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The Centre for Educational Leadership Perspectives are opinion pieces that highlight current and topical educational leadership matters. Our professional experts write candidly about their views and offer a fresh perspective on today’s educational leadership challenges. Occasionally, other faculty members contribute.

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Managing change or suffering from it?

Posted on
Thursday, September 21, 2017 - 11:46

Change is a constant and, at this time of year, everyone should be starting to think about what changes they need to make next year to get lifts in performance.  If you are the person leading change (whether as a principal, head teacher, HoF or lead teacher), you will almost inevitably experience resistance to it.  Below are some factors to consider that may help you:

  • People often resist change for good reasons such as:
    • What they are doing now works, in their view
    • They have seen many changes come and go before – and they all ‘go’ in the end
    • They are afraid that the changed practice will not work as well as what they are doing
    • They don’t think they are able to make the changes
    • They are sick of change or simply do not see the point in change
    • They have had little input into the changes and do not agree that the right decisions are being made

Thus, not changing or not wanting to change is, often, entirely rational.   Factors in leading change that can contribute greatly to people feeling resistance are:

  • Poorly designed changes
  • Too ambitious changes
  • Trying to make changes too quickly, or drawing out change into a long, lengthy, uncertain process
  • Poorly resourced changes (meaning the people doing the work, are doing more work than ever as a result)
  • No commitment from key staff, particularly the middle leaders who have the direct responsibility for teams in big organisations

So how do you respond to resistance to change if you feel that changes need to be made?

Listen – really listen without jumping to defend and explain.  You will learn a lot that will be of real value i.e., what is the problem from this person’s or group’s point of view.  You must understand the problem to address it because problems are interwoven with people’s perceptions.

Acknowledge and articulate the problem as you’ve heard others describe it to you, because there is a problem if people say there is.  Just showing you have really heard them is important.  (e.g., “evidently I have not given you enough opportunity to really talk through changes” OR “evidently, for a lot of you, what we have tried to do is too much too soon”).  Often a root cause of the problem is failure to engage deeply with what concerns people.  That lack of engagement becomes a barrier to change.

If, a problem has arisen from a lack of enough engagement about people’s concerns, or lack of enough time for people to adapt to change, acknowledge that, but also acknowledge where the change process is now at and invite their views about getting the next steps right.

Explain your point of view and show you are prepared to make changes also – for example: “While I acknowledge that change has come too fast for some, I don’t think we can afford to not make these changes because it is the students who are missing out on qualifications/good quality learning experiences when we …. If there is a way to lessen the impact on teachers, however, I would be really keen to do that”.  Then inquire into how the needs of the adults can be addressed without compromising the needs of the students.  Often, we find that resistance is very focused on the adults, but that change-leaders are – quite rightly – focused on the students, but that they have not given enough consideration to the impact on teachers. 

Some solutions may lie in doing less, better.  Too many changes at once can be counter-productive.  The whole idea about spirals of inquiry is to focus on manageable change.  Helen Timperley talks about ‘getting the grain size right’ meaning that the size of the problem you work on first, needs to be manageable but have a significant impact on learners.

Remember though, you cannot please all the people all the time and when there is change, some will inevitably not like it.  A test of whether change is worth doing is:

  • are the changes improving outcomes for groups of students, i.e., improving excellence and equity?
  • are changes optimising student learning time?

If the answer to both of these questions is “Yes” then you should probably keep going. If the answer is “No” then check that the changes are really required – some changes just create work for teachers and add little or no real value for students.


 Hargreaves, A. (2005). Pushing the boundaries of educational change Extending educational change. Netherlands: Springer.