Why Is Change So Hard…


“We have met the enemy and he is us”


Pogo, the possum’s quote for earth Day = April 1970 – Walt Kelly 



I ended a recent piece with a quote from Bruce Dixon – “the biggest myth about school change is the possibility of change.”


At the time I mentioned that I’d be returning to that piece with some thoughts about the change process in schools and, specifically, why it’s so hard. I’ve been reflecting a lot on several ideas and experiences that I’m going to try to weave into some kind of sensible fabric here.

  • Susan Scott, in her book, Fierce Conversations, shares an explanation of the Pacific Islander term “mokita” – the things that everyone in an organization/group tacitly agrees not to discuss.
  •  Simon Sine’s TEDTalk on what makes people follow leaders and his description of the “circle of safety”
  • The notion that people don’t quit jobs as much as they quit bosses.
  • Piaget’s theory that children enter school with explanations for how the world works and the majority of these explanations are wrong, frequently requiring that unlearning must precede new learning.
  • The idea that leadership is actually the ability/capacity to build followership.
  • Followership is based on relationships and trust.

When Susan Scott introduces us to the concept of “mokitas”, she notes that often people in work, in families, in organizations tacitly agree never to discuss things in the name of group or organizational harmony… most frequently, at the cost of honesty and, all too frequently, at the cost of trusting relationships.

Quality relationships are not based on the shaky ground of mokitas. Add Simon Sinek’s work on what makes people follow leaders to this mix and you get the notion of organizational safety. Sinek offers that good leaders provide a “circle of safety” for the members of the organization, a safety built on trusting relationships. We rarely have strong and positive relationships with folks whom we cannot and do not trust.

Closely related to these two concepts is the notion that Piaget offers, and while developed around the learning of children, it can easily be applied to adults and adult learning.

During a normal career in teaching, most of us have experienced some times when we perceived that there was no “circle of safety”, where there were obvious of mokitas, too little trust and little risk taking.

We learned that there were some “truths” that no one talked about. One such truth was that it didn’t pay to get too invested in the latest change initiative because, like many others, it would soon be replaced by the next “new, better” thing.

We learned that most of our best relationships were with the people with whom we felt safe. People we learned to trust. People we deemed to be “trustworthy”.

We also learned that much of the leadership in the school/district was based more on compliance than the creation of followership.

And so we learned an explanation of how our organization worked. Sometimes our learning was accurate. Some times it was less so. But it made little difference. We had explanations about the way our world worked and we made decisions based on that reality… regardless of their accuracy.

In too many instances in school cultures, that reality told us that change is can be dangerous. Change can be painful. Change can be frustrating. Change can be hard work. Rarely did we see examples of change being good, with the exception of the occasional changes in ”leadership”… that is, until we learned that changing the person but not the culture was just a different kind of “not so good”. For many of us, it became our reality to distrust even the change in leadership.

And here’s the Pogo Mokita…

Most of us who have spent significant time as teachers can admit that every now and then we would have a class where “the chemistry just wasn’t right”. Things never quite came together. Teaching that group became like swimming through mud.

After experiencing that a couple of times, I came to recognize the part I played in that dynamic and it had to do with the lens through which I was seeing that group. I didn’t “own” who they were, but I certainly owned how I saw and responded to them. It wasn’t an easy “learning” for me. I was able to have that conversation with myself but I certainly wouldn’t have tried to extend the idea to my colleagues that we were responsible for how we saw and responded to kids in our class or the class as a whole. Circle of safety? Hardly.

For the chemistry to change I had to change my lens. It is the same with change. If we don’t begin to change the lens through which we see schooling and learning we prove Pogo’s point that we have met the enemy and he is us. We have not had an easy time changing lenses. As I traveled around the country visiting schools, I saw this pattern much too frequently.

Too frequently, we have allowed experiences to form explanations that cause us to reject change and that excuse our unwillingness to change. We’ve said “we can’t” when we really meant “we won’t”. We have focused on “other-directed” explanations. If only the state wouldn’t be so prescriptive, if only the board would give us more time, if only these kids were more like they used to be, etc., etc., etc. Feel free to fill in the blank here.

But here’s an “inconvenient truth”. We are working in a system in which the engagement of level of children drops from well over 70% in elementary school to barely more than 40% by the end of high school. We are working in a system that as designed and structured around the ideas and recommendations of the Committee of Ten in the 1890’s. At he same time we are systematically ignoring what we can find in research and what we intuitively know about the ways in which children learn best and, by doing so, we are yielding responsibility for “reform” to people poorly equipped to have such power.

We are not the architects of that system but we are the keepers and we are continuing to ‘keep’ the “wrong” system. We do this by bridling at the mention of a change in the school day structure, a change in the grading policies of our school, a transfer to a new grade level, a change in student grouping patterns or curriculum. We are promoting the development of a ‘growth mindset” in students while ignoring the consequences of adhering to our own “fixed mindset”.

Gandhi suggested, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The possibilities for meaningful change in our schools, the potential unlocked by the creation of circles of safety, the potential of trust and honest conversations, rest in no small degree on our willingness to expose our mokitas and to create circles of safety where we can begin the process of unlearning and relearning.

The last thing I want on my gravestone is “Pogo was right.”



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