“To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.”
“There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.”
Both of the above quotes are attributed to our pal, Winston Churchill, with the former likely being more familiar to most than the latter. In education, it seems we are almost always advocating for change in almost every aspect of what we do. In fact, I find myself and many fellow educators I respect a great deal arguing passionately for changes in the ways we approach instruction, classroom environments, assessment, grading and reporting practices, technology integration, libraries, and teacher evaluation, to name but a few. It seems as if we believe, a la Churchill, that the more we change, the closer we will come to “perfecting” education.
Each January, I visit my eye doctor for an annual vision screening. For years now, I have worn one contact lens, in my left eye. It was a compromise we made several years ago, allowing me to see adequately--though not perfectly--both from a distance and while reading. To see perfectly in terms of both reading and distance would have required that I wear both contact lenses and reading glasses, a scenario I refused (and still refuse) to consider. For me, this compromise continues to work well enough. In terms of the contact lens itself, again, I have been using the same brand and type for many years. To me, these lenses have always been fine. Not perfect, mind you, but they rarely bother me and my eye is never dry or irritated from wearing this lens on a daily basis. Still, each January, I head to the eye exam, secretly hoping there will be a change of some sort, a change allowing me to see even better or to a contact lens that is even more comfortable. Lo, for the past five years, I have come away disappointed. My vision has remained the same and each year the doctor suggests keeping the prescription exactly the same. Once we agree on that, I then ask eagerly if there has been any new contact lens innovation resulting in a different lens I should try instead of the lenses I have been using for years. Each year, the doctor informs me of other options available, but always asks a series of questions along the lines of: “Are your current ones comfortable?” (Yes). “Do your current ones bother you on a regular basis?” (No). “Do you feel as if your eyes are often dry?” (No). Then, she looks at me suspiciously and asks why I would want to change. My answer? Although there is nothing really wrong with my current vision or the comfort of my contacts, I would be happy if my current condition could become even better. In my view (pun intended), there is no reason to settle for the status quo if it can be improved upon by changing to a new approach. Alas, each January for the past five years, my eye doctor has sent me on my way with the exact same prescription and exact same type of contact lens. Each January I depart, just a bit dejected that no changes were forthcoming and that things would remain the same--at least for the next twelve months.
How does my eyesight situation apply to teaching, learning, and leadership? Speaking only for me, I approach work--much like when visiting the eye doctor--actually hoping for change. I start with my bias that change is good and that we can always get better at what we do. If getting better requires change of any first or second order variety, I stand ready to lead such change. At the same time, when considering (and even hoping for) change in these areas, I need to consider whether the change options available will be an improvement on the status quo. Are there some things we are currently doing that are actually operating at peak effectiveness and efficiency? What is the problem we are currently experiencing? Is there a change we can effect that will solve this problem? How will the changes we implement impact our staff and students? What metrics should we use to determine whether change is needed?
Change simply for the sake of change is not necessarily a good thing. Importantly, it is not always a bad thing, either; I often advocate changing certain things simply to shake things up. Yet, we must consider all changes we undertake carefully. Although I am an outspoken advocate for moving beyond our comfort zone and always trying out new ideas and resources, too much change can result in confusion, disorganization, and lack of direction, causing more damage than if we had simply stayed the course. Moreover, when considering change, it is important to draw a distinction between changes in mission, vision (not eyesight in this case, but in what we hope to become as an organization), and values from changes in the way we execute, strategize, or implement to fulfill our mission and achieve our vision while behaving in ways aligned to our shared values. Our mission, vision, and values are designed to be long term propositions. Therefore, changes in these areas should be made only after carefully considering the current status and fully understanding the major shifts in winds requiring us to adjust our sails. It’s very difficult to keep team members focused, inspired, and empowered if the direction in which we are heading keeps changing. On the other hand, making changes in the way we execute our plans can and should be considered frequently, even on a daily basis, with each of us asking how we can do what we do better, even when we are already getting stellar results.