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Policy, Leadership, and Change


Policy, Leadership and Change in a Principal's Decision: A Synthesis Paper in

Standards for Change
Submitted by: Greg Shwaga

On initial exposure to the theory behind leadership, policy, and change, you can

sense a fundamental connection. To articulate this connection in a logical,

comprehensible manner however, is no simple task. It was Colin Powell who said, "great

leaders are almost always great simplifiers." I do not profess to be a great leader;

however, as a school principal, I do feel a responsibility to be able to understand and

explain leadership, policy and change in ever greater detail. How then, are leadership,

policy, and change connected in my role as a school principal? In researching this

question, I came across some key lines from Antonio Machado's poem "Wanderer, There

is no Way." In the poem, Machado writes, "by walking we make the road, and only by

glancing back do we see the path." Unaware of the connection at the time, it is only by

"glancing back" on my first year as a principal, that I see how leadership, policy and

change converged in basically every major decision I made. The following will use my

school's adoption of a two-day cycle as an example to show how policy, leadership, and

change intersect in the routine decisions made by a school administrator.

Developing an adequate timetable is a never-ending challenge and can become

even more complex in a K-12 school with shared gymnasium, computer room, and

library facilities for elementary and secondary grades. To add to the complexity,

instruction in grades 10-12 in Saskatchewan is based upon 100- hour courses, while in

the elementary grades it is based upon minutes per week. To accommodate grades 10-12,

my school previously had used a three-day, two-day schedule. In this system, subjects

taken on Tuesday and Thursday are alternated with subjects taken on Monday,

Wednesday, and Friday. To ensure 100 hours of instruction, the days are then swapped in

the second semester. There are two severe flaws with this system. The first is that if

elementary grades plan on using any of the shared facilities during a set block, they

automatically lose their block with the semester change. The other flaw is that the same

subjects are affected repeatedly by holidays and school events taking place on Mondays

or Fridays. To address both weaknesses, the obvious solution is a rotating schedule. Of

the many varieties of rotating schedules, a two-day rotating schedule, where you

continuously alternate a day one with a day two, appeared be the easiest to implement.

Looking back now, it is clear that policy, leadership, and change issues were all present in

that one decision.

The Two-day Cycle as Policy

Pal (2001) defines policy as a "course of action or inaction chosen by public

authorities to address a given problem or interrelated set of problems." Similarly, Hope

(2002) defines policy as a "politically derived intervention whose purpose is to resolve a

perceived societal problem." By moving to a two-day cycle, my school was addressing

or attempting to resolve a large spectrum of interrelated problems. First of all, like many

rural schools, our enrolment continues to erode. As a result, one full-time teacher was cut

from our high school staff. This led to the problem of delivering the same complete high

school program with one less teacher. Another problem was the present schedule itself.

Subjects on Friday afternoons in particular were continually being missed as a result of

holidays, and school functions. Related to the current scheduling problem was the fact

that elementary teachers could never schedule blocks of physical education in the

afternoon because they would always get bumped out of their block at semester

changeover. Instead, elementary teachers always had to schedule physical education in


the morning during what they perceived to be "prime" learning time. Adding to this

problem, elementary teachers were still bitter from a four-year-old move that they had to

make into the high school when the elementary and high schools were combined.

Elementary teachers had always felt that, since their move, elementary school issues were

ignored. To add to the complexity, our school had to provide an industrial arts class once

per week to the intermediate students of a neighbouring school who had also lost a

teacher because of declining enrolment. Clearly, our move to a two-day cycle had a basis

in a complex set of problems.

Hope (2002) suggests that new policies represent a shifting of priorities. Looking

back on our move to a two-day cycle, there is little doubt that, with the new timetable,

our school's priorities are different. To summarize, there is greater emphasis on the needs

of our elementary grades than there ever has been before. This simply reflects the

changing demographics of our school in that our elementary grades now make up three-

quarters of our school population. The new timetable allows for elementary physical

education to be scheduled in the afternoon without interruption. It also allows for the

primary grades to have greater and uninterrupted access to the library and computer lab.

With greater emphasis being placed on elementary needs, the image of our school will

likely transform from being solely a high school to more of a "community school." An

added side benefit to this transformation, is that the community school model is what is

being advocated by Saskatchewan Learning in their School Plus mandate (Sask Learning,

2001). Therefore the decision to move to a two-day cycle was made in part, because of

shifting priorities.

In both Pal (2001) and Hope's (2002) definition of policy, intervention to address

the problem is a central component. The intervention in this case was of course

developing the timetable itself. It is interesting to note however that this course of action

started a chain reaction of interventions, all aimed at addressing the previously stated

problems. For example, to make the two-day cycle operable, the English 20 and 30

classes had to be combined as did the Grades seven, eight, and nine physical education

classes. In addition, our high school students now must rely in part, on on-line courses to

fulfill their objective requirements, and I must now be accredited in English in order to

teach the senior English component. From this experience, it easy to see now that a two-

day cycle is more than just a timetable, it is in fact, a course of action aimed at resolving

a complex set of problems.

