Change brings about uncertainty, which brings about vulnerability. Vulnerability and uncertainty can be unsettling for employees and other stakeholders in an organization. In my case, in a school setting, system change impacts not only the employees (teaching and non-teaching staff), but students and parents as well, and potentially other community members. Remember, most people need stability to see their path; their future in the organization, so any type of change, whether big or small, brings about an unsettling feeling. The challenge when you are leading change is not only to manage the change itself, but more importantly to manage people through the change. Essentially system change = people change.
Before landing at the International School of Curitiba (ISC), I knew I would be responsible for researching and launching a new School Information System (SIS). For those of you not in the world of education, a SIS is used to manage a vast range of student data. SISs provide capabilities for registering students in courses, documenting and tracking grading, transcripts, building student schedules, taking and tracking attendance, demographics, and many other student related data needs in a school. This system is accessed by all stakeholders in a school community, including teachers, administrators, secretarial staff, students, and parents. Introducing a new SIS was to be one of the biggest projects that I had undertaken in my career, and would impact so many facets of the school.
A couple of key pieces of information in regard to our unique situation at ISC. First, we ended up purchasing three products from PowerSchool (PS); their SIS, their Classroom Management System, named Unified Classroom (UC), and their Enrollment Software. The Classroom Management System would replace Google Classroom (our current system). UC is intended for teachers, students, and parents. It is used to load assignments and class materials, for assessing these assignments once students are complete, and as a feedback and communications tool between teachers, students, and parents.
Now it might seem counterproductive to try and launch several pieces of software at the same time, why not roll them out over a number of years? Approaching this system change with a systems thinking approach was an important part of the process. To me, this means looking at how these new systems we were purchasing would impact all divisions, departments and stakeholders in the school and school community. And how this would impact their interconnectedness and functionality. As Shaked and Schechter (2017) state in System Thinking for School Leaders “systems thinking provides a wider practical framework that schools can employ as they see fit, in a variety of areas, during daily school life. We propose that systems thinking may serve as a point of view about school leadership—a way to appreciate and address almost every issue within school.” In approaching decision making this way, it invariably leads to a “no stone unturned approach” where sound decisions can be made.
We launched our new SIS, PowerSchool, in August 2019, but our journey towards this launch started in August 2018. It began, like any large undertaking should, with a great deal of research. The IT team narrowed the three SISs that we were going to examine down to three choices before we started our research. These were Rediker, PowerSchool (PS), and Veracross. We chose these three for very particular reasons; Rediker, because ISC had examined it the previous year and already started a conversation with them about a partnership, PS, because they were a leader in the global market space, and I had personally had experience with them at my previous school, Korea International School, and lastly, we chose Veracross because they were also one of the top SISs in the global marketspace and we knew several other International Schools that had success with them. After over 80 hours of research (which included visiting schools using these programs), we ended up selecting PS. Our presentation to the Leadership Team can be FOUND HERE. We chose PS for several reasons: the variety of services provided, the global reputation, their cutting edge technology, and the price point.
The early part of 2019 was spent in our implementation phase as we prepared to go live with the system, introducing it to parents, students and teachers. I don’t want to spend too much time speaking to this part of the process, because that is not the focus of this blog post, but in terms of the SIS and UC, the training and preparation was fairly smooth. It involved many online sessions with PS experts, and we even had a trainer come out to ISC for 7 days to spend time with select stakeholders. The student enrollment piece was not as smooth, and is still in the development/implementation phase, but that story is for another post. Secondly, along with implementing three new pieces of software, we also made the shift from a traditional grading system to standards referenced grading.
For the remainder of this piece, I will use a framework on system change to shape my writing. The Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change by Timothy Knoster has been around for quite some time and is a trusted framework for developing, shaping, and evaluating system change.
We went live with PS and UC in August 2019 during all staff training, prior to students returning to school. Over the course of the semester, there was much training that took place for students, parents, and teachers. This training took many forms. For teachers, we had them in a sandbox, or practice classroom prior to going live, we had in person training at staff meetings and after school sessions, and we created a website with videos and other resources and training materials. For students, we pushed in to classrooms to train them, and as we trained teachers, relied on them to train students. For parents, there were many morning and evening sessions to teach them the new system.
In looking at the Knoster model, if all of the pieces are in place, a system change will be “successful”. I will say, that “success” is going to look different for everyone and is often hard to define. But if you had asked me at the start of the school year, I would have defined success with PS and UC as a smooth launch, the capacity for all stakeholders to feel comfortable with the software, and our shift to standards referenced grading to integrate well with PS and UC. By the end of first semester (December 2019), I believe that the launch of PS/UC could be labeled a success.
The vision started before I even arrived at ISC. The need for system change was set forth by our Head of School (HOS), Dr. Michael Boots, who knew at the time that the current SIS was not robust and practical enough for a growing school. Additionally, with the shift to standards referenced grading, the school was going to need a SIS that was responsive to this requirement. He has shared this vision with the school wide leadership team, who in turn had shared it with their departments/divisions. When I arrived at the school in August 2018, my job was to share in this vision (something that I had already done through the interview process), and to continue to paint, and bring to fruition, this vision for the school. I believe that this was one area where we did extremely well, as Knoster points out, without a vision and end goal, people are led to feelings of confusion. I will wholeheartedly say that leading up to and during the launch, the vision was extremely clear, and articulated on numerous occasions. As Dr. Boots often says: “You cannot over-communicate”.
