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Navigating the Groan Zone

by Steve Saville

Since the start of this school term I have had numerous conversations with school leaders and leadership teams that have inevitably circled around a shared concern that has become increasingly apparent.

It goes something like this…

For a good part of this year schools have had a focus on staff and student wellbeing. In many cases this has been very successful or, in the very least, it has identified that wellbeing for all is a concern that has to be responded to now, and in the foreseeable future.

As the year has progressed leadership teams have started to also look at initiatives for the future development progress and growth of their school. Initiatives around curriculum review, learner agency Mātauranga Māori to name but three of the obvious ones.

As they have started to unpack these mid to long term initiatives and as they have taken stock of the current situation in their context something has become apparent.

That something can be loosely defined as cohesion. It is sometimes voiced as staff engagement but, in actual fact it is more to do collective purpose and staff cohesion.

In this continued time of disruption teachers surviving day to day is totally understandable but it has meant that, to varying degrees, the sense of collectivism that all schools depend on has been tested and, in many cases, compromised.

Whether it be through teacher exhaustion, or staff illness, or sporadic attendance the focus of the teacher is increasingly on the immediate - and they are often in response mode. Again totally understandable, but it does pose a problem. If a school wants to initiate and drive a valid initiative into this environment it is likely to sink without trace.

This dissonance manifests itself in many ways.

The sense that the school vision and values need to be revisited to ensure a shared understanding, the sense that formerly widely held processes and systems are no longer universally understood or practiced. The sense that teachers are in compliance, or engaged mode, but are losing the sense of empowerment that is vital if a school is to implement sustainable and owned development or change.

All of this is totally understandable as teachers' primary focus is on the students in front of them, so it is hardly surprising in our current reality that they have precious little time to focus on big picture visioning or new developments. It does, however, pose a problem for school leadership. Do they shelve all initiatives for the foreseeable future and focus on survival, or do they forge on ahead, shouldering the driving aspect, and hope that staff follow?

The latter option is a recipe for disaster, but possibly the natural response from school leaders.

As a leader you want to solve problems for those you lead, you want to help, you want to be the answer and, in times of disruption, it is a natural reaction to go forth as the knight in shining armour and fight the dragons yourself. Now this may make us feel like we are St. George, but we are in grave danger of being more of a Don Quixote figure.

The desire to fight the dragons solo and, in this case provide the lead for others to follow, is very strong (dangerously close to a Star Wars reference there), but ultimately it is not empowering for staff, and not sustainable. A school leader makes a very average Sir Lancelot even if we would like to be.

What to do then…

Well, it may help to break it down to an understanding and simplification of the change process. It may be about pausing before proceeding, and it may be about making sure we're all in the car before we roar off down the road. Lest it is the road to nowhere (apologies, but having avoided the Star Wars reference I couldn’t resist a Talking Heads one).

The diagram below may be a help, not only as a starting point but as an anchor when we are navigating these seas of change.

It is a version of the process diamond from Sam Kaner’s ‘Guide to Participatory Decision Making’', which was adapted in ‘Visual Collaboration’ by Ole Qvist- Sørensen and Lars Baastrup.

The essence of it is to provide a simple visual for leaders to frame the change process by and a way of reminding us all of the need for patience, to pause, to enable the cohesion to be established if we want the initiative, big or small, to be understood and sustained by all. Without a process like this we will forever be tilting at windmills (extended metaphors…no problem).

Any change process starts in the Divergent Zone where we look at our current position and share our ideas. These ideas are individual and wide ranging but need to be heard.

Having listened to voices and shared our position we must move into the Groan Zone. This is where we try to find common ground, it's where we establish where we want to be at the end of the process but, as yet, have no idea how to get there. We know what success might look like, but lack the map to get us from ‘here to there’. This is frustrating, confusing and complex. It requires making mistakes, testing assumptions and being patient. Airing ideas then walking away to allow for contemplation before revisiting is all part of this process.

Ultimately, with some prompting, we should leave the Groan Zone with a shared understanding and road map, this is the Convergent Zone, where our differences and varied positions become normed behind a shared understanding of the purpose and pathway to that goal. This is where actual decisions can be made that are collectively understood and owned. This is what cohesion looks like and this is where the team working together replaces the knight flailing around by themselves.

Whether the issue is a change, a review, or a reflection, the process can remain the same. To review our understanding of the school vision and values, or how we are going to weave Mātauranga Māori into our learning experiences, the process is the same. Pause, listen, allow for the Groan Zone because we can't get to the shared understanding unless the obstacles have been faced and removed.

What is that African proverb…

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together”.

If you want a tool to help you do this follow this link, WAYPOINT TOOL

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