Leading Change Transforming Doubters into Believers: Leading Change Requires Consistency, Persistence and a Belief in the Power of Collective Effort and Shared Responsibility for All Student Learning

By Rodriguez, Norma E. | Leadership, November-December 2010 | Go to article overview

Leading Change Transforming Doubters into Believers: Leading Change Requires Consistency, Persistence and a Belief in the Power of Collective Effort and Shared Responsibility for All Student Learning


Rodriguez, Norma E., Leadership


Change begins with the courage to break patterns and barriers. It is dependent upon our belief that it can be done, and the willingness of leadership to act in ways we never thought possible.

The story of A.J. Dorsa Elementary School illustrates a journey of transformational change that began by challenging our own beliefs and attitudes and envisioning the system we wanted to create to fully prepare our students for academic success (Blankstein, 2004).

Our journey was not quick or easy. It required clear focus, consistency, persistence and the creation of multiple opportunities to look deep into our actions and their impact on student achievement, and to share the responsibility for the academic progress of all students.

I strongly believe that the process begins with a change agent who strongly believes in the power of collaboration, team effort, shared responsibility and ongoing learning and growing in practice. Recognizing the need for change by using data in a constructive way was paramount to making it an inherent part of our school culture of continuous improvement (Reeves, 2006).

On March 17, 2004 I was assigned to A.J. Dorsa Elementary for my first principal assignment. At first I was hesitant to accept a new position toward the end of the year, but I was told that the school needed a leader who was focused, committed and would do everything to ensure the students' right to the highest quality education. I felt honored and prepared, welcoming the challenge as a learning opportunity, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience.

Upon my arrival, I found parents and teachers upset about the sudden departure of their previous leader. A quick school walkthrough revealed a school that was cluttered, disorganized and missing a sense of pride. The teachers' focus was on maintaining a "feel-good" culture, keeping their autonomy and doing their own thing. Elements such a leadership team, school goals, an improvement plan and a school site council were foreign to the school.

I soon realized that creating quick gains, setting the stage for change and establishing a sense of urgency would have to be top priorities (Reeves, 2009). During the first weeks I met with as many stakeholders as I could to learn as much as I could about the school. A roving substitute was provided to release teachers to come and talk to me. Many did not take the opportunity, but those who did responded to the following three questions:

1. What is in place at this school that is a source of pride?

2. What is the vision of the school and what strategies are in place to make this vision a reality?

3. What are the challenges that we need to tackle to ensure high levels of academic achievement for all students?

The rest of the time I listened attentively. I welcomed the spring break as a time to transform the front office, faculty lounge and teachers' work room into clean, organized and inviting environments. I met with the custodians and shared my expectations about their work. I also used the data I gathered from the teachers to prepare the first all-day staff development opportunity.

The purpose of this all-day staff development was to review the school data, develop SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goals and create a plan. During this session I realized that the majority of the teachers did not believe in their students' potential or their own capacity to facilitate the fulfillment of that potential. They argued back and forth in disagreement with what they called "unrealistic" goals.

In one exercise, teams of teachers at each grade level developed a two-column chart listing the skills and knowledge that all students entering and leaving that particular grade level should have mastered. When the charts were posted, they revealed our collective low expectations.

From March to June I met regularly with grade levels to analyze data and was in teachers' classrooms constantly, but there was little change in attitudes and behaviors. …

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