Effecting change

The school leaders we spoke to all agreed that there is no silver bullet that will effect a paradigm shift in school culture or in teaching and learning. School improvement is necessarily complex, and changes need to be carefully managed if they are to succeed and be sustainable.

Leaders highlighted various challenges they had faced when leading change in their schools, and they told us what they had found helpful in addressing them.

Personnel challenges

Managing change

Some teachers were resistant to change, not initially seeing the need for it or understanding how it would help their students. Others had concerns about sharing their practice, planning collaboratively, or being open to professional scrutiny. Many were concerned they were losing control of ‘their’ class and that students would get lost if they moved to a larger, shared space.

Effective strategies schools were adopting

For understanding effective practice:

  • Use research and examples of good practice from your own school or other schools (for example, in a Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako).
  • Unpack what student agency really means and why it is critical; share ways to develop it.
  • Clarify what shifting the locus of control from teacher to students means. Giving students control is not the same as losing control. Explore the big difference between ‘letting’ and ‘letting go’.
  • Address concerns that at-risk students will get lost. Collective responsibility for learners means there are more sets of eyes on them, supporting, scaffolding and encouraging learning. Many schools reported fewer behavioural issues in flexible learning spaces (FLSs).
  • Explore the value of collaborative planning. Instead of doing all planning well in advance work with others to be responsive to students’ needs. Be adaptable and flexible.

Teaching is more intense at school as we work together but I’m getting back more of my weekends – improved work-life balance.

- Teacher

For working with teachers:

  • Have clear and manageable expectations.
  • Keep sharing and discussing research – it is motivating.
  • Have teachers talk about their practice.
  • Monitor buy-in as the school moves ahead; make sure the majority is with you.
  • Be mindful of the emotional impact of change and support people as necessary.
  • Encourage teachers to be innovative. It is okay to try new things provided their impact is monitored. If an initiative does not work, learn from it. Whether it works or not, share the learning with others.
  • Ask questions of teachers and let the answers and solutions come from them.


School leaders recognised that relationships were vitally important, even more so in a collaborative working environment. Individual interests could get in the way of team dynamics and professionalism. 

Effective strategies schools were adopting

For teacher relationships:

  • Establish a trusting, professional school culture where there is no blame, only a shared desire to improve outcomes for students.
  • Leaders and teachers model how to be learners.
  • Draw parallels between the collaborative practice required of teaching teams and the way students are expected to work.
  • When working in a team environment, each teacher takes ultimate responsibility for the pastoral care and related administration of a group of the shared students. Parents can make contact with this teacher in the first instance.

Appointing the right people

Some leaders had difficulty sustaining change when new appointments joined the staff.

Effective strategies schools were adopting

When selecting new staff take time to get the appointments right. Possible strategies include:

  • looking for teachers who are team players and have a growth mindset
  • clearly stating your expectations as to how teachers should go about planning and teaching
  • changing aspects of the appointment process if you need to
  • observing candidates teaching to ensure they can walk the talk
  • checking their pedagogy, especially if coming into a digital classroom or FLS, as these mean different things to different people
  • Getting prospective teachers to interview the appointments panel.

If you don’t want to learn and you don’t want to be challenged, don’t come here, you won’t cope.

- Principal

Coherence and alignment challenges

Changing teaching and learning had flow-on effects, so schools often had to take a close look at other things too; for example, how they organised their days, provided opportunities for teachers to plan together, used staff meetings, managed PLD and appraisal, structured classes, and organised and utilised spaces. They also needed to review network provision, software and systems, and what furniture and alterations to physical spaces were required. Only then could they decide resourcing priorities.

Effective strategies schools were adopting

Involve your teachers in decisions and subsequent changes.

  • Work with staff to explore aspects of the school where changes would enhance teaching and learning; this develops understanding and ownership.
  • Keep the focus of meetings on teaching and learning rather than administrative tasks.
  • Make sure that expectations are clear and agreed upon. For example, ensure that all teachers in a team-teaching environment know the students (their interests, strengths and needs) so that the best person is always working with each student.

Community concerns

Leaders found that it could be a challenge to get the pace of change right for the different parts of the school community. Most parents and whānau had experienced schooling that was very different to the education their children were experiencing. Like many teachers, parents were often concerned about how the children (especially those at risk of poor achievement or with special learning needs) would manage in an FLS.

Effective strategies schools were adopting

Leaders suggested the following strategies when planning change:

  • Carefully consider all possible barriers to change. Address as many of these as you can ahead of time so that hesitant teachers and sceptical parents have positive experiences.
  • Pay particular attention to providing for the social, spatial and acoustic needs of students with special learning difficulties. For example, when planning an FLS, consider a welcoming retreat area to which autistic students have priority access when in need of some quiet time.
  • Carefully monitor how at-risk students are engaging in and achieving in class. They may actually benefit from having the attention of more than one teacher.
  • Keep the change process moving: not so slow as to lose momentum or so fast as to be difficult for people to accept or adapt to.

Strategies for bringing parents and whānau with you:

  • Keep communications with the school community simple and frequent. Repeat key messages often and in different ways.
  • Run workshops for parents; sometimes get students to lead them.
  • Hold open days so parents and whānau can see teaching and learning in action.
  • As part of enrolment processes include a tour of the school in action. Consider using students as guides so they can talk about what it is like to be a learner in the school.
  • When visiting effective schools with teachers, take parents and students too so that they can see alternative teaching and learning and curriculum delivery practices. Ask them what they thought; what they liked and did not like.