Thursday, March 20, 2008

Leading the "Shift" in International Education: Managing Change and Transition

In discussing the topic of “Leading the "Shift" in International Education: Managing Change and Transition,” the first question which needs to be answered is: “What is Internal Education”? Not as easy a question to answer as it might seem. In fact, it seems the more I research the field of International Education, the more definitions I seem to fine. However, for our purposes, I will simply define International Education in its broadest sense as an educational experience provided to non-resident children (or children with dual citizenship) living in a foreign country.
The second logical question is: “What do you mean by the “‘Shift’ in International Education”? This is a little easier to answer. Like all education throughout the world, International Education is experiencing the growing pains associated with the 21st Century – particularly those associated with emerging technology and expanding access to information. (For more details on Shifting School/International Education see and

So what’s the purpose of this post? That’s an easy one. The purpose of this post is to talk about managing the complexities of both change and transition in an international school environment.

Change and Transition

Have you ever heard people say:

“I wish we would just slow down.”
“Why do we always have to change?”
“Can’t we just leave things alone?”
“It’s working fine just the way it is.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Maybe you’ve even said some of these yourself. Do you feel like the only constant in your organization’s life is change itself? Well, you’re not alone. Welcome to the 21st Century! One of the most challenging issues in organizations and business today is change. Typically, we either make change happen so quickly that people don’t have time to get on board and make it happen effectively, or we’re not given enough time to do what it takes to see change occur when it needs to. Some people love change and others hate it. But one thing is for sure, change happens.
Change and Transition - Are They One in the Same?
Let’s start with "change":

“…to make a shift from one to another”
“…to make radically different”
“…give a different position, course, or direction to”
“…to replace with another”
“…to pass from one phase to another”
“…to undergo transformation, transition, or substitution”
These are just a few of the definitions that Webster’s Dictionary provides for the word change. If you notice, you see nothing about stability, sameness, stagnation, or stopping.
Webster’s Dictionary says that the word change is a verb. The word itself, therefore, implies movement or action.
On the other hand, one important component of the “change process” that is often overlooked and underestimated is the concept of "transition". Webster’s defines transition as a “passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another…”
Sounds a lot like change, doesn’t it? That is where the problem lies. Organizations and businesses today see change and transition as one in the same. We believe, however, that they are very different. According to William Bridges (Managing Transitions, 2003), “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.” So what is the difference between change and transition?

First, we believe, as the following story suggests, that it is important to understand that change and transition are absolutely connected and inseparable.
Bill has been teaching at the same school for 15 years. He has been a faithful and loyal educator. Bill’s principal, Karen, has always given him very positive end-of-the-year reviews. Bill is a model teacher. On Monday morning Karen announced to the faculty that the technology department was going to replace their computers. Karen said they were going to do this the next morning, so they needed to back up any files they did not want to lose. Everyone went back to their classrooms, except Bill. He just sat there looking stunned.
Later that day Karen noticed that Bill wasn’t looking very good. She asked if everything was alright and Bill hesitantly said yes.
The next day came and the technology staff came through and replaced the computers. This process only took an hour or two for each computer. They were very well trained and very efficient at their jobs. When Bill saw his new computer he was in a complete panic. He could do nothing except just stare at the new monitor. Nothing looked the same. He tried to find his documents but they were no where to be found.
A couple of days later Karen noticed that Bill was still not looking well. She asked if everything was alright. Once again, Bill mustard the strength to say yes. Karen wasn’t so sure this time, so she sat down with Bill. Karen said she noticed that his enthusiasm for teaching had dropped off over the last few days and he just didn’t seem himself. Finally, Bill broke down and said that he was totally lost with his new computer. He was angry and frustrated that his computer was replaced without even being asked. Bill said that he had just gotten used to his old computer and now he has a new one and can’t find anything.
Can anyone else relate to Bill? Oh sure, it may not be as simple as a new computer, but have you had change occur without any regard for you? You see, the change (new computer) only took a couple of hours to implement. This is where most schools and organizations stop. The change has been implemented successfully because they see the new computers on everyone’s desk. However, transition has been ignored.

Our Struggle with Loss

“Change implies making … an essential difference, often amounting to a loss of original identity” (Webster’s Dictionary). If you notice, in this definition of change, the concept of loss is introduced. When change occurs, loss also occurs. Unless we allow opportunity for people to deal with the losses associated with change (transition), the change never really is implemented effectively. In other words, "change" is the what and "transition" is the how.
Bill’s computer was replaced within a couple of hours (the what), but no one ever considered Bill’s emotional ability to manage this change (the how). Some of the other teachers were thrilled to receive a new computer and couldn’t wait for it to arrive. Bill, on the other hand, struggled with technology and he had just gotten used to his old computer. The idea of a new one was very scary for him. No one gave Bill the time to deal with the loss of not only his old computer, but more importantly, no one gave Bill time to deal with the fear that came with his new technology.
Managing Change and Transition

Okay, so now we know the difference between change and transition. So What? What can/should we do as leaders to help ensure that both the change and the transition go as smoothly as possible?

