Anticipation rises, and musicians create a cacophony of sounds as they tune their instruments. The lights dim, and I move to the edge of my seat. The conductor raises their baton. In one dramatic gesture, the magic of music fills the concert hall and transports me on an emotional journey: changes in melody, harmony, tempo, and dynamics keep my attention fixed, engaged, and captivated.
Change in education could be described metaphorically as music, with many variations. Like music, change can evoke emotions, spark creativity, and require harmonious elements. Just as no musical experience is the same, neither is the school day!
What comes to mind when you encounter change? Is it overwhelming fear, more demands, or anxiety? It may be a feeling of loss of control or insecurity. How would we function without change?
As an educator, you constantly face changes and the flow of emotions that change brings. As an agent of change, you are like a music composer. You shape the future through small adjustments (getting a new student today) or significant shifts (the department is rolling out another mandated policy). During some moments, you may relish being the composer, using creativity and inspiration, and you become the driver of change with ease: for example, developing themes and units for the upcoming term.
You may embrace change as the constant in your life and work and thrive as the melody changes or transposes. You might describe change as an opportunity to learn and grow, a form of excitement, continuous improvement, or innovation; these were the words used by students in the Zoom chat during the Council for School Leaders (COSL) Field-led Course on Change Leadership that I instructed this past summer.
As the course developer (or composer), I have spent the past year curating material on change. During and post-pandemic, I discovered that change advice abounds.
Current research points to a now-famous statistic from McKinsey & Company, stating that 70% of change efforts fail. This data emphasizes that the work of change involves analyzing existing structures, identifying areas for improvement, and designing strategies for positive transformation. In the same way a composer meticulously crafts musical notes to create a symphony, some educational changes require careful planning and orchestration.
Many also say that we should view the pandemic as a catalyst for transformation, a “wake-up call” for change in education. Yet, in many ways, the truth is that humans have a natural tendency to revert to the familiar; back to the old, same structure of lessons, assignments, and assessments. What happens when we hear the same song on the radio too often?
Five Ways You Can Embrace Change
We all have a reason for listening to music: entertainment, relaxation, or motivation. Similarly, with change in education, one must understand the rationale for change. Therefore, step one begins with: “Why”.
1. Understand the “Why”
People are much more apt to understand and accept change if they know why change is necessary. School leadership can help here, sharing why particular changes are a requirement. It is recommended that with this step, you muster up your confidence and ask questions. Seek out “the why.” When you have answers, your mindset becomes everything. Your perspective will set the course. If you remain open and curious and embrace a bit of challenge, the change will be harmonious or “music to your ears.”
To create masterful, beautiful music, the composer and the musicians must listen keenly and work harmoniously to produce a unified sound. Similarly, change requires collaboration and cooperation among various stakeholders, such as colleagues, policymakers, and community members, to achieve collective goals.
Listening to students and embracing student voices in the change process in schools can be the key to engaging students, which is every educator’s mission. Student voice allows for relationship-building, collaboration, connection, and positive school culture. If you focus on student voice, not only do you create impact and meaning, but you can also “Engage the world, change the world”, (Fullan, 2018).
When listening to colleagues, I have learned through experience that what might appear to be a person’s reticence to change is actually a sign that they fear it. They may be wondering, “What might happen if things don’t go as I planned? Why would I give up control and venture into the unknown?” A symphony is known for its emotional highs and lows, with moments of crescendo and decrescendo. Similarly, change often involves peaks of progress and moments that require perseverance during challenges and setbacks.
Simultaneously, as we work collaboratively in schools, we must recognize the diverse responses to change in one another — an inclusive, positive move to enhance the “music” in our buildings.
3. Find Balance
As a former principal and teacher, I worked alongside educators who welcomed and embraced change. We were well-accustomed to the departmental announcements, the shiny, new curricular packages arriving in the mailboxes, or the activity bandwagon we were all drawn to use. In education, we go full circle sometimes: Let’s teach phonics, no, switch to whole language, okay, and then go back to phonics again!
