Change Is Hard. Not Changing Is Harder.
Okay, I’ll admit it. Over the past few years, I may have put on a few pounds. Was it that extra bag of chips? The daily post-dinner dessert? Perhaps it was the takeout pizzas topped with mounds of gooey cheese. Or, maybe, just maybe, it was a result of the stress of managing change as an early childhood program administrator.
No one said that serving as Director of Early Childhood for an independent school in California would be easy. I was tasked with leading a decades-old institution through significant changes to improve overall program quality and increase enrollment and retention. We hoped to shift from thematic instruction to project-based learning, introduce interest areas to classroom environments, clearly articulate learning outcomes for children, and identify tools for ongoing formative assessment. In a geographic area notorious for its extreme cost of living and an average annual lead teacher turnover rate of 21%1, I knew it would be hard to make progress. But by keeping a few guiding principles top of mind, we were able to exceed our ambitious goals.
It was imperative to build positive relationships with faculty before I introduced any significant shifts to practice. This meant I not only had to create space for teachers to share their stories, but I had to be comfortable sharing mine. Being vulnerable can feel risky, but it’s a risk worth taking. I did my best to shift the administrator/teacher power dynamic when possible and appropriate. For example, I always asked permission before visiting a classroom, and I made myself extremely visible throughout the school day. I even made a makeshift office in a common area so I could be seen and engage in impromptu and informal conversations with team members. It doesn’t happen quickly, but, if you nurture relationships, they will grow.
Before introducing coaching meetings to the team, I modeled a “mock observation and feedback cycle.” We utilized The Fidelity Checklist to set goals and found it served as a fantastic menu of goal-setting options for teachers. The more transparent we could be about the process, the less anxiety educators felt. At the conclusion of each meeting, I always ended by asking, “How might I be more helpful next time?” Feedback isn’t a one-way street, after all. This offered me actionable next steps I could use to strengthen my practice…and I was able to model receiving feedback at the same time. Win-win!
I vs. We
My job as an administrator required me to be a cheerleader for my team, facilitate professional development, ensure licensing compliance, engage with families, and set the vision. I alone could not make any of these things happen. Honestly, I was the least important part of the equation. As a result, I removed I from my vocabulary. No more, “I created this” or “I led this.” “I thinking” can be toxic and can damage carefully cultivated relationships. Instead, I shifted my vocabulary to highlight what we were doing as a team to realize success.
Be Kind to Others (and Yourself)
Everyone wants to do their best. No one shows up to work thinking, “Gosh, I wonder how I can screw this up today.” Mistakes will happen. Errors are unavoidable. Instead of dwelling on the wrong, I focused on using these moments as an opportunity for learning and growth. Remember: good cannot be the enemy of the great.
Slow and Sticky as Molasses
Change is slow. I mean slooow. However long you may think it will take to achieve a big goal, double it. It’s that slow, and that’s okay. You can, however, accelerate change by setting specific, bite-sized, and measurable goals. Imagine you thought, “I’d like to lose 10lbs this month.” That might sound both incredibly challenging and a bit unsafe. Perhaps, because it may feel so challenging, you find yourself evading the task. Imagine, instead, you thought, “I’d like to lose 1lb this month.” Which feels more possible? Which cultivates a bit of excitement and possibility?
It’s important to clarify an overarching goal, but the bite-sized goals are really where the magic happens. We started with room arrangement, learning from the Interest Areas volume from The Creative Curriculum for Preschool and selecting one learning area to refine. Because the physical environment is, well, physical, we were able to see evidence of the change quickly. We also found that prospective families were enamored with the newly designed floorplans. As a result, demand for our limited seats increased dramatically.
Even though we were making some headway, I wanted the changes to stick. To do this, I needed to ensure the voices of families; faculty; and, yes, even the children, were included throughout the process. It’s important to solicit feedback from all stakeholders and be transparent about shifts to plans when suggestions and ideas are offered.
The changes we made had a dramatic impact on children. Challenging child behaviors decreased; staff turnover reached its lowest level in recent history; and faculty-reported morale, gauged through weekly pulse surveys, was through the roof.
Although change management can be stressful (and may sometimes even lead to a few extra pounds), it is one of the most rewarding and impactful things you can do for a school community.
1. San Mateo County Child Care Partnership Council and First 5 San Mateo County. (2017). San Mateo county early childhood education teacher compensation study. San Mateo County Child Care Partnership Council