Thoughts on change

When I was first involved with the Canadian Student Debating Federation, around 2008, there was a big row about styles of debate. The National Seminar was stagnating and losing popularity among debaters and coaches, and it seemed that no-one could agree whether to axe academic style of debating from the Seminar to make way for new, sexy styles such as World Schools style.

In 2011, I headed a committee to totally re-write the National Seminar regulations, and what we came up with was a fairly dramatic re-imagination of the Seminar, giving the host much more flexibility to run the event. In among the big shakeups, we quietly dropped the requirement for academic style in favour of the host choosing the style.

There was a healthy debate among my committee, the Board and our Membership about the proposal as a whole, but ultimately it passed with a large majority. If I recall correctly, there was little disagreement about styles.

I find myself reminded of this situation recently at work, where as my three readers know I am part of a committee proposing schedule change. Apparently in the last decade there have been several attempts to change our teacher break and lunch supervision schedule–a small thing, but like academic style generating much debate–with no success. In our broad scheduling proposals, we have included a change to the supervision schedule which has been met with virtually no opposition. Teachers are having a healthy and vital debate about scheduling as a whole, and coming together to determine all the little details that need figuring out, and this all generates the momentum to overcome whatever inertial force was blocking the little change.

We’re not even near the finish line yet on schedule change at ASFM, so I remain cautiously optimistic; however I’m hopeful that this is another somewhat paradoxical case of the big change being easier to achieve than the small change.

Managing change within an organization is a tricky thing, and one that I’m starting to learn about and appreciate more with my work at ASFM. It requires good two-way communication skills, logical and detail-oriented planning, hard work, and perhaps most of all the willingness to go out on a branch and let yourself stand for something that some people will disagree with.

I’ve been learning that, when managing change, the communication does really need to be two ways. My group (the Scheduling PLC) has tried to include as many staff as possible in our information-gathering process, and we’ve tried to listen to all viewpoints and integrate as many as possible. I’ve had several teachers compliment the group on our openness to feedback and criticism. However, when we presented our proposal, we also had to put ourselves out there and argue for the changes we know will be positive. A message of “what do you think?” was no longer sufficient, so we’re going more for “this is a good change; can you make it better?” approach.

I am also aware of how this change may come down to the details. We will be having a pilot in April where we switch to the new schedule for one week. I’ve been fielding emails on all manner of subjects, including the spacing between classes, middle school electives, and how teachers with elementary school children will handle the later Wednesday finish time. These are all very important details to the teachers involved, and if not addressed may give each of those staff members a reason to be against the proposal — even if they like it overall. We won’t be able to handle everything, but we’re trying for a smooth pilot week and feedback that reflects the merits of the new schedule rather than details we missed.

Ultimately, the engagement the teachers as a whole have shown on the schedule change project over the last few weeks has been amazingly gratifying and encouraging. We had very successful grade-level team meetings focused on introducing the issue to teachers. These were successful not because everyone agrees with the proposal, but because most teachers were asking good questions, being constructively critical, and trying to make sense of how it would work in their classroom. Just today, each department at the school had a discussion on how to best implement a double period in their subject. Looking at the feedback we received from this exercise reveals that departments have gone above and beyond our request to simply discuss change, and are actively collaborating on how to best adapt and improve their teaching.

This is perhaps the best outcome you can hope for when managing change: that the engagement and collaboration required to deliver the change itself brings positive benefits. I’m cautiously optimistic, yes, but I’m still optimistic!