While policy can be defined by what it does, it can also be defined by what it does

not do. For all that our timetable does, it no longer offers Calculus 30 or French 30. It

also does not offer high school physical education in the afternoon. Our inaction in these

areas again sends the message that our school is shifting its emphasis and allocating more

of its resources from the high school to elementary programming. In addition,

Information Processing is not being offered as a class with this timetable. Implicit in this

unwritten message is that information-processing skills are better embedded within the

curriculum than taught as a separate class. Finally, our school division does not allow for

teacher preparation time; however, when the school was over-staffed, it was routinely

assigned. The new schedule does not include prep time. This represents a re-alignment

of school and division policy. Our two-day timetable then, can be understood as much by

what it does not do, as by what it does.


Policy can come from different sources. Our two-day cycle timetable is an

excellent example of this. For instance, our schedule must be able to deliver the

programming that is mandated by Sask Learning. It must also allow our school to

educate children and youth while developing the whole child and support the delivery of

such services such as health and justice. This is to fulfill the vision of the school as set

out in Saskatchewan's School Plus initiative (Sask Learning, 2001). There is also related

division policy regarding programming, and my personal beliefs, opinions, and biases.

All of these sources come together in our timetable in what could be called an alignment

of policy. Therefore, while I didn't think of it as such at the time, looking back I can see

that in creating a timetable based on a two-day rotation, I was really creating a policy

framework in which I was the policy maker, and the staff and students policy takers (Pal,


The Two-day Cycle as Leadership

In describing principals as leaders, Schiller (2003) notes that there are initiator

principals who demonstrate a strongly held vision of where their schools are going and

what is best for their students, who have high expectations, and who make expectations

clear through many forms of communication. How then, is leadership demonstrated in a

routine administrative decision like adopting a new timetable?

Again, looking back, there is little doubt that my vision of what education in a

rural school should be, permeated my decision to move towards a two-day cycle. Having

taught in a First Nation's run school where literacy rates were poor, I witnessed first hand

the devastating effects this could have on both the school and community in general. At

its very worst, there is evidence to suggest that an intergenerational progression of

dysfunction can occur (Heward, 2003). Therefore, in my vision of education, the primary

focus of the elementary grades is to build adequate literacy skills. To add to this, the

elementary teachers claimed that they noticed a significant reduction in literacy skills in

the years following the move to the high school. While not researched extensively,

Canadian Tests of Basic Skills results in recent years seem to validate this claim. All of

this had an impact on shaping our new timetable, as there was a definite shift to taking

care of elementary needs first. This is exactly opposite of what had been occurring in the

years leading up to the two-day cycle. In a similar manner, my vision of rural de-

population helped construct the new timetable. In my view, we will continue to lose

students from our high school to the larger, better equipped urban schools so much so that

we will unlikely be able to realistically offer a full range of programming locally. We

will always have however a core of students for whom travelling long distances to high

school is unrealistic. In this situation, I feel on-line courses have immense potential. As

a result on-line courses are now scheduled into the new timetable in advance of this

arrangement becoming a necessity. By being proactive in this area, I hope to break what

Fullan (1998) describes as "context for dependency" where as a school we wait for a

"prepackaged" solution to arrive rather taking action ourselves. To summarize, vision,

consciously or unconsciously, shapes everyday decisions made by school administrators.

In setting expectations for the two-day cycle, Pete Rose, the famous baseball

player, comes to mind. As he entered the 1985 season, Rose was 78 hits away from

breaking Ty Cobb's all time hits record. When asked by reporters how many at-bats he

thought he needed to break the record, Rose responded with an unequivocal "78"

(Spilchuck, 2001). Rose obviously set high standards for himself, which explains, in

large part, his success as a baseball player. The same was true in creating our timetable.

School timetables simply have to be made to work. Anything less compromises

programming and strains the resources of the school. At no point did I entertain the idea

that a two-day rotation was unfeasible. I had seen it work in other places, and knew that

somehow our timetable needs could fit within it. Had I allowed the idea to enter my

mind that the two-day rotation was not going to work, I most certainly would have found

ways to make it fail. Instead, I embraced the idea and communicated to staff my belief

that a rotating schedule would improve our school. The very fact that I embraced the new

timetable added legitimacy to it (Hope, 2002). The fact that staff and students had input

into the timetable helped convey my expectations regarding the timetable to them, and

also added legitimacy to the process.

Fullan (1998) speaks of leaders as being people who fight for lost causes, or

people who instill hope. I have already mentioned the perilous situation of many rural

high schools including ours. Realistically the trend of rural de-population is not likely to

reverse itself and many rural high schools will simply not survive. Is this a lost cause?

