The idea or the attempt to make things better is not an innate character trait with which people are born. This is a trait that must be learned, expanded upon, and ultimately becomes a part of you and your environment. So, as an instructional leader, how do you bring about positive change and get the results you need to move your staff forward? Over the past 38 years that I have been in education, I have worked in thriving schools that have taken hold of an idea, pushed it to the limits, and shown sustained success. I have also worked in schools that took that same idea, faltered in its implementation, became stagnant, and closed off even the possibility of success. The difference hinged on one small and often overlooked factor: relationships.

I firmly believe that there is no other reason for systemic and sustainable success than the relationships built between school leaders and the school community. For someone to lead, that leader must have followers. The question is, why should others follow you?

Building Buy-In

Two points of understanding are essential when building a team that is energized and passionate about a common goal: establishing buy-in to the idea and having clear and often difficult conversations. As an instructional leader, one of my “go-to” books is Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea From Getting Shot Down by John P. Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead because it identifies top systematic approaches on how to move stagnant and sometimes disparaging environments into forward-thinking, collaborative workplaces that support the mission and vision of the organization. The authors studied the relationship between the different elements within a workplace environment and its impact on effective change. As I began to implement those strategies, I noticed that, ultimately, each one focused on building relationships.

It is evident that to move a disengaged, discouraged, and often argumentative group on a new path, there must be a common appreciation of the goals and some much-needed straight talk with those opposed to the goals. In utilizing the core ideas of Buy-In, a leader can effectively make systemic change within an organization appear effortless. Authors Kotter and Whitehead outline four tactics used by critics who are resistant to change. It doesn’t matter what the change is—there will always be roadblocks— such as members of the organization who oppose your ideas and try to derail systemic change right from the beginning. The four tactics that are the most identifiable and used regularly are: fear, delay, confusion, and ridicule.

  • Fear comes from those with a lack of knowledge in understanding the overall goal. It is one way that those opposed to change can include others to help interrupt the process.
  • Delay draws out the change process so that everyone is beaten down and begins opposing the main goal.
  • Confusion is one of the most successful in disrupting the intentions of a new idea that will create change.
  • Ridicule places the person who is initiating a new idea that will change the status quo as one not “in-tune” or capable of implementing it successfully.

Each one can be detrimental to any support of a new idea and ultimately the goal for making a change.

Supporting the School Community

As a leader, how do you combat these four tactics? It’s hard to believe sometimes, but they can be overcome quickly if a leader has laid the groundwork of building a trusting relationship with each stakeholder that is opposed to the change. Kotter and Whitehead go into detail in the last part of their book and focus on three core principles that the leader can do to overcome those in opposition to the new idea: 1. Capturing people’s attention; 2. Winning over people’s minds; and 3. Gaining people’s hearts. In a nutshell—build relationships.

In my own life, I can say that I trusted those I knew and who showed they cared about my thoughts, ideas, and passions. As a student, I worked hard for the teacher who showed an interest in what I liked; as a teacher, I trusted the principal who was honest and transparent in how their ideas supported my classroom; and now, as a principal, I know that in order to build the type of relationships that will support positive change throughout the school, I must be part of the school community in every sense of the word. I must not only show an interest but be an active participant, be honest and transparent about the challenges ahead, and—most importantly— support the school community. You do this by communicating clearly so that everyone—from the student, to the teacher, to the parents and area business partners—understands that no matter what the task is, the goal will always center on what is in the best interest of students.

When people know you care, and they see it in your actions, they are willing to follow. Many things come to mind, but I will focus on two intentional actions: being visible and being an empathic listener. One thing that I learned early on as an administrator was that the faculty, staff, and students appreciate seeing administrators in the hallways, especially during class changes and lunch. I trained myself to get out of my office and head to the hallways each time the bell rang. I purposefully stand in the middle of the hallways when 1,400 students are moving to the next class, greet them, ask them about their last class or their next class, and, if time permits, talk about weekend plans or the next athletic event. This visibility is contagious among the teachers, as we are leading by example and showing students the importance of adult supervision in the hallways. As I move down the hallways after class begins, I then perform “smart walks.” I go into classrooms and ask students: What are you learning today? Why do you think you are learning this, and how will you use this in the future?

Empathic listening is another way that shows you care as an administrator. Many times in my office, I’ve met with parents, faculty, and students who just wanted to be heard. The Crisis Prevention Institute lists “7 Tips for Empathic Listening” on its blog. To name a few: don’t judge, listen carefully, don’t be afraid of the silence, make sure they have your undivided attention, and follow up later to see how things are progressing.

A few years ago, I had a parent who came into my office and for 45 minutes explained how upset they were and the reasons why. I struggled to not “be afraid of the silence” and not interject when I thought it was necessary and refrained from doing so. After the meeting, the parent stood up, shook my hand, and said, “Thank you for listening, I just wanted to be heard.”

Truthfully, building relationships won’t fix everything. You will still have difficult conversations. You will continue to have the naysayers who don’t believe, and there will also be people who may trust you but are not ready to follow you. As instructional leaders, we all know that leading systemic change— the kind that disrupts the environment that people have grown accustomed to—will not be a walk in the park. It will be difficult and time-consuming, and
sometimes you will even feel like you are out on an island all by yourself. But stay the course. Share your passion for students and their families, and know that there is no greater purpose than impacting the life of a child.

Austin Donald Norman II is the assistant principal of Jefferson Forest High School in Forest, VA. He is also the 2021 Virginia Assistant Principal of the Year.

Sidebar: Building RanksTM Connections

Dimension: Relationships

Strategy 2: Instituting structures and strategies that enable all students to have strong relationships with each other and with staff members. You can create or adopt schoolwide structures such as small learning communities or teacher-student advisory programs that enable meaningful relationships between students and staff members. You can also promote schoolwide norms and expectations that reinforce trusting and respectful relationships among students, as well as foster intentional connections with families that help teachers and staff members support the individual needs of each child.

Relationships is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.