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Friday, May 24, 2013

MIssion Impossible

I recently had to make a presentation entitled, "Change and Dealing with Resistance" to a group of educators who have the difficult task of working with low performing schools, i.e. schools with consistently poor standardized test scores.  These educators are initially viewed as outsiders by the staff working at these schools.  They are also viewed as people who are visible symbols of their "failure" because their school is not good enough.   Needless to say these people have the very difficult charge of helping these schools get  "better."  To be a change agent in a situation where the people you need to change would prefer that you would go away is challenging if not almost impossible task.  Many of these people however overcome this huge hurdle by establishing positive relationships with the staff in these schools-this is a situation where the human connection is the only option for success.  Ironically, the bureaucratic mandate to change makes change almost impossible while the human to human connection is the only avenue of possible change.  These people have to invest time in developing trusting relationships with the people schools so that they can shed their negative association with the fact that the school is judged as deficient.

My challenge in presenting to these educators was to offer them something to help them become more proficient and effective in facilitating change and dealing with the inherent resistance that they face as do their jobs.  I have never had to facilitate change in a school from the outside.  As a principal I had the opportunity to learn with the staff and community together and didn't face the stigma of public failure hanging over our heads.  Change is easier when it is viewed as a process of getting better rather than fixing a defect or overcoming a deficit.

 People who work in low performing schools can easily and understandably feel misjudged or even victimized by circumstances outside of their control.  These schools typically are in neighbors beset with socio-economical problems that dwarf the problems that occur within schools from better neighborhoods.  When it comes to change, these educators from the outside who have to go into these schools to help them get better, are like the Mission Impossible team.  The question I had to ask myself was:  what can I offer these educators?  I have no experience doing what they are doing.  What creditability do I have with them so that what I offer can be viewed as relevant and useful to them?  Given the complexity of their jobs,  they rightfully could be very critical and skeptical of any professional development offered to them.  As they faced professionals in the schools they served to rightfully look at them and ask: "who are you to tell me what to do", they likewise could look at me and say the same thing.  I knew this going in and spent a lot of time figuring out what I should offer them and how to frame it in a way that respected them and acknowledged the work they did.

My challenge put my understanding of the change process to the test.  If wanted to change how they approached change, I couldn't just say to them: here you need to change how you try to change people. I had to model the change that I proposed them.  Most of the professional development that these people had been offered previously focused on content, i.e. different instructional methods that they needed to know so that they could "transfer" this knowledge to the schools they worked with.  If I deviated from this approach and offered just some "theoretical" approach to change, they could dismiss me as someone wasting their time with fluff out of some book.  Although I agree with the phrase "there is nothing as practical as a good theory", people in the field facing dire situations are usually looking for something practical.

So how did my own mission impossible go with helping the Mission Impossible teams go? It went very well and my presentation  received overwhelming thumbs up from group of people who rightfully could be called tough-minded critics.   To what do I attribute my success?  It was the "frame" that I put around the my whole presentation.  This concept of framing is so central to all the research I had analyzed about change that I decided to be very strategic in how I set up my whole presentation.

Here is what I did to frame my presentation the right way:

I told a story that equated the title Change and Dealing with Resistance as being at the heart of what it means to be human.  I told a story about a young child wanting a baby sibling but then after the baby arrives and cries all the time asks his mother where his sister came from.  The mother replies. "Heaven" and the kid says "Can we send her back?".  I added that even when we get the change that we want, we often don't like it,  but over time that child will be happy to have a sibling.  I tried to help the participants see that our daily struggles are at the heart of what it means to be human.  I wanted to be upfront with them  that the  presentation was not another "educational" one, but one grounded in a common experience.

I told a brief story of about myself.  I was an active educator for 35 years and didn't have time to read until I retired.  As I said this I brought out a bag filled with many books that I read about change.  I exaggerated the number of books so that it looked a little like a circus clown car.  After this visual display showing what I had read, I added that my retirement was the opportunity to do what they couldn't do and what I couldn't do when I was an active educator.  I told them to "take advantage" of me - that in a sense I was providing a service to them.

I also added that I deliberately stayed away from reading books in the field of education and focused instead on social psychology.  This was to let them know that I would be coming at issues and problems from a different perspective-I was worried that this difference would turn them off so I highlighted it at the start and presented it as an advantage to them.

I compared my presentation to a movie and the expectations that a person could have towards a movie. I used the example of my recent viewing of the Great Gatsby with my grown daughter whom I just visited in Chicago.  I said that I had actually taught the Great Gatsby as a novel and immediately upon viewing the movie realized that it was a version that varied greatly from the book that I knew so well.  I  verbalized how I had a choice of sitting for the next two hours disappointed that the movie was different from what I expected or that  I could choose to accept it for what it was.  I explained that I chose the latter and  it turned out to be ok.  I suggested that my presentation to them could be like my experience of the Gatsby movie. I suggested and "gave permission" to accept a non typical presentation.

I used the McDonald for lunch strategy that I explained in a recent blog post.  I said that what I was offering them was not intended for them to accept but instead was an initial offer that could trigger  even better ideas on their part.  In as sense I invited them and embraced them as critics.

I attribute these frames as setting the stage for allowing the participants to be open to the content of my presentation.  In  a way I removed the barriers that were inherent in the circumstances that brought them to the presentation.  Ironically, I practiced avoiding the FAE (fundamental attribution error) that was part of my presentation.  Instead of viewing these participants as hard people to please, I saw that their previous critical responses to presentations were not because of who they were but because of the circumstances of the work they did.  My framing of the presentation addressed their mindsets and addressed the factors that affected how they saw any material presented to them.  Coincidentally the FAE part of my presentation was the part that resonated the most with many of them. I guess that even though it might be very challenging (a mission impossible) it really always pays in the long run to practice what you preach.

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