Probably; however, I have seen many students from rural schools bring with them a

sound education, work ethic and moral base that serve them well after graduation. Is this

a lost cause worth fighting for? Again, the answer is probably. In a very small way, being

proactive with timetable creation, sends a hopeful message that our school can be re-

defined within the context of a new reality, and that we are indeed connected to a larger

purpose (Fullan, 1998). Thus, leadership aspects such vision, expectations,


communication, and hope play a significant role in the daily decisions of a school


The Two-day Cycle as a Standard for Change

Often, introducing an element of change creates resistance and an opportunity in

which to understand how to more effectively bring about change. Once in a while,

however, an element of change, such as our two-day cycle, is introduced with relative

ease. This also becomes an equally valid opportunity to learn about change and formulate

some framework for a standard for change.

Although as Bolman and Deal (1997) point out individuals will often get blamed

when the real issues are systemic, structural factors were in place that favoured the

introduction of a new timetable at my school. In this case, the old timetable had serious

and visible structural flaws. The old method of scheduling was not fair to the elementary

students and several high school subjects. The staff identified these flaws, and was

therefore more favourable to changing them. Bolman and Deal (1997) also point out that

people do not function well without structure or a clear definition of roles. In the past,

teachers had to wait until late August to find out their teaching assignment for the coming

year. This time however, as a side benefit to working on a new timetable structure,

teachers were able to find out their assignments in early June and thus their roles within

the new two-day cycle were clearly defined. With roles clearly defined, resistance to the

new structure diminished. In terms of a standard for change, important lessons were

learned regarding structure. First of all, it easier to change if there are visible weaknesses

in the old structure and consensus about the weaknesses has been reached, and secondly,

it is easier for people to accept change if they know what their roles will be in the new


I have found in working with the new timetable, that a "common devil" does pull

people together (Bolman & Deal, 1997). In this situation, declining enrolment and

outside politics meant that our staff suffered a reduction of one full-time equivalent

teacher. Members on staff accepted the economics, and the fact that this personnel move

was necessary and therefore rallied to produce an inside solution (new timetable) to an

externally created problem (common enemy). As far as this being a standard for change,

the lesson to take away is that when implementing change, create an issue around which

to rally and then build internal solutions to address the issue.

Fortunately, in implementing the new timetable, historical issues were also on my

side. Elementary teachers had felt for four years that their issues had been ignored in

favour of the high school. Some had even displayed a defeatist and cynical attitude,

thinking that their issues and concerns would never be addressed. These same people

became strong supporters of the proposed change once they realized that the change

would address their historical agenda. A lesson here about implementing change is to

periodically review historical issues that have gone unsolved. In many cases unlikely

alliances will be built that will support the change process.

After witnessing the implementation of new two-day cycle, I believe there are

policies, structures and institutions that are more easily changed than others are. Bridges

(1991) discusses managing transitions as a key to implementing change, and how

transition starts with an ending. In many change initiatives, however, defining or

deciding on, the end of the status quo may be difficult to do. I found that with creating a

new timetable, there is a definite end to the old that is quite visible to all. All school

years come to a close providing a unique opportunity to start fresh every September. In

this case as well, there was the added factor of a critical incident (loss of a teacher) to

mark the end of the status quo. After getting people to let go of the old, many change

initiatives stall in what Bridges (1991) describes as the neutral zone. In the neutral zone,

people can become paralyzed because they have left familiar territory, but have not yet

arrived in the new. In implementing a new timetable however, the neutral zone is

"neutralized." Teachers left in June following the old timetable and will return in August

fully immersed in a two-day cycle. There is not really any time in-between for staff or

students to lament the previous year and fear the new. Therefore, to use this experience

in implementing a new timetable as a standard for change, it is helpful, as a change agent,

to identify structural weaknesses in the status quo and ensure that roles in the new

structure are clarified. Strategically, it is beneficial to find a "common enemy" when

implementing change, and then work to find an internal solution to the problem. It is also

helpful to re-visit historical issues and build alliances with unlikely sources to further

your change initiative. Finally, it is helpful to be able to symbolically bring about the end

to the status quo and minimize the neutral zone in implementing change. All of these

were lessons I learned "accidentally" while implementing a new timetable.

Thus, in looking back on the path created, I better understand how policy,

leadership, and change are connected within the decisions I make as a school principal.

Decisions are policy. Like policy, decisions, such as scheduling sometimes address a

complex set of problems, and can represent a shift in priority. Administrative decisions

set in motion a course of action, and in so doing also defines a course of inaction. Both

send messages about where the administration stands on certain issues. Also like policy,

administrative decisions come from different sources such as provincial and municipal

governments. Decisions are also about leadership. They represent vision, they set

expectations, and they fight for causes. Finally, decisions are about change and when

implemented effectively, become standards for change. Therefore, I knew was going to

be a principal, but what I wasn't told is that that term is synonymous with policy maker,

instructional leader, and change agent as well.



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