color graphic of man in trenchcoat and sunglasses with words ''become a change agent''I was reading my Twitter feed a few days ago, and one person was sharing some innovations at their school. This drew the comment from another tweeter that ”we could never do that in our school.” This made me think about how change occurs in education, and what sorts of qualities are required in order to be an effective change agent.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t try to copy another school’s innovations. If indeed it’s true that you ”could never do that” in your school, then don’t even try.  The other school probably has a different ecology, a different administration, a different budget, a different history, and all these factors go into how changes at that school were made possible.
  2. Be inspired by the example of innovations at other schools.  Just because you can’t replicate another school’s innovations doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired by them. This may trigger ideas in you that could lead to changes that would work in your particular school setting. For example, if you learn of a school that has done away with homework, you might explore ways that homework at your school could be made more flexible and with more options.
  3. Scale up or down the innovations you see in other schools. If you learn about a school where students spend much of the day pursuing their own self-created projects (”we could never do that in our school”), you might envision how a fraction of your school day could be used for project-based learning.  Even 15-20 minutes a day would be a significant improvement that may lead to more incremental change over time. Similarly, if you learn of a small innovation at another school such as having students correct each other’s written assignments, you might want to think about using peer critique at your school in a more comprehensive way.
  4. Use your own personal and professional strengths to make changes in your school setting.  If you lack interpersonal savvy but have what Howard Gardner calls ”intrapersonal” intelligence, then don’t try to go about convincing others to change, but first make the changes in your own backyard.  You may even find that you’re a better change agent outside of the classroom, as a learning specialist, an administrator, or a teacher at a higher or lower grade level.  I discovered over a period of years that I was best as a change agent when I used my strength as a writer to advocate for school reform.
  5. Don’t expect to revolutionize your school or school district overnight.  Real change takes time.  If you create reforms in your own classroom, these changes may over the long haul end up seeping into other classrooms.  Many of the mindfulness programs that have taken root in schools and districts around the country, for example, started out with one enthusiastic teacher or a small group of educators getting other teachers excited, then bringing in specialists to train, then implementing a stage by stage process of using it in classrooms.
  6. If you’re an administrator, make sure you get ”buy- in” from your teachers before initiating any significant changes.  Top-down changes rarely result in significant, positive, and long-lasting changes.  Just look at the No Child Left Behind Act.  You can force external changes, but if the teachers aren’t with you, then they’re going to find ways of sabotaging your efforts. At each stage of the change process, bring teachers (and parents) into the conversation, and integrate their own suggestions into whatever projects or programs are being considered.
  7. If push comes to shove, become a guerilla change agent. This is, of course, the riskiest option, but if everything in your school or district remains rigidly attached to the same old same old practices, despite your best efforts (and the efforts of others), then seek to make ”sneaky changes” in your own classroom.  I sometimes have counseled teachers to create ”oases’ in their classroom schedule for implementing innovative practices.  For example, ”for the next ten minutes, I want you to write on any subject you like, and it won’t be graded or even looked at by me.” While I could never do this to my satisfaction in the classroom, I’ve noticed that some teachers have a special knack for implementing change inwardly while making it look outwardly like they’re adhering to the status quo.  This is the mark of a true change agent.

There are many other possibilities for implementing change in your school setting (e.g. enlist your students or parents to be the instigators of the changes you want to make), but the important thing is to do something.  The person who says ”we could never do that in our school” and then does nothing, is essentially closing the door before they’ve even looked into the other room for new possibilities.  With so much of education these days wedded to test scores, core competencies, value-added teacher evaluation, and other restrictive practices, the need has never been greater for educators who are willing to make positive changes, small or large, that will ultimately benefit the educational lives of our students.


For more ideas of initiating significant child-centered reforms in American education, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education

cover of book with Einstein and a school wall background

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.

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