One particular “change virtuoso,” Brenda Margetts, had been a Kindergarten teacher in Balmoral, Manitoba, for 40+ years. When faced with change, she addressed it in the healthiest way.” Instead of going “back to the drawing board” and getting tangled in an emotional response, Margetts acknowledged the change required, recognized her strengths, and found a positive balance between what she knew worked in the classroom with what was new. Just as a conductor may adjust the symphony’s tempo or key to evoke specific emotions, change initiatives must be adaptable. Flexibility allows you to be responsive to feedback and unforeseen circumstances, ensuring that progress continues.
How can educators balance the diverse responses to change in one another while enhancing the “music” in their buildings?
4. Focus on Yourself and What You Can Control
Singers and instruments require breath, and they know too well that breathing is essential to making tuneful music. Jodi Carrington reminds herself and others to “Drop your shoulders, and breathe.” Take a deep breath when entering your school, classroom, or make a change.
You can also connect to your heart, assess your values, and try to shift your mindset from the victim (change is happening TO me) to the composer (I can take ownership of the change and control specific things) Katrina Marshall Dyrting, and Susan Salzbremer, (March 23, 2020). Dyrting and Salzbremer liken this self-discovery to the Japanese art of “Ikigai” (pronounced ee-kee-guy). Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means your ‘reason for being.’ ‘Iki’ in Japanese means life,’ and ‘gai’ describes value or worth. Your ikigai is your life purpose or your bliss. It brings you joy and inspires you to get out of bed daily.
When you are the change maker, you have control. Fullan encourages educators to step back, develop a clear vision, plan intentionally, and adapt to effect significant, lasting improvement. It is only then that we can put in the hard work of creating deep, meaningful, and enduring change.
You must repeatedly reassess traditional methods and embrace innovation. As an educator, you work hard for profound societal changes through your diligence in promoting, protecting, and seeking justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Similarly, Cale Birk, a composer of his new book Drift: Observable Impact on Rigorous Learning, reveals the following: listen and hear, look and observe. His simple method recommends that we connect change to a need, increasing student engagement. He then says that we need to create and look for opportunities that make a change observable. When we consciously make this step and observe the change taking place, we can actually see the difference. Then we can share successes and build structures that require us to show we have evolved.
Finally, we can truly embrace the process of change that is sustainable and meets the needs of our audience — those who are changing.
Either way, it is critical to get out there and look around, be curious and do the research. When you are inspired, you end up growing and improving. Try the approach of creating achievable, minor, or “micro changes,” from Atomic Habits by James Clear. These small changes or choices are the foundations of more significant change. Collectively, they make a difference, even when you feel no movement, or your efforts seem unnoticeable or under-recognized.
5. Talk to Others
“We look all the time, but we don’t see. We listen, but we don’t hear. In this world where there is so much noise, we’ve been missing, more and more these days, the thing that matters most: we were never meant to do any of this alone.” – Dr. Jodi Carrington.
Symphonies are not solo performances. Before letting change “get to you,” ground yourself by speaking with someone. Acknowledge the difference and what is problematic about it. This conversation can be with a colleague or a Local association member. Alternatively, you can contact a staff officer at The Manitoba Teachers’ Society at 204-888-7961 or toll-free at 1-800-262-8803.
As you move through each change, both personally and professionally, it is essential to know that your union is supportive of your needs: whether it be in advocating for employee rights via your Local association, professional growth offerings from MTS Professional French Language Services, looking after your health by better understanding Disability Benefits, labour relations through MTS Teacher Welfare, or by strengthening your relationships with others using MTS Mediation Services and/or the Member and Family Assistance Program: HumanaCare.
You can be a change-maker and embrace change through understanding, listening, balancing, focusing, and talking to others.
Remember, while change is ironically a constant part of life, you can remain optimistic. Embrace it! It is your quest to be the “composers of awe-inspiring music” and use the various components in education: curriculum, students, and resources to harmonize. You can create, thrive, and allow your melody to shine through education—the “symphony of change.”
This article would only be complete with some fun and inspirational listening! Find our playlist of Change Songs and Messages on YouTube.
– Originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of the MB Teacher
Sascha Epp is a Staff Officer in the Professional French Language Services Department and the Teacher Welfare Department for The Manitoba Teachers’ Society.