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3 Reasons School Leaders Fail At Change Management

This is the first in a 6-week change management series in which TLI staff share key leadership moves for managing successful school-based change. Catch the series introduction here.

When former Hamilton Elementary principal Tera Carr entered her new school, she felt the urge to make huge changes during her first year on the job. With rock-bottom test scores, constant discipline issues, and growing community concern, sometimes it felt like her new school post was more firefighter than school leader. 

Recently, Carr reminisced with the TLI School Leader Cohort about the process of moving from a novice leader to strong instructional leader. Although she wanted to tackle all the problems at once, she knew she couldn’t. Instead, Carr careful outlined yearly priorities and worked relentlessly towards those narrow goals, building staff skill, knowledge, and mindsets along the way. 

Unfortunately, not all school leaders manage change as carefully and successfully as Carr. 

To kick off our change management blog series, we’ve rounded up three of the main stumbling blocks for managing school-based change.

Change Fail 1: Taking on Too Much

We hear from lots of leaders eager to implement a litany of changes to improve student outcomes and address community concerns. Other times, a long list of changes is a result of district-level mandates, initiatives, and “roll out plans” influenced by parent groups, district leadership, and the ever-changing legislative changes. But taking on too much change at once is a recipe for failure. 

Successful change management must include cut-throat prioritization to make time for crucial skill building, protect faculty from initiative overload, and avoid making new changes feel like “just one more thing.”

Change Fail 2: Not Planning for the Change

Tulsa’s hometown hero Will Rogers quipped that “vision, without a plan, is hallucination.” Successful changes require a plan that considers culture, people, fear, pain, resources, and deep analysis of the change itself.  

Consider the Oklahoma district that invested $200,000 in student-facing devices. Two years later, a quick walk through the school revealed unopened boxes of devices stuffed under counters and stacked in closets. Resources alone weren’t enough to float a technology initiative.   To avoid this pitfall, school leaders must establish a clear plan for how to accomplish a proposed change and deeply invest stakeholders at every level.  

Change Fail 3: Forgetting Competence-Building

Effective change management keeps an unrelenting focus on people. After all, the risks are high. Poorly managed change could alienate teachers and contribute to an unhealthy school culture, especially in Oklahoma’s already-precarious teacher context. Oklahoma State Department of Education points out that  a declining work environment is one of the main reasons teachers leave the profession (McFeron, 2018). A full 40% of teachers reported a lack of support by school-based administrators as a major factor for leaving. 

Instead of assuming that staff can adapt to a proposed change without support or parroting phrases about “trusting teachers” or “letting teachers figure it out,”  create a plan to offer teachers the support and feedback mechanisms they need. After all, good intentions and great ideas alone don’t give teachers and staff the support they need to successfully navigate change. 

Remember that change often requires new skills and habits. Forgetting about competence-building during a change leaves staff feeling unsupported and unsuccessful.     

Although we’ve observed plenty of changes gone the way of the unopened device boxes, school leaders like Carr remind us that even the biggest proposed changes can be managed successfully. Fortunately, research and experience offers a plethora of wisdom to manage school-based change at any site. Follow the blog series as we unfold specific leader moves and resources for managing change. 

References: McFeron, P. (2018). A Survey of 5,487 Holders of Oklahoma Teaching Certificates Not Teaching in Ok Public Schools Under the Age of 65 Online surveys conducted September 26 – October 16, 2017.  https://sde.ok.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/Teacher Survey Report – CHS and Associates_0.pdf



Joanna LeinJoanna Lein

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