S3 Ep21 - 5 Ways to Get Ready for the Coming Change

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Hi there, welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast, the place where we dive right into the nitty gritty of bringing structured literacy to life in your school.

I'm recording this episode in mid-June 2024 and there have been some huge announcements recently about how literacy will be taught in two states in particular. Victoria has just announced that all students will learn to read with explicit phonics: that includes 25 minutes of a phonics lesson every day.

I live in Tasmania and our structured literacy announcement came in 2023. Queensland has recently boarded the bus, New South Wales before them and, of course, South Australia was the first to hop on board with the phonics screening check and associated changes to instruction in 2020.

These changes are applauded by those of us who know the value of explicit, structured teaching. We work every day to make it easier for schools and teams to build success for students.

Announcements, such as the recent Tasmanian and Victorian ones, can bring a huge sigh of relief to Principals. Our work supports hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers. One of the really striking things that a Principal has said to me is, 

Previously, I would go to the Principal's days and sit there, knowing that I couldn't talk about what was happening in my school. I couldn't share my excitement about our students' growth with anyone other than a select few who I knew were on the same journey as us. Now that the announcement has been made, I can talk about it. It's great.

For schools in this position, big decisions and announcements mean very little in terms of change for their school. They're already getting it done, they already have their resourcing sorted out. They are seeing results in their students, and their teachers are growing in confidence. And I have to tell you, hearing about teachers and leaders who are thrilled with their results makes my heart sing.

Knowing that the thousands of hours we've put into developing our resources, programs and training makes a difference to the lives of our teachers, students and families is just so rewarding. It's why we go to work every day.

In our recent Teacher Voice and Literacy Instruction Survey, teachers reported that their state government and departmental announcements gave them permission to forge ahead with the changes they've been wanting to make. They now have the backing to go to their teams and say "Right, it's time to take that action we've been talking about."

For these leaders and schools, a shift in direction means that some of the angst is eased, and some of the pushback and struggles to justify the urgency of change are lessened. Not eliminated. Not banished. Just eased. After all, they are simply now asking others to work with the departmental or government expectations.

So, we've covered some of the reactions from people who are ready for change and already on the bus; it's all well and good for them.

But what about people who aren't quite so ready?

What about schools that have watched changes happening from afar but have not made many moves?

What is their experience like?

To put it bluntly, their experience can be terrifying. The number one reaction that people have when change is coming their way is shock. People think,

Well, I didn't see that coming

or

I'm not ready

The next reaction is denial, 

Oh, it's not going to change what we do. They can say what they like, but we are doing it our way

and other such comments. This isn't an indication of a lack of commitment to students. It's a normal human reaction.

The next step is frustration or anger.

Who do they think they are? They can't tell us what to do. This is unreasonable and unfair.

If you think these steps sound familiar, you're right. They sound just like the stages of grief. In fact, the woman who developed the stages of grief also developed a model for change. It's called the Kubler-Ross Change Curve (Kübler-Ross, 1969).

The seven stages are shock, denial, frustration, depression or low energy, experiment, decision and then integration. As with the explicit teaching model, different people move through these stages at different paces and have different needs at different times. We don't have time and space to go through all of this in this episode of the podcast, but I have linked to five other blog and podcast episodes that will be helpful in supporting your team to navigate change in the show notes for this episode. 

Number 1

So the first thing to do when faced with an unexpected, or even expected, change is to accept that things are going to get a little messy. They just are. Some people will board the bus quickly and easily. Others will take a little longer and may even be rather painful to work with for a while.

But you know what? Don't write those people off.

I'm constantly and pleasantly surprised when I hear about staff who were the loudest resistors, the highest maintenance people on the team in a change journey, who have boarded the bus and now shout from the rooftops about how great things are.

Number 2

The second thing to do when faced with change is to calm down.

That's easier said than done, I know, but a leadership team filled with desperate, frantic energy never sets the team up for success. Frantic, fear-driven decision-making rarely works out.

When we make snap decisions because we feel pressured into it, what usually happens is that we look back in six months and say,

Oh boy, I can see now that we've made the wrong choice. We've spent all the money, we've taken up all the PL time. There's nothing left in the financial or emotional tank to take the steps we now know would be better for us.

Frantic, emotionally unstable leadership makes our teams worried and anxious. Your team needs you to be the voice of calm reasoning. They need to know that you've got things in hand, even if you're only faking it. They need to know that decisions will be made in a way that considers their needs. So step number two is calm down and slow down.

Number 3

The third thing relates very closely to the second thing, and that is don't jump into buying programs and spending big dollars on resources.

Decodable texts are always a great investment. You can't go wrong. You can align them to whatever scope and sequence you're using and, when they're used in the right way, they'll provide excellent return on investment. But teaching programs are another thing. If you're wondering whether you need one at all and what part a phonics program might play in your journey, have a listen to our episode, Should we Be Using Commercial Programs to Teach Reading? 

If your school is a Resource Room member and you aren't using our phonics guides and resources to consistently teach early reading, well, you are in luck. You actually have what you need at your fingertips, including teacher guides, assessments, homework printables, presentations, and on-demand training, as well as ongoing support with monthly masterminds and fortnightly office hours. You're all set.

