Hold a Wake for School Change

Earlier today, I tweeted this:

Since change is so tough and often compared to grieving, why not hold a wake for the old program/idea when we take our next step?

OK. So comparing the change process in schools to the grieving process is not my idea. I can’t think of where I first heard about it, but a simple google search turned up many hits including scholarly articles and blog posts. Last week, George Couros posted on his blog about change and there was a deep conversation in the comments. In my comment, I said,

So, when we attempt to help teachers internalize the need for change, we must also help them work through some complex emotions. There is much literature about the change process following a pattern similar to that of grieving. Convincing facts and large amounts of data are not enough.”

I got thinking that there must be ways to actually do this.

Since reacting to change is like reacting to grief for some folks, why not use some of the grieving rituals to help with the process. Why not hold a wake; come together to mourn the loss of the old program or the way we used to do things. If we give folks time to grieve with one another we will be further on the way to smoothing the transition.

The “wake” would be relatively simple (and, unlike some traditions, there will be no drinking). Anyone who wants to would write something they will miss once the change happens. Put all of these ideas together in a box (better not make the box too much like a coffin). Then, with a tiny bit of ceremony, bury the box (literally, if that works for you).

Once the old idea/program/practice is buried, move on to welcoming the new idea/program/practice. Be explicit about both steps and be transparent about the “wake” and why you are doing this.

Those who are not looking forward to the change or who are still upset that the old way will be gone, will appreciate that you have at least acknowledged their point of view. And, it ought to be clear that the change is going to happen.

While this idea might seem a bit morbid, making changes in schools without finding a way to bring along the reluctant ones will be downright deadly.

cross posted to Principal’s Point of View


  1. Jennifer L said:

    As much as i like the idea of a wake, I foresee a problem. Sometimes changes occur in school policy and teachers are expected to pick up the ball and run without having any input along the way. Unless it is clear why certain changes are needed and that the changes have buy-in from more than one group of stakeholders, there will ultimately be a lot of foot dragging. I’ve seen too many “best new thing” introductions for products, programs, disciplinary routines, and even minor rules and those changes barely become part of the school culture before there’s another “best new thing.” The whiplash gets exhausting.

    I would suggest a “mourning period” before any significant change goes into effect. Give teachers time to get worries on the table and get their questions answered. This could take more than a ten minute “ceremony” in the middle of a faculty meeting!

    When a loss occurs, it’s usually swift and without warning; emotions begin in shock and then boil over. There’s no reason change should come as such a shock if there is strong communication between administrators and teachers.

    December 2, 2010
    • Jennifer,

      You make a good point about the time needed when mourning.

      One of the things that I find most valuable about being Jewish is the very proscriptive mourning periods. First, we bury the dead quickly – usually within a day or so. Then, for seven days we gather with friends and family to mourn and pray each evening. Those mourning do not leave the house or engage in normal life. Those in mourning also “rend their clothing” or at least wear a torn black ribbon for the first thirty days as they re-enter the community. The rituals go one with specific ways to mourn at the end of one year and each year thereafter.

      Now, I’m not suggesting that we adopt Jewish law for mourning school change. Maybe we can put together the wake with a proscribed mourning ritual/period and really give teachers a chance to deal with the change. As long as there is a process in place.

      All that I am certain of is that we need to be considering the human emotions of the staff as we implement change.

      Thank you for commenting.

      December 6, 2010
      • Jennifer L said:

        Thanks so much for the reply, Larry. There’s so much wisdom in many religious traditions that we could learn from when developing procedures. I appreciate the example you gave about the traditional ways to mourn in Judaism–and a grieving process (or change process) is truly necessary in order to deal with the emotional side of change.

        Why do we, broadly speaking, forget to incorporate that kind of wisdom in our secular lives so often?

        Still, I look forward to greater communication between administrators and teachers. Being caught off guard erodes trust. Being part of the conversation before a change is implemented would help dampen the shock for me when a large scale change is in the works.

        December 6, 2010
  2. Larry: thanks for this piece, and thanks for thinking more deeply about what change really means (death!).

    I am sure that, far too often, those of us who call for change, and who vigorously advocate for change, lose sight of the emotional reality of that change. I think teachers should lecture less, a lot less, and I know that many teachers genuinely love lecturing– heck, I know that I genuinely loved lecturing. (I was good at it too; I know I was because I entertained myself each and every day listening to myself talk!) Taking it away from me is killing a part of me, to be sure.

    I don’t know if you know Rob Evans and his writings, but I think he has written the best book on exactly this topic: The Human Side of School Change. The title speaks for itself!

    Good work Larry!


    December 3, 2010
    • Jonathan,

      I too love to listen to my lectures.

      I have read Rob Evans, but I can’t find the Human Side of School Change on my shelf (currently boxes in reality). I may have leant it to the guidance counselor in 2002.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      December 6, 2010

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