Rising Leaders’ Guide to Change and Innovation: Guiding the Throttle of Change (Part 1)

Mark DixonRising Leaders’ Guide to Change and Innovation, The CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Rising Leaders' Guide to Change and Innovation: Guiding the Throttle of Change

We are living in a time of rapid and forced educational change. In our role as school leaders, our passion for our product is what prompts us to identify changes needed in our schools. However, leaders do not always reflect on the distinct process that healthy change requires, particularly when circumstances force expeditious change.

School leaders are faced with this question: How does our school not simply survive circumstantially forced change, but excel in shepherding visionary change in which all constituents flourish? To first catalyze and then manage healthy change, school leaders must begin by building relational trust.

Relational Trust

Relationships make all the difference in schools. Researchers Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider  at The University of Chicago examined the role of social relationships in schools and their impact on student achievement. They define relational trust as “the confidence that colleagues will do their jobs and will take time to help each other.” They concluded that “a broad base of trust across a school community lubricates much of a school’s day-to-day functioning and is a critical resource as local leaders embark on ambitious improvement plans.”

Author Parker Palmer asserts that “relational trust is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” In order to foster this kind of climate, effective leaders model this posture and expect that team members will afford the same generosity in their relationships within the school community.

This approach from school leaders gives faculty members permission for innovation, freeing risk-averse colleagues to “Just Try Something!”, a motto adopted by Sunnyside High School in Chicago with great success: “Staff members appreciated being trusted to think for themselves and modeled a bold stance for students about the importance of taking risks.”  The school’s remarkable turnaround in just three years is attributed largely to growing relational trust throughout the organization. In fact, Bryk and Schneider’s longitudinal study of over 400 schools affirmed the “central role of relational trust in building effective education communities.”

Steps Toward Relational Trust

Here are practical ways that school leaders can build trust and create a climate for organizational growth:

  • Seek and implement feedback.
    • Carve out consistent opportunities for faculty and students to meet with key administrators for the purpose of sharing new ideas and providing insight into school life and student culture.
    • Give students the proverbial “mic” wherever possible. Our school launched a schoolwide Innovative Design contest last school year (think Shark Tank) in which teams of students and adults could compete for $10K worth of funding for capital initiatives focused on improving the student experience.
    • Build time into each faculty meeting for colleagues to discuss relevant topics and work collaboratively to offer insight into various aspects of school change. Seize easy opportunities to implement great ideas from faculty.
  • Communicate with clarity and candor. Direct, clear conversations expedite change. The faster a problem can be identified and named, the faster it can be addressed. Trust grows as the leader proves himself committed to coaching colleagues toward solutions.
    • Use a shared online platform to provide teachers with immediate feedback, including encouragement and reflective questions, following pop-in observations. The follow-up meeting is not always possible, so the online format creates a reliable space for dialogue.
    • Keep short accounts with your stakeholders and faculty. Address conflict clearly and quickly to seek resolution and understanding.
  • Trust colleagues’ expertise and insight. Inevitably, leaders find themselves in the middle of a conflict between two or more parties. Demonstrate trust by empowering colleagues to lean into conflict, but coach your team members in managing feedback and seeking reconciliation.
    • Reaffirm your confidence in teachers’ relational instincts with parents. Insist that teachers opt for phone calls or Zoom calls with parents as opposed to emails. These mediums strengthen relationships and ensure that the tone of both parties is understood.
    • Avoid protecting colleagues from critique. Encourage parents to communicate directly with the teacher whenever possible. It’s much better for professionals to be aware of critiques, especially when the information is paired with encouragement and generative dialogue with an administrator or peer.
  • Balance accountability with celebration. Set clear and manageable expectations, then check to see that they are being met or exceeded. Equally important is prioritizing opportunities to celebrate excellence and service within your faculty.
    • Set aside five minutes at the end of faculty meetings for colleagues to spontaneously affirm, encourage, and celebrate each other. Trust grows as team members feel seen and deeply valued.
    • Send a handwritten note to each student, each school year. You can send it on student birthdays or spontaneously. Either way, make sure each student gets one. This is a small gesture that enables each student to feel seen and known.

As relational trust grows, constituents are more likely to be energized by visionary change. In Part 2, we’ll discuss how leaders must keep a steady hand on the throttle of change, staying focused on both pace and purpose.

This is the first part of a two-part entry in the Rising Leaders’ Guide to Change and Innovation. Subscribe to the CACE newsletter to be notified when the second part is published.


  • Mark Dixon

    Mark has worked 17 years in education, nine as a school administrator. With a background in English, school counseling, and coaching, he has served in public, non-sectarian independent, and Christian schools. He became Dean of Students then Upper School Head at The Stony Brook School on Long Island. He served as Middle School Head at Montgomery School in the Philadelphia suburbs and is currently in his third year as Upper School Head at Delaware County Christian School. Mark and his wife Cara have two boys and two girls.

  • Ellen Barrett

    Ellen Barrett has worked in education for 20 years, with most of those years spent in middle school classrooms. For Ellen, walking with students during this time of vulnerability and immense growth is an opportunity to minister to both them and their parents. Ellen has worked in public and Christian schools, as well as in youth ministry. She attended Texas A&M, Denver Seminary, and Michigan State University, completing an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership. She currently serves as Head of Middle School at Second Baptist School. Ellen is married to Davy (also an educator) and is a mom to two teenagers.

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