problems.  This might sound like a radical comment from  the person who developed the program, but it is something I deeply believe.   Programs are only as good as the people who implement them.  Programs are only tools not solutions or answers in and of themselves.  When someone creates a beautiful painting we don't attribute it to the paint brush.  Someone who writes a book does not attribute the accomplishment to the pen or word processing program.  In education, however, the search always seems to be for the right program or system that will override the effect of the people involved.

In many ways I think that the quest for the right program has been in reaction to the tradition of each teacher being independent of each other.  If a school is full of people who pretty much do their own thing how can there be any consistency in approaching any problem.  The answer to this inconsistency is to get people to follow a program that will tell them what to do and how to do it.  Teachers often balk at programs for this very reason.  They can interpret programs as an implicit criticism of their work, and there is a natural resistance to any attempt to take away their autonomy. Teachers do need to work collaboratively,  but a program is  not the way to do it.

A school leader who stands up in front of a faculty and announces that a new program (especially if the program is perceived to be something that make sure the school is in compliance with an externally imposed law or policy) is being put into place, is sending the wrong message to the people he/she leads.  The hidden message is "you haven't done a good enough job so now you need to do something else on top of all the other things you have to do."  This message does not energize anybody nor does it get buy in and sustained commitment.  Teachers who have been around for a while adopt a "this too shall pass" attitude.  No wonder that when the program doesn't work, the believers in the program blame a lack of program fidelity as being the reason why it failed.  Often the response to get greater fidelity is to use either "carrots or sticks" to get staff to follow it. Asking why staff might not being following a program takes a lot of courage because the answer to goes to the heart of why schools seem stuck when it comes to any change.   We as educators will not get anywhere and will remain stuck unless we understand the process of change and the human element of it: people don't resist change but they do resist being changed.

School leaders must first believe that if staff can see and know how the change will improve the lives and learning of students, they will be open to it.  It is better to act on that assumption and be proved wrong that to act on the assumption that people don't care be proved right.  If school leaders invested time in learning with their staff about problems and enlisted staff in exploring options for meeting needs, then staff will be more open to change and willing to lead the change.  Effective leaders tie the need for change to the basic moral purpose of education, not just as another program to follow or policy to implement.  As staff can come to see and understand a problem and how it affects the basic mission of education, they will be energized and motivated to do something.  This might be viewed as just being idealistic but true change really only emerges when people do aspire to do something special.  The best leaders are idealistic but also provide the practical strategies for channeling the energy and motivation for doing something great.  Focusing on a few commonly held principles and then exploring how to "make" those principles work in the real life of a school, is a way to bring people together without coercing them or making them feel like they are just following orders.

If ultimately we want students to take greater ownership and a more active role in their own learning, staff must first be empowered and enlisted as caring professionals rather than viewed as resistant independent operators.  When  staff work as team to understand a problem and then look for the tools and resources that will help them address that problem, then real progress can be made.  When a program becomes a tool selected by an empowered staff to solve a problem they care about-then and only then will it become an element for effective change.

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