Incentives is an interesting word for me. Marriam-Webster defines incentives as: something that incites or has a tendency to incite to determination or action. According to the Knoster model without it, as an organization we experience resistance to change. In our situation, much of the incentive had to do with buying into the vision as set out by the HOS and myself, as well as the division principals, and other school wide leaders. There was no monetary bonus or raise for engaging with the system change, but there was the simple fact that we were making the move because it was better for all learners. Incentive in this case, in my opinion, had more to do with internal motivation than anything else. In this vein, that is where some of the challenges came from. As we know, you will never get 100% buy in on any initiative. If you have the support of the majority, then you are good to move forward. And for those that were late adopters, this is where having difficult conversations comes into play, and the leadership team is tasked to speaking with those individuals and sharing the vision again. Once a shared understanding was reached, those late adopters were able to move forward.
The Knoster model points out that without resources, there can be a sense of frustration. From the IT team’s perspective, we knew we were on a tight budget with training and this was the main resource that we required to get the job done. We had a trainer come to ISC to train a small group of teachers, administrators, secretaries, and the IT Team. We also felt that Time was another precious resource, especially as the deadline approached. This was one area that we did not have to struggle with as we had started the process very early and PS helped with a detailed timeline to launch. One of the other resources that we tapped into was other schools in the country and region that were currently using PS. These human resources were extremely helpful, especially as we got closer to our launch date and when we actually launched. For our staff, students and parents, we developed a PS and UC Website that was full of resources from PowerSchool itself, and ones that we have developed to support learning such as step by step tutorials. As the IT team became more comfortable with PS and UC we became the main resource for teachers, and this was a tremendous help.
The anxiety around lack of skills hit out team first well before we launched. Being a high functioning group and being seen as experts, our IT team obviously wanted to preserve this reputation. As soon as the decision was made to move to PS, the three of us who would be largely responsible for PS/UC started to develop our own training plan. We knew as part of our purchase package we would have training from PS, but we wanted more, so that we felt 100% comfortable as the face of PS for ISC. We requested online sessions with other schools in the region who were experienced PS users and in March 2020 two of us will attend PS University. That being said the focus for skills was not our team, and was the students, teachers, and parents. In our orientation training prior to the school year beginning we were given 8 hours to train staff. This was a large allotment of time, given the fact that total orientation time is usually about 32 hours before the students begin school. We utilized the expertise in the IT Team, as well as the teacher experts who had been trained while the PS trainer was on site. Additionally, we used PL mornings and after school sessions to continually train teachers and be responsive to their concerns. Beyond this, we were readily available in our office for teachers, students, and parents. We have an open door policy in IT (This is literal, when I joined the team, I removed the door to our workspace). With students, we held sessions in the first few days of school to acclimatize them to the new system. With our teachers feeling more and more comfortable, they naturally became the first point of contact for students. As for parents, this was the most challenging group to upskill. This is mostly due to the fact that face to face contact can be a challenge. The first obstacle was actually getting the parents to set their new logins for the system. Without going into all of the details, it took us 10 weeks after going live to get about 90% of parents to sign into the system. I know this may seem like a long time, but this is after countess calls, emails, and in person sessions. Once we had them in the system, the next step would be to upskill all of them. This was done through multiple daytime and evening sessions, as well as utilizing our PS/UC website and filling it with parent resources, including print, slidedecks, and videos.
In working with a large company such as PowerSchool, that has launched systems many times over, part of our action plan was taken care for us. Once we started training in the system and setting up the database, there were weekly check ins, and a complete checklist to follow. The portion of the action plan that we developed was the actual internal launch. This is one area that I think we could have improved on, and if I am ever involved in systems change again, I would have this mapped out in more detail. I always had a plan in my head as to what roll out would look like, but unless this is regularly, and clearly communicated to all stakeholders, then bumps in the road can arise. As I mentioned earlier, there were many sessions for students, parents, and teachers, but I would have laid out the roadmap in detail beforehand so that everyone had a window into my thinking. I now know that this would have reduced a great deal of anxiety.
If you are to walk away with one idea from this reading, it is that system change = people change. This is why whether the change be in your department, division, school, or district, it is always a challenge. People are complex beings and bring a plethora of experiences, ideas, and expectations to any workplace. What you, as a leader, or leadership team, may deem as good for the organization, might prove as problematic for individuals within that organization. To add to this, most people are resistant to change, because they tend to operate in their comfort zone. We know that people grow the most when we can move them out of this comfort and disrupt their thinking. So when it comes to change, even if we know its good for the organization and people within it, we are going to face some resistance. This is why it is imperative to do your research, plan accordingly, upskill your employees, provide them with necessary resources, and be sure to communicate frequently about the change.