The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it. --William James
The work of a school leader can be tireless. And to what end? Especially in international contexts, where the lifespan of a school leader at any given school can be so fleeting (Hayden, 2006, p. 103), the need for sustainability in leadership is of paramount importance. How can international school leaders ensure that their long hours of hard work towards school improvement won’t end up dust in the wind at the end of their contracted tenure?
Decentralizing leadership and building a high capacity to lead throughout the school can help to ensure sustainability (Lambert, 2007, p. 312). In a school with high leadership capacity, all stakeholders develop and are responsible in part for leadership, including students, teachers, and parents, information is used to guide inquiry, and institutional growth is guided by a shared vision (Lambert, 2007, p. 313). Removing the ownership of leading the school from a single individual and distributing it across the institution and its systems and processes helps to ensure that initiatives can survive the changes in leadership that are so frequent in international schools.
Clearly defined roles and interdependencies are important to ensure that organizational growth initiatives are maintained over the long term (Adelman & Taylor, 2007, p. 61). Ideally, the distribution of roles and responsibilities should support independence and empower teachers as leaders in the school (Lambert, 2007, p. 315). Leaders may act as organization facilitators who train and empower teacher-led change teams to catalyze and actualize change towards the school’s vision (Adelman & Taylor, 2007, p. 67). Purposeful near- and long-term action towards change goals can also be facilitated through the use of collaborative action planning (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 390). Ensuring that plans and change visions are clearly linked to the school vision and outline progress through series of milestones and intermediate steps can ensure that a sense of need and urgency is maintained beyond the tenure of any one member of a change group (Cawsey et al., p. 408).
Transitioning an organization from a state of low leadership capacity to a sustainable structure of distributed leadership and structured planning is not a simple task: it involves moving through a number of different stages (Lambert, 2007, pg. 315). A forward-thinking board or school head could use the aforementioned action planning tools and practices to create a sustainable leadership development plan to guide the organization through the process of learning and empowerment required to raise leadership capacity throughout the school as an organization. Planning ahead for periods of instructive capacity development and collaborative culture building, transitional periods of dependency breaking and school-wide gap closing, and finally monitoring and system building can allow a school leader to ensure that the school’s leadership structures can become increasingly sustainable past their time in the lead. The possibility of choosing middle and senior leaders based on the stage of development of the organization provides a powerful lever through which to ensure organizational development. A school leader could even get an early start in planning for their transition out of an organization by training future leadership from within or seeking future candidates from outside the organization based on the needs present in the organizational long-term sustainability plan. The leaders truly seeking to create sustainable leadership in their school would resign when their skill-set no longer served to move the school forward through such a plan and invite another to bring it to fruition. In this sense, the mobility inherent in the field of international education could serve to support sustainable leadership and consistent progress rather than hinder it.
Adelman, H.S. & Taylor, L. (2007). Systemic change for school improvement. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 17(1), 55-77.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G. & Ingols, C. (2016). Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [Google Books Edition] (pp. 428-471). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=cU0dCAAAQBAJ&pg=GBS.PT459.w.8.0.4
Hayden, M. (2006). Administrators. In Introduction to International Education: International Schools and their Communities (pp. 93–112). London: SAGE.
Lambert, L. (2007). Lasting leadership: Toward sustainable school improvement. Journal of Educational Change, 8(4), 311–322.
“Resistance is part of the job of leadership, it’s not an interruption. If you don’t have resistance, you’re probably not leading.” --Andy Hargreaves
An ongoing challenge that change leaders face is how to deal with inevitable pockets of resistance that threaten to stymie change initiatives and slow progress towards goals. Rather than viewing resistance as a negative, change leaders can find value in an approach that embraces resistance by seeing it as an opportunity to make better sense of change and to sort out what actions are required to achieve it (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 295).
Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols (2016, p.346) note that truly expert change agents understand that individuals in an organization may have limited capacities and that commitment to change is something that takes effort to build. They describe a number of different approaches that change leaders can take to build and reinforce commitment, all of which involve engaging in sense- and meaning-making with regard to the sought after change, either through emotional calls to action in pursuit of a vision or logical explanations of the underlying strategies and systems (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, pp. 349–350). These actions serve to mold perceptions of the change among stakeholders and ensure faculty that efforts are worthwhile and in ultimately in their favor (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 260). In addition to drumming up support, reflective action and questioning practice are characteristics of effective school leadership (Davidson, 2013, p. 9). Resistance can motivate reflection and deeper understanding of the reasons for and ways to achieve change that support its eventual achievement.
In describing sustainable leadership practices, Hargreaves (2007, p. 226) asserts the value of learning from the past and retaining the parts of past practice that have been proven effective. Change leaders should avoid ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater,’ so to speak, and creatively combine the best of what an organization already is with what it is envisioned to become. Systems that support successful change encourage sharing concerns, mutual accountability, and learning across all levels in the organization (Fullan, 2006, p. 119; Harris, 2011). Negative reactions to elements of proposed change initiatives can be useful to make change leaders aware of issues they didn’t initially consider, and engaging in discussion early on in the process of development can help to address them (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 295).
Change can be a traumatic experience for some and provoke responses similar to grief (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 302). Change leaders should exercise patience and focus on problem-solving and addressing resistance as a normal part of the change process and avoid singling out individuals for blame (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 298). Approaching change leadership through collaboration and reflection across all levels in the school can help to ensure that what might have been seen as ‘resistance’ can be viewed as useful critical feedback to strengthen planning and encourage deeper reflection on our goals.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G., & Ingols, C. (2016). Organizational Change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [Google Books edition]. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=cU0dCAAAQBAJ&pg=GBS.PT282.w.6.0.51
Davidson, D. (2013). Preparing Principals and Developing School Leadership Associations for the 21st Century: Lessons from Around the World. Toronto: Ontario Principals Council.
Fullan, M. (2006). The future of educational change: system thinkers in action. Journal of Educational Change, 7(3), 113–122.
Hargreaves, A. (2007). Sustainable Leadership and Development in Education: creating the future, conserving the past. European Journal of Education, 42(2), 223–233.
Harris, A. (2011). System improvement through collective capacity building. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 49(6), 624–636.
International School Leadership. (2014). Uplifting Leadership [Online video]. International School Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=9V0GaLRmq20
How to drive organizational change is schools is a complex challenge to address for which there is no single answer: each school has its own formal and informal systems that leaders must navigate and put to work towards moving forward their agendas. (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016a, p. 88; Cawsey et al., 2016b, p. 103; Fullan, 2006, p. 9). Formal systems in schools include the hierarchies, departments, roles, tasks, planning and processes that structure and influence what happens and how it happens in a school (Cawsey et al., 2016c, p. 197-198). Informal systems in schools can be loosely defined as the ‘culture’ of the school; the shared beliefs, rituals, norms, expectations, and behaviors that provide a sense of identity in the school and are taught to new members (Cawsey et al., 2016d, p. 255; Leo & Wickenberg, 2013, pp. 405-406).
There is no perfect formal system or organizational structure; every school’s organizational design presents hurdles to be overcome and challenges related to gaps or overlaps in duties among departments and administrators (Cawsey et al., 2016c, p. 214). Change agents must be aware of the systems and structures in place in their schools and how best to use them to get formal approval to support and legitimatize change (Cawsey et al., 2016c, pp. 218-219). Formal structures provide individuals and departments with the capacity to influence others and resources to support sustained change iniitiatives (Cawsey, et. al 2016d, pp. 251-253). Change agents should work closely with decision-makers and administrators to develop change plans that relate to the school’s vision, balance costs and benefits to multiple stakeholders, and align with budget cycles and other processes to enhance their prospects for approval (Cawsey et al., 2016c, pp. 219-221).
