The Challenge of Change

13 01 2013

‘Throw out the old and bring in the new…’

'Old and new' @sandymillin #eltpics

‘Old and new’ @sandymillin #eltpics

Looking ahead at what the new year will bring, one thing for sure is that 2013 at the school where I work will see change. Change because of new students, new courses, and new resources. Change can happen sometimes in unnoticeable and organic ways. Just business as usual.

But the school this year will also see change to operational systems, academic procedures, and teaching routines – change which will have to be introduced, managed and reviewed. And that is where the challenge lies. Because change isn’t always easy.

So why all these changes?

Well, firstly, I’m an aspirational DOS, and aim to create a culture of learning at our school, not only for our students, but also for our teaching team, and myself. We can continuously seek to improve, because generally, things can always be done better, especially in the imperfect world of rolling enrolment.

And secondly, as an accredited school, there are regular nudges and prompts from the bodies who come and visit us – inspectors (lovely people!) and their inspections – and this naturally tends to push re-evaluation and change to the fore.

(shh! secret: I enjoy inspections, and some inspectors actually are lovely people ūüėČ )

Aspirational changes over recent years have included, among others:

  • A school teaching style:- touches of consistency to glue together our wonderful individual teachers, moments that each week, each lesson, create a sense of team.
  • Professional Development Portfolios, with templates for teachers to record different kinds of CPD, and to guide reflection on what has been learnt and how/when new ideas have been tried out.
  • Introducing technology into classrooms, and integrating it into teaching and learning
  • Launching an eLearning platform with online tutorials and individual learning plans

So if we have a culture of learning and development, where change is not uncommon, why is managing it a challenge?

One of the main reasons is that change leads to moving away from our usual route, from our familiar and comfortable routines. And not everybody likes this. People can be afraid of change, and fear can provoke resentment and negativity.

So what are the key elements to managing change successfully? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Communication. The aims and rationale behind change need to be explained, discussed and agreed by both those responsible for implementing it and those who will be affected by it. An open, two-way channel of communication needs to run through the whole process.
  2. Ownership. If the communication is effective, ideally a sense of ownership can be created among the team, and then the responsibility for change becomes a shared one.
  3. Piloting. When possible, a small group or groups of those affected can spend some time trying out the proposed change and then report back with suggestions for improved implementation.
  4. A champion. Try to identify enthusiastic early adopters who can bring to the process a¬†positivity and a willingness to try change, perhaps led by a ‘champion’ who can help to maintain momentum.
  5. Pace. Change won’t work if rushed or if it happens too slowly – a good sense of timing is needed to achieve the right balance.
  6. Review. And keep reviewing until the change becomes BAU – business as usual.

Sounds quite straightforward, no?

Well, no actually.

If I look back at my attempts at managing change, how have I fared? I would have to say that I have yet to achieve change which has been fully 100% successful. Partial, near successes yes, but reflecting on each of those aspirational changes mentioned above, none have entirely got to the BAU stage.

So where did I go wrong?!

There are probably 2 or 3 overriding reasons.

The first is that as a DOS I am faced with constant demands from multiple directions…students, teachers, timetables, course enquiries, course admin, emails, rooms, books, resources, technology, classroom equipment, wifi and Internet connection, publishers, exams, references, interviews, inductions, and none of these relate to academic strategy…I know it all sounds like an excuse, but if you’re a DOS reading this you’ll know what I mean. To be honest it’s what makes the job fun. But time management is¬†a challenge, and getting on to the strategy work – which for me is the most fun – particularly so.

The second issue is that change will be most successful when part of a greater vision, a clearly planned ¬†strategy or mission, and I would wager that many EFL schools do not have such a thing. Or if they do, it is rarely communicated clearly to all the staff. Our aim is of course to be a successful and competitive provider of quality English language courses – and I’d say we achieve this – but an academic vision or strategy requires more detail and definition than that.

So, I have found that when managing change, new ideas might sometimes take over, or new demands may supersede old priorities.

And perhaps I just haven’t been able to follow the steps above as effectively as I could have. Perhaps my communication could have been more two-way, and more compelling? Perhaps I haven’t created that sense of ownership for change within the team? Perhaps I have not reviewed enough and made change stick? These elements are not straightforward at all, and do require skills which I know I am still developing.

So, as I return to work at the start of the new year, and once again pick up the many balls I have to juggle, and immediately feel a little overwhelmed, I wonder if I will achieve smoother and more effective change in 2013?

Whatever, I know it will be a challenge. At least that is my experience. What about yours?

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5 responses

14 01 2013
Stephen Greene

Hi Josh,

Happy new year. Good to see you blogging.

You are right when you say ‘people can be afraid of change’ and sometimes they just don’t want to hear you, no matter how you communicate it.

I was wondering how students react to any changes that you introduce, and how you incorporate your students into the communication process. This probably isn’t relevant to most of your students as they are often only there for a short period of time. However, I do remember you having long term students and students who returned year after year.

My context is completely different to yours (private teacher with mostly long-term students in a non-English speaking country) but one of the challenges I face is bringing my students along with any changes that I want to introduce.

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14 01 2013
JoshSRound

Hi Stephen
Thanks for taking the time to read & comment – happy new year to you too.

Good question, because students probably don’t have enough of a voice in the things that matter, and I know I could do more to include them. It is tricky having a mix of mostly short stay with some long stay students, but I don’t recall any adverse reactions from students to new systems; we do Focus Group meetings from time to time to either review changes or gauge response to potential changes, and I always find these useful and the students seem to really appreciate being asked their opinions.

I think in your context it must be harder, learners in their own country can have quite fixed expectations; have you tried being transparent about ideas for change up front, trying them out in small steps, and involving your students in ongoing course reflection?

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15 01 2013
Stephen Greene

Hi Josh,

I have tried many different approaches; negotiating change, explaining and demonstrating the reasons for change, changing little bits at a time…. It all depends on the individual students concerned.

Most of the time both I and my students are happy with the results. The most infuriating cases, though, are when students agree and seem all positive about change, and then continue on in the same way as before.

I like your idea of focus groups, though. Maybe I could use something like this by giving a range of possibilities to students for them to decide what they want to do and then agreeing to implement them on a pilot basis to evaluate their results.

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15 01 2013
JoshSRound

Sounds a good idea Stephen. Hope that works!

One other thought – do you think positive testimonials from students who have adopted new approaches successfully would hold any sway over those who resist change? Perhaps get them to do video testimonials using something like http://vyou.com/ or http://mailvu.com/ ? Then it also works as a speaking task for them!

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18 01 2013
Weekly round up of ELT 18/01/2013 | ELTSquared.co.uk

[…] Round shared some managerial advice on how to¬†implement¬†changes. I¬†particularly¬†liked his tips on getting a champion and communicating the reasons so there is a […]

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