But if you don't have something consistent in your school, I recommend not jumping in too quickly. Do your homework, trial things before committing. Don't just rely on the recommendations of a Facebook group or a neighbouring school. Take the time to really consider what's going to best serve your school community. Be okay with sitting in the discomfort of not quite knowing what to do next. After a big announcement like the one from Victoria this month, every company out there is going to want to sell you something and lock you in. It's okay to kick the tyres and wait. Once you get clear about what's important for you and your school, the answers will come.

Number 4

My fourth recommendation for managing the situation where, ready or not, change is coming is not to do nothing.

Just as jumping in too quickly can land you in hot water, doing nothing can have equally challenging consequences. Doing nothing in the face of change, getting stuck in denial, means that when the date arrives that you have to make a change, you'll be scrambling and pressured.

So how can we find that balance between not rushing and not doing enough? A roadmap of small steps is the answer.

Don't hit people over the head with research or throw them neck-deep into a course.

Give them digestible, simple to action information and tools, and none of that has to come with a major commitment or major spend.

Now, where do you find these easy to understand bits of information and easy to use tools? Well, I have to tell you, I've spent years creating them for you and have placed some of them into a handy guide that you can download absolutely for free from our website. Not one thing I'm sharing comes with a price tag or is focused on you using a particular program. Programs are tools. Yes, we create them, but it's people who make them work.

Number 5

The final action to help you get ready for the changes that are coming is about what goes on inside our heads and hearts.

This might sound a little wishy-washy, but stick with me.

When we've been advocating for evidence-informed practice for years and being told no, when we've been told time and again by the people who are there to support us that explicit teaching is bad for children, that it's all a right-wing agenda, that it's all about commercial interests and that no change is needed, it's understandable that we might want to shout at people and say, "See, I told you so!"

But if we want the departmental decisions and big announcements that come our way to mean anything, if we want them to be successful, we can't make the next steps about ego. We have to put our big girl and big boy pants on and find a place within us where we can compassionately and genuinely connect with everyone to bring them on the journey.

The first thing to do here, and the first way forward, is to understand that most people are very happy to do what it takes to get great results for students. Most people have no problem boarding the bus, but it's really scary, and often resistance is just fear in disguise.

If you've hung your hat on particular practices for however many years and those are the yardsticks by which you have measured your worth as a teacher and someone makes an announcement that says those things are no longer valid, what does that mean for you?

Does that mean that you aren't a good teacher?

Does that mean that you've wasted your career?

Are you, as a teacher, irrelevant now?

Worse still, if people are saying that what you've been doing is damaging to children, what does that mean for your life's work?

We all go into teaching to help students. If you've been in the position of realising that what you were doing wasn't great for some kids, you know just how hard that is. You know about the guilt and shame that comes when you remember what you did in the classroom and, trust me, I have those moments too.

So if you're lucky enough to have been on the bus from the start of your career, or you're far enough into the journey that you have the gift of emotional distance from your past practice, please have compassion for colleagues who are wrestling with this right now. We must bring everyone on the journey and it's only through connection with each other that we build confidence and success for our students.

So the fifth action is to have compassion. It is entirely possible to have compassion and be unapologetic about the journey towards structured literacy. It's entirely possible to meet people where they are and be insistent, persistent and consistent with our team. You don't have to compromise on high expectations in order to have people's backs and, trust me, if they don't feel like you have their back, they are not coming on board the bus with you.

For all the leaders and teachers out there who are working through this journey, I'm sending you a big old hug if you're into that sort of thing. I'm also sending one to all of the parents and carers of students with reading difficulty who have been tirelessly advocating for change. I completely get that some of what I've said in this episode is frustrating. Your kids don't have time for schools to go slowly and make gradual changes. Your kids need the changes to have happened yesterday. As a parent, my patience for the slow pace of effective change and adjustments to practice that seem common sense are completely different from my approach as a coach and school leader.

As a leader and coach, I'm calm and measured. As a parent, I am fierce in defense of my children and insistence on answers right now.

So, teachers and leaders, remember that when you're communicating with your families, and your staff. It's important to develop timelines of small changes and over-communicate them. Don't assume that because you said a thing once, six months ago, that that's enough answer for them. If you don't give people consistent answers all along the way, they'll start telling themselves stories in their heads and may well come up with the wrong answers.

For now, download my free guide below and remember that you have exactly what it takes to do what you need to do.

You won't accomplish anything by breaking yourself or your team.

Things will get messy. You may reach a point where you wonder if it's time to hang up your boots because there doesn't seem to be a way forward possible. But I promise you there is.

Take things one at a time, slow down, stay calm. Carefully consider the options moving forward, but don't do nothing. Overcommunicate, be compassionate and remember that ultimately, our goal is inclusive education. That means that every child learns to read and write right there in the classroom.

You are not on your own. You don't have to walk this path by yourself.

I'll see you next time. Bye.

References:

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York, NY: Macmillan.


Links to other relevant podcast episodes and blog posts.

S1 E2 - Should we be using commercial programs to teach reading?

5 Ways to Support Others Through Change

S1 E4 - How Many Feet Does Your School Have on the Bus?

S2 E12 - Bonus Episode - What to Expect on a Change Journey

S1 E22 - Change is hard, and we need everyone to do it

What does structured literacy (AKA the Science of Reading) mean for me?


Download your collection of FREE Resources to Help You on Your Change Journey below


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