Managing change in uncertain times

Why it's more important than ever for district leaders to support teachers, and themselves. Here are 3 ways to go about it.
Danielle Sullivan

The last two years have been rough on many of us—it has felt long and, oftentimes, very challenging. A group of psychologists said many people have experienced languishing or a “sense of stagnation and emptiness” during the pandemic, comparing this feeling to “looking at [your] life through a foggy windshield.”

Undoubtedly, many teachers (and administrators, parents, and students alike) have felt this way. Or, still feel this way.

As a district leader, it is important to support teachers (and yourself) during changing times. There are three ways I recommend going about this—focusing on human connection, prioritizing SEL, and emphasizing self-compassion. It is also important to understand The Change Cycle™, a research- and science-backed model created by Ann Salerno and Lillie Brock that details the feelings experienced when change takes place.

The Change Cycle encompasses six stages: Loss, Doubt, Discomfort, Discovery, Understanding, and Integration. These stages are also similar to the stages of grief; however, grief does not always go in this order. When experiencing change, just like grief, people might cycle through these stages a few times.

While The Change Cycle model is not specific to education, your teachers have likely experienced some or all of these stages while being in the profession, especially during unprecedented times like the last couple of years. By both understanding what stage your teachers are in and implementing some of the best practice strategies below, you can help to address the pain and anxiety associated with change and better support your teachers.

Red Stages: Loss and Doubt

During these initial stages of change, you may find teachers asking questions like “Why is this happening?” and “What does this mean for me?” They might also have feelings of distrust and frustration, and may even want to quit.

 To support teachers during this time, lead with empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. Listen to their concerns and feelings, give them the time and opportunity to ask questions, and express understanding for what they are feeling.

Avoid cheerleading, demanding, or minimizing during these red stages. Despite best intentions, this is not the time teachers want to hear “You got this!” or conversely “Oh, you’re fine!”

 Yellow Stages: Discomfort and Discovery

These next stages can be a bit tricky and awkward, but they are essential to work through – if not, it can be easy to revert back to the red stages. During this time, you may hear teachers say statements like “Maybe it’ll be different this time” or “This is not how it used to be, but maybe it’ll be OK.”

Now is the time to communicate to teachers the big picture of what you are trying to accomplish and reassure them that some things are staying the same. Also, encourage teachers to be patient through the process and have fun. Anything you can do to help bring a little bit of fun and joy to their workday – whether it is sending out a funny meme or filming a short personalized video for teachers – can go a long way in helping them work through the discomfort of change.

At the same time, try to avoid offering teachers too many options (this can be overwhelming!), asking for perfectionism, or having them lose focus on the biggest task at hand – providing students with the best education possible regardless of the situation.

 Green Stages: Understanding and Integration

During these final stages, teachers can see the silver lining they couldn’t before – realizing some things are better now or making best practices discovered during the change process permanent. Once the change is implemented, it is easier to relax.

This is the time to encourage teachers to mentor others through the change process while reflecting on their own lessons learned. It is important for teachers to recognize the impact the change had and the growth they’ve experienced, so remind them of that.

Rather than pointing out mistakes or minimizing the significance of the change that took place, encourage teachers to celebrate their accomplishments and to keep the focus on accelerating their personal and professional growth.

Change is hard. Some people adapt right away, while others may need extra time. But, by providing the appropriate supports and understanding, you can help teachers work through the change process and reap the positive results it can yield.

As an educational leader, always remember to take time for yourself, too, and remind yourself you are doing an amazing job! Modeling the change you want to see for your teachers can be a powerful first step.

Danielle Sullivan is the national director of content and implementation at Curriculum Associates. Bringing 10 years of teaching experience to this role, she specializes in establishing and strengthening middle school implementations with an emphasis on student engagement and motivation.


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