In order to be effective leaders, we need to involve the people affected by the change (students, teachers, parents, staff, etc.) in the change process. We need to allow a process to occur which deals with people’s emotions. There needs to be intentional efforts made to allow people to experience their losses and deal with their emotions.
According to the work of Kotter and Cohen ("The Heart of Change: Real Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations"), it is critical to show employees the need for the change by capturing the emotions in the issue at hand. They suggest the following 8 step process to motivate staff to action based on their feelings:
1. Increase Urgency
2. Build the Guiding Team
3. Get the Vision Right
4. Communicate for Buy-In
5. Empower Action
6. Create Short-Term Wins
7. Don't Let Up
8. Make Change Stick
According to Kotter and Cohen, in order for change to be successful, all 8 steps must be followed and all 8 must be followed in the right sequence. Naturally, however, as is true for all we do as leaders, the difficulty is not in the theory, the difficulty is in the implementation.

Implementing Change in International Schools
Implementing effective change can be especially difficult in an international environment, as not only do you have individual difference to be concerned about, you also have cultural difference in how people deal with change and transition as well. This is clearly a case where one size does not fit all.
Always remember, people are unique. We don’t all adjust emotionally at the same pace or in the same direction. You will always find individuals who accept and embrace change easily and quickly. You will also always find people who need more time and support to work through the change process. This can be particularly problematic in an environment where both the students and the staff (both faculty and administration) are often, as one international educator described them, “nomadic.” Successfully implementing a major change initiative is hard enough given individual difference in tolerance to change, but when you are never sure how long those most involved in the change process are going to be around, it is even harder to both motive people and keep the momentum going.
In addition to these varying individual differences, international schools must also be sensitive to the cultural difference they may face in terms of reactions from members of the local community, including members of the schools Board. Just as individuals react differently to change and go through different transitional processes, so to do different cultures react differently to change and many have different rituals and/or practices to deal with transition.
Final Thoughts

We would strongly recommend that based on the complexities that come with both individual and cultural differences in how people react to and deal with loss, that international schools view change from a strategic perspective and only introduce those changes which are necessary in any given time period and only after a thorough process/period of preparation has been employed.

We would also strongly recommend that international schools use one of the many “facilitative” processes out there for leading change and transition. By involving all those who will be impacted by the change from the very beginning, you will increase the likelihood of both buy-in and support for the change and will reduce the negative affect of the transition process on the school as whole. Given the transitory nature of the international school staff, it is critical that throughout the process, leadership must be alongside the staff to ensure that staff will receive assistance as needed.
Finally, do not assume that people don’t care or are unwilling to get on board with the change. Take the time to involve them, to engage them and support them through their emotional reactions to the change. You will be surprised to find that some of your greatest advocates of the change you desire will be those who struggled with it the most in the beginning.

1 comment:

David Carpenter said...

Your points really hit home especially when institutional change does, at times, seem to devalue staff members and their feelings. Many international educators living away from their home countries connect into the school community as part of their emotional support network. When the school leaders make decisions or act without participation and consideration of these very connected community members, a wide array of emotions involving anger, loss, fear, etc. come into play.

As you point out so clearly, there are models and books to help our school leaders focus on the individuals in the community to involve them in the discussion, decision-making and eventual transition period when changes do occur. This begs the question of what is happening internationally to support the professional development of our school leaders? All of our schools have PD programs for teachers. What is happening for the administrators?

I would add that many school leaders will say one of the biggest barriers to this community building and group decision-making process is the lack of time. I would counter that especially in large, fast-paced international schools, the lack of time for thoughtful reflection and processing is due to poor leadership as schools try to do everything under the sun for their clients (i.e., students and parents) and barrel forward out of control without focus and direction.

Well-thought out strategic plans, structured communication systems and guiding mission statements/learning outcomes that are truly held to can alleviate many of the problems that come with the "lack of time" argument that is so often put forth to explain why problems occur in our schools. School leaders need to have the courage with compassion to say "no" to us educators as we bring forth new ideas and proposals that do not fit into the structure of our school missions. We really do need to be lean learning communities in our schools using our time so thoughtfully and carefully.

By knowing who we are and what we can and cannot do, our international schools can improve in how we use our time especially when it comes to preparing for change and the needed thoughtful transition process that you so correctly point out in this post.

Thanks for starting this discussion that will hopefully continue to a wider audience.