In addition to working with the formal systems and structures in their schools, change leaders must also leverage the informal systems and structures embedded in the school’s culture to bring change initiatives to fruition (Cawsey et al., 2016a, p. 88). A school’s culture can be expressed in visible and invisible ways as the physical appearance of faculty and facilities as well as in the values and norms that are publicly expressed and privately held (Cawsey et al., 2016d, p. 256; Leo & Wickenberg, 2013, pg 406). Differing views on the nature of culture represent it as either an external, objective feature of schools that can be managed or as an internal, subjective construct that varies between individuals (Connolly, James, & Beales, 2011, p. 425). Regardless of the perspective taken, school leaders, as agents of change, should feel empowered to leverage symbols, engage subcultures within and outside of the organization, and examine and modify processes to ensure that the values that drive them manifest as artifacts and activities that will feedback in positive ways to build cultures supportive of change (Connolly et al., 2011, pp. 431-434, Leo & Wickenberg, 2013, pg 413).
School leaders exert power to affect change in formal school structures that can affirm further positive changes informal cultural structures within their organizations. Formal leadership structures can be modified to distribute leadership among faculty to reinforce initiative and a sense of efficacy among teachers, and physical and time resources can be structured to ensure that teachers have time for collaborative professional development focused on advancing change visions (Leo & Wickenberg, 2013, p. 419). Though different schools have different needs, change leaders benefit from less formal, decentralized formal structures that support innovation (Cawsey et al., 2016c, pg. 211). Recognizing and leveraging the cause-effect feedback loop that exists between systems, both formal and informal, and the faculty they act on and who act upon them, is a powerful route to driving change in schools (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 198).
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G., & Ingols, C. (2016a). Framing for leading the process of organizational change: “How” to lead organizational change. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [ePUB] (pp. 67–100). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cawsey, T., Deszca, F., & Ingols, C. (2016b). Frameworks for diagnosing organizations: “What” to change in an organization. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [eBook] (pp. 101–140). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G. & Ingols, C. (2016c). Navigating change through formal structures and systems. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) (pp. 197-245). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G. & Ingols, C. (2016d). Navigating organizational politics and culture. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [eBook] (pp. 246-282). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Leo, U., & Wickenberg, P. (2013). Professional norms in school leadership: Change efforts in implementation of education for sustainable development. Journal of Educational Change, 14, 403-422.
Meaningful change is never easy. How to motivate and sustain positive organizational change is a challenge that all change leaders face and a question whose answer relies very much upon the context in which the leader operates (CawSey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 103; Fullan, 2006, p. 9). I say ‘positive’ organizational change as the idea of a static organization is a mirage; organizations are collections of people whose habits and actions change with every interaction and adapt to every new iterative cycle of the processes they enact (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002, p. 567). The challenge that change leaders face is reining in the constant change and directing it towards positive ends (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002, p. 567). They must also find means to sustain change to ensure that new knowledge and practice that results from initial drives to change do not dissipate or degrade over time and that new behaviors and practices become embedded in the culture of the school (Hargreaves, 2007, pp. 228–229).
One way in which motivation to change can be incited is through the emergence of a crisis, real or fabricated (Cawsey, Deszca, & Ingols, 2016, p. 161). Leaders should take care when creating narratives that over-amplify or create crises from whole cloth, as it may result in erosion of trust in school leadership. A high degree of trust is a precondition of collaborative decision-making and ‘bottom up’ visioning, both of which are powerful drivers of buy-in and long-term motivation for sustained change efforts (Cawsey et al., 2016; Tschannnen-Moran, 2013, p. 43). Keeping in mind the need for transparency and honesty to support cultures of trust, framing change initiatives with compelling narratives that combine logics and discourses can help bring together stakeholders with different agendas to work towards shared visions (Ball, Maguire, Braun, & Hoskins, 2011, p. 628). While self-interest can bring about complacency even in the face of crisis (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 142), a change initiative driven by a leader that acts as a ‘boundary spanner’ who engages the ideas and talents of diverse stakeholders towards a shared change vision can create fluid and connective opportunities that produce workable plans for action, cognitive shifts, reframing of challenges, and democratic, communitarian, and economic theories of shared leadership (Grogan & Shakeshaft, 2011, pp. 120, 125; Gordon & Louis, 2012, pg. 349; Starratt, 2008, pg. 89).
