Before I begin – Deliberate Provocation Alert!

Change is hard.  Change in schools is REALLY hard.  There is the dance between the carrot and the stick, and as leaders we are often plied with ideas from near and far about how to best go about getting people on-board and all heading in ‘the right direction’.  All sources and thinkers I can find seem to agree on the need for an alignment in the vision and buy-in from staff and families for school transformation to be its most effective.  From the Best Evidence Synthesis series to Timperley, Fullan to Stoll and Fink, they all extol the virtues of a collaborative and cooperative culture.  Some dissonance is good they claim, but not enough to derail the overall progress and momentum of positive change.

After a comment from a colleague recently though I have been thinking a lot about this:  “At what point do you shoot the wounded?”

When does the time come to pose the question and put in front of someone the provocation about whether their fit in the culture and direction of the school may not be a good one?  We will have all heard the urban myths (and not myths) of the principals who have left copies of the Gazette in people’s pigeon holes.  I have it first hand from a staff member from one school where it went as far as photocopies of pages with positions circled.  Not terribly subtle and (quite rightly) these days would probably have the Union rep knocking at your door mentioning phrases like constructive dismissal.

But what to do if the change and practices seem to either be so well beyond someone as to be unachievable; or they are completely resistant the proposed direction the school is taking?  I have worked in schools where the most powerful index of success is everyone being happy and comfortable, and anything that disrupted this was heavily resisted.  This made meaningful change nigh-on impossible; and extremely frustrating to try and lead.

In the work I do in professional learning and development with schools I have the luxury of not being in the school 24/7 and being able to position myself as provocateur and then walk away for at least a period of time.  This does enable me however, to be able to pose thoughts like is ’the professionally defensible thing to do’ to vote with your feet if the current/proposed school change is not for you and everyone else is on board.  I actually do this reasonably often to overtly point out the elephant in the room.  I always begin sessions with groups of staff by quite unequivocally stating that part of my role is to provide provocations (see how Reggio Emilia positions provocation to see what I mean here) and that if at least something I say or propose does not strike you as pretty outrageous then I have not pushed hard enough.  I have not challenged sufficiently to get to the limits of what the thinking is, and that this is a crucial part of my role.

So, my point here is …. how can you replicate this as a leader when you have to look the same people in the eye in the staff room the next day?  How can you challenge hard, find the edges and limits of people’s thinking, and still maintain the working relationships?  How can you prod the thinking in people who may be better served by finding a school which is a better fit with their beliefs?  How can you create a climate of positive discomfort to get things moving if this is not a normal state of being?

I would be really interested in hearing what others think!

** cross-posted from

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