Leadership, Pathways, Teaching

The Courage to Lead Change

Making difficult changes to school culture requires perseverance – and a thick skin!

When obtaining a first principal position, two phrases that may be heard are: “Good luck,” and “Embedded culture.” That can entice you even more, without thinking of the courage that is required. But very quickly that excitement can turn to fear. Scared or not, the excitement of wanting to make a difference means taking the plunge. With that plunge, you soon realize the importance of being knowledgeable. Michael Fullan writes:

When obtaining a first principal position, two phrases that may be heard are: “Good luck,” and “Embedded culture.” That can entice you even more, without thinking of the courage that is required. But very quickly that excitement can turn to fear. Scared or not, the excitement of wanting to make a difference means taking the plunge. With that plunge, you soon realize the importance of being knowledgeable. Michael Fullan writes:

Leading knowledgably is at the core of all highly effective organizations. It is worth fighting for because it is extremely hard to achieve (and thus requires a fighter), and yet is essential. Knowledge is literally the substance of change. It represents the means of all accomplishments. Principals, as leaders closest to the scene, do not leave it to others to ensure that knowledge is front-and-center in the work of the school.1

When leadership is changed at a school, understandably teachers can be critical and watch to see what the “new principal” will do. It is important for the principal to look at the big picture of the school in the first year, to see how everything is done, ask questions, examine data, and start making notes of potential changes. Making a move too quickly could be detrimental for building trust and collaboration, while not making a move at all could result in teachers thinking you are not knowledgeable. When setting goals that first year, I determined it would be a year for observation and obtaining feedback.

With all that in mind, I took the plunge. I immediately started devouring data, including the New Brunswick Provincial Perception Surveys (teachers, parents, and students all receive the link to these surveys that provide feedback/perception on many facets of the school; however, their participation is optional), Provincial School Review report (an examination from a team of reviewers, usually done once every five to ten years), student assessment results and the School Improvement Plan (SIP). I also obtained feedback from staff and former and current students.

The school review indicated that the school was divided. Each grade team worked in isolation; there was limited time for teachers to interact with each other outside their grade level, thus not allowing common assessments among subject areas or working together by subject teams. Teachers had concerns about having an inconsistent timetable and too many subject areas to teach, as well as not enough preparation time during the week. Students wanted more time for lunch with an activity time. These items were quickly corrected through changes in the school schedule and teachers’ schedules.

The provincial teacher perception data also indicated that effective discipline was below the means for district schools and district middle schools. This issue did not lend itself to a “quick fix” like the schedule. It required more time and observation.

Before the end of the school year, in preparation for the following year’s changes, I reread What Great Principals Do Differently by Todd Whitaker and did a book study with the teachers on What Great Teachers Do Differently. I also wanted us to ensure a focus on student learning, and introduced Professional Learning Communities at Work, by Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker.

But culture, especially relating to discipline, needed to be addressed first. That was made even more evident at the end of the first school year, when a student in his final year, who had never been a discipline problem, did something inappropriate. His consequence was to be denied going to his last school dance. It was at that moment that I realized that my philosophy on discipline was very different. I did not believe in black-and-white discipline, with prescribed steps of punishments and consequences. I realized we needed to do research and training on best practices for discipline.

At the beginning of year two, I gave release time to a committee of ten teachers to look at the school behaviour plan, research, and staff feedback. All teachers received books relating to disciplining with respect and dignity, and we spent time on two positive management behaviour programs – CHAMPS and Mandt – with training for all teachers. The intervention plan we adopted that year, with an emphasis on correction versus punishment, was closely modelled after the intervention plan at Levey Middle School, shared by Levey Middle School’s former principal, Anthony Muhammad.2

By the end of year two, we had an “interventions for behaviour” plan in place, prepared by teachers and backed by research, and teachers had received intervention training. However, there was something missing: changing the beliefs regarding discipline. There was still resistance, with many not wanting to let go of the “step plan.”

Teacher perception survey results

This was evident in the Provincial Teacher Perception Survey. It was also evident in feedback through a voluntary teacher perception survey offered through Tell Them From Me (TTFM)3 as a planning tool for schools.

Looking at the TTFM results, it would at first glance clearly indicate that the teaching staff didn’t like me much!

After further analysis of this gut-wrenching information, I got more intrigued. The volatility of the results showed that the status quo was being challenged. The reality of change was now defined, which was exciting, yet frightening.

One section that stood out was Effective School Policies and Practices. In this group of questions, the spread for Teachers’ Scores for our school was huge, indicating that some really liked the changes (up to a high of 9.5) and that some really hated them (down to a low of 2). Even the mean for Teachers’ Scores showed a wide range compared to the All Schools’ Scores (see Figure 1).


The questions pertaining to Staff Morale and Commitment to School Improvement also proved to be an area of great concern.

Again, the wide spread on the results, with a high of almost 10 to a low of 2.5, and the broad mean (See Figure 2) showed that teachers had strong opinions on the leadership one way or another.


With the data being as it was, it took everything I had to muster up the energy to stay the course. I hoped the low scores reflected a natural resistance to changing the status quo and the challenge I posed to the embedded culture of the school, rather than actual mismanagement on my part. I so wanted to get to the meat of educating students and focusing on instruction, using the guidelines in a professional learning community. But discipline was the looming big issue and nothing could be accomplished until there was a shift in culture.

More needed to be done to share my belief about discipline. Ron Morrish says:

Start by sharing beliefs about discipline. It is essential for everyone to develop a positive view of discipline. Otherwise, strategies will not be implemented consistently, some teachers will continue to rely heavily on consequences, and some teachers will undermine the school’s initiative. Attempt to get all teachers to perceive discipline as primarily prevention in nature. Help them understand the critical nature of supervision and authority.4

There was a definite gap in our discipline philosophy. In response to ideas about discipline as prevention and disciplining with respect, some teachers cited an isolated quote: “Behaviour is the only area of child development where we tolerate deterioration over time.” Others did not think staff should wear yellow vests while on duty because then we could not “catch” students doing wrong.