To ensure that momentum for change is maintained and that inertia does not slow down or halt work towards change initiatives, leaders should ensure that change visions support and are connected to the broader mission and vision of the school (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 173). As change processes are enacted, the context of the school will change along with it necessitating modifications to action plans and actors who are flexible and willing to redefine their positions and responsibilities within the school as novel interactions and new problems intersect the ‘fuzzy boundaries’ of our definitions of the roles and departments within the school (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002). The constant ebb and flow of change can defy simple analysis and categorization, and leaders who are able to ‘perceive change’ intuitively as well as ‘conceive change’ in a planning capacity will be well-prepared to deal with the challenges of sustaining change over the long term (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002, p. 572). Additionally, viewing shared visions as broad spaces that allow for varied interpretations by different stakeholders rather than one-way streets can ensure that visions can remain shared in spite of faculty turnover or changing conditions (Cawsey et al., 2016, p. 179).
No single person can hope to sustain long-term organizational change in a school on their own. Engaging diverse stakeholders in crafting visions for change that are shared and meaningful to all allows leaders to access the strength of the entire school community to drive positive change to improve learning in their organizations.
Ball, S. J., Maguire, M., Braun, A., & Hoskins, K. (2011). Policy actors: doing policy work in schools. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(4), 625–639.
Cawsey, T., Deszca, F., & Ingols, C. (2016). Frameworks for diagnosing organizations: “What” to change in an organization. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [eBook] (pp. 101–140). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G., & Ingols, C. (2016). Building and energizing the need for change. In Organizational change: An action-oriented toolkit (3rd ed.) [eBook] (pp. 141–196). Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage.
Fullan, M. (2006). Change theory: A force for school improvement. Series Paper No. 157. Victoria, Australia: Center for Strategic Education.
Gordon, M.F., & Louis, K.S. (2012). How to harness family and community energy: The district’s role. In M. Grogan (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (3rd ed.) (pp. 348-371). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Grogan, M., & Shakeshaft, C. (2011). A new way: Diverse collective leadership. In M. Grogan
(Ed.), The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (3rd ed.) (pp. 111-130). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hargreaves, A. (2007). Sustainable Leadership and Development in Education: creating the future, conserving the past. European Journal of Education, 42(2), 223–233.
Starratt, R.J. (2008). Educational leadership policy standards: ISLLC 2008. In M. Grogan (Ed.),
The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (3rd ed.) (pp. 77-92). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Tschannnen-Moran, M. (2013). Becoming a trustworthy leader. In M. Grogan (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass Reader on education leadership (pp. 40–54). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
Tsoukas, H., & Chia, R. (2002). On Organizational Becoming: Rethinking Organizational Change. Organization Science, 13(5), 567–582.
Education policy forms the basic structure of practice and governance and profoundly affects work and outcomes in education (Arafeh, 2014, p. 1), both through formal structures and laws as well as spoken and unspoken social and cultural norms (Arafeh, 2014, p. 4). All policy, education policy not excluded, involves making compromises to seek balances between freedoms, resources, interests, values, and efficiencies, and often involves redefining values in order to justify and account for the outcome of the decisions made (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, pp. 71–72). Education is a right of citizenship and shaped by national policy, while also largely determining how citizens view the meaning of citizenship in their local context as it relates to their relationship with governing bodies and structures (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, pp. 61–62).
In the past, social welfare policy in the west supported notions of universalism, the belief that individuals’ rights to social welfare should be independent of their ability to contribute to the economic well-being of the nation-state, and that all citizens should have access to every liberty regardless of their station, thus empowering the state to intervene in market processes and redistribute resources in such a way as to balance inequalities. Rights of social citizenship were considered universal, much like civil and political citizenship rights (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 60).In such a policy landscape, support for public education should flourish as a basic right of all individuals in support of democracy, equality, personal fulfillment, and the intrinsic value of every individual and their education (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, pp. 72, 78).
More recently, a global shift towards neoliberal education policies focusing on human capital in a globalized economy, privatization, efficiency, and accountability has occurred (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 72). The importance of national human capital development to economic growth viewed from the neoliberal perspective firmly places education policy in the realm of national economic policy, resulting in the dominance of social efficiency as a policy value and education policy that supports economic productivity of nations and corporations (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 58; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 78). Supporters of neoliberal policy cite the failure of the universal approach to provide balanced service provision to marginalized groups and its inability to address culture in diverse nations and argue that the market offers the only fair way to appraise and allocate resources (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 61).
The shift towards neoliberal education policy poses risks. Education policy is social policy insofar as it promotes welfare, ideology, and social cohesion (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 58). The neoliberal practice of viewing individuals as being only as valuable as their contribution to the free market necessarily results in rebalancing and renegotiating values like equity and democracy, sidelining some values and promoting others (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 76). Policies promoting test-based accountability resulting from this neoliberal perspective of education may oversimplify complex local contextual issues and reduce social justice (Lingard, Martino, & Rezai-Rashti, 2013, p. 539). The focus on education policy to support global economic competitiveness minimizes the value of discourse centered on altruism and assumes that public institutions and governments are threats to individual freedom (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 86). Increasing privatization of education services based on assumptions of greater efficiency runs the risk of corroding state commitment to public education resulting in it becoming a low-quality residual service for the poor and those without the political power to ask for more (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 62; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 87). Decentralization for accountability can decrease national cohesion and, as marginalized students and teachers in low-income schools struggle against the odds to raise scores in subjects on standardized tests, they are more likely to ignore educating students in skills of participatory democracy, further limiting their ability to lobby for more social welfare support (Bell & Stevenson, 2006, p. 68) At the international level, as governments and international aid providers apply results-based criteria to determine whether developing nations receive education funding, there is a risk that developing education systems will lose funding due to low initial capacity or factors out of their control (Holland & Lee, 2017, pp. 26–27).
The proliferation of neoliberal policy in education and tendency to subsume other values to social efficiency as a meta-value risks strengthening historical and economic inequalities by limiting the perception of the value of the individual to their worth in the global market and furthering a reductive notion that success is proportional to effort regardless of starting conditions (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. 78). As state service provision is eroded by increasing privatization, civics education is ignored to secure funding by increasing standardized test scores in core subjects, and the tone of the prevailing discourse paints governments as disconnected and inefficient, education policy devalues citizenship within the state and bolsters the neoliberal view that acting in self-advancing ways to increase one’s status in the global market should supersede altruism and civic responsibility (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, pp. 87–88). Rizvi & Lingard (2010) state that the goals of education include “ the development of knowledgeable individuals who are able to think rationally, the formation of sustainable community, and the realization of economic goals benefiting both individuals and their communities” (pg. 71) The current neoliberal bent in education policy promises only to address the economic. Where then will individuals turn to develop the capability to act as rational, informed citizens of sustainable communities if success in a global market economy does not support the development of such individuals? What is the cost to be borne by global social welfare and democracy in the pursuit of economic gain?
Arafeh, S. (2014). Orienting Education Leaders to Education Policy. In N. M. Haynes, S. Arafeh, & C. McDaniels (Eds.), Educational leadership: Perspectives on preparation and practice. Toronto: UPA. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/brocku/detail.action?docID=1911841
Bell, L., & Stevenson, H. (2006). Educational policy, citizenship, and social justice. In L. Bell & H. Stevenson (Eds.), Education policy: process, themes and impact (pp. 58–73). London: Routledge.
Holland, P. A., & Lee, J. D. (2017). Results-based Financing in Education: Financing Results to Strengthen Systems. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Lingard, B., Martino, W., & Rezai-Rashti, G. (2013). Testing regimes, accountabilities and education policy: commensurate global and national developments. Journal of Education Policy, 28(5), 539–556.
Rizvi, F., & Lindgard, B. (Eds.). (2010). Education Policy and the Allocation of Values. In Globalizing Education Policy (pp. 77–92). New York: Routledge.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.