I needed and wanted more feedback. So the following year (year three), along with the Provincial Teacher Perception Survey, I again signed up for a school voluntary teacher perception survey through TTFM.

I didn’t think the results could get worse, but they did, with an even wider range in teachers’ scores, in particular again under Effective School Policies and Practices. The questions pertaining to Staff Morale and Commitment to School Improvement were not much better.

I had to decide to either stay the course or to succumb to the pressure of the negative survey results and not pursue the discipline change. Robert Marzano would call this change “second-order change” or “deep change” – “a dramatic shift in direction requiring new ways of thinking and acting.”5 He goes on to say, “The school leader might pay a certain price for the implementation of a second-order change innovation,” and ends by saying that the principal also might have to endure negative perception because of it.

Even with this in mind, I took the survey results very seriously and reflected personally on how I could have improved communication strategies on change and how I could better support staff throughout change. I also could not help but wonder, with such poor ratings as an administrator, why was I allowed to stay in that position of leadership? I wanted the perception survey results to give answers, but “perception” is often based on feelings. This is not to say that feelings are unimportant, but my reflection prompted many questions: What is the purpose of perception surveys? Shouldn’t questions be based on what is best for schools? Perhaps a teacher survey with pointed yes/no questions that relate to where a school should be headed would give more insight, accuracy, and perspective – questions such as:

  • Does your principal discuss with you your growth plan? 
  • Does your principal provide resources you require? 
  • Do administrators attend and participate in your subject team meetings? 
  • Do you contribute to team meetings, sharing best practices and professional readings, discussing identified student needs, etc.? 
  • Does your discipline policy take into consideration the needs of the individual child? 
  • Do you take responsibility for all students in the school, not just those you teach? 
  • Do you track individual student learning data and plan your lessons accordingly?

This sort of specific question, shaped around a clear focus on what is expected of schools as a whole, could give concrete indicators of leadership and school direction. As it was, I had to keep in mind the purpose of the survey results – to provide a starting point for discussion – and not take them personally.

The tide turns

For our school, in year four, the Provincial Teacher Survey results got better and the TTFM survey, which was administered again, also improved: the mean score in Effective School Policies and Practices was 6.2 (from 4.7 the previous year), and the mean for Staff Morale and Commitment to School Improvement went up to 7.0 (from 5.8)

Our latest Provincial Teacher Perception Survey results, from October 2013, showed above-average scores (compared to other middle schools in the province) in having a common vision, mission and goals; instructional leadership; and collaboration and staff interaction. A School Review was done in February, 2014 and the external review team echoed the same message. Survey results also improved for positive school environment relating to behaviour; however, this dimension remains much lower than the provincial average. The external review team was impressed with the behaviour intervention process that was in place on paper, but recommended a whole-school focus on consistency in policy application and practice. The four external reviewers indicated that work still needed to be done to achieve buy-in among all staff. Eight years later, still not all staff are in agreement on discipline, but we persevere.

What I learned throughout is that leadership is very complicated! As John Maxwell says, “It has many facets: respect, experience, emotional strength, people skills, discipline, vision, momentum, timing – the list goes on.”6 Perseverance, determination, and a thick skin are certainly required. But if you can make a positive difference together with staff, then it is worth it!

EN BREF – La direction d’une école exige parfois beaucoup de courage pour apporter des changements difficiles, parfois impopulaires, axés sur l’apprentissage des élèves tant au niveau comportemental que scolaire. Ce défi peut être amplifié lorsqu’il est associé aux perceptions négatives des enseignants qui ressortent des résultats d’un sondage. L’article suit le parcours d’une directrice d’école ayant instauré un changement de culture scolaire, passant d’une approche stricte de« conséquences » à une discipline fondée sur des interventions comportementales pour corriger plutôt que punir. Cela illustre comment un changement profond peut affecter la culture et la perception des enseignants résultant d’un sondage, d’où la nécessité de persévérer pour maintenir le cap, tout en renforçant la relation entre les enseignants et la direction.

Photo: Public Domain

First published in Education Canada, November 2014

1 Michael Fullan, What’s Worth Fighting for in the Principalship, Second Edition (New York:, Teachers College Press, 2008), 31.

2 Anthony Muhammad, PhD, is an educational consultant and former principal. In 2007 he did a presentation to local principals and shared a copy of the Intervention Plan at Levey Middle School, Southfield, Michigan, where he was principal. He published a book shortly after: Anthony Muhammad, Transforming School Culture: How to overcome staff division (Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2009).

3 The Learning Bar, Tell Them From Me Focus on Learning Teacher Survey, 2014. www.thelearningbar.com/surveys/teacher-survey/

4 Ronald G. Morrish, With All Due Respect: Keys for building effective school discipline (Fonthill, ON: Wood Stream Publishing, 2000), 151.

5 Robert J. Marzano, Timothy Waters, and Brian A. McNulty, School Leadership That Works: From research to results (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005), 66.

6 John C. Maxwell, Leadership 101: What every leader needs to know (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2002), 13.

Meet the Expert(s)

Nancy Matthews

Associate Professor of Education, Crandall University

Nancy Matthews, PhD, MEd, BEd, BComm, has been in education in many different roles for over 30 years, starting in payroll and human resources then a classroom teacher, district technology mentor, school vice principal, district education supervisor, district director of finance and administration, school principal, and district director of curriculum and instruction.

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