Directing Change

“One reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up, instead of what they have to gain.” 

Rick Godwin
Sometime around 1976, my dad came home from work one evening and shared some news that seemed astounding, radical, and just a bit scary: his company was offering all employees the option of having their regular paychecks directly deposited into a specified bank account rather than receiving an actual paper check! He called this crazy new idea, “Direct Deposit.” Being one of the savviest people I have ever known, and realizing this change was not a scary thing, but, rather, something that would actually make his life better (albeit it in a small way), he immediately signed up. I recall him, however, telling us that the vast majority of his colleagues chose to continue with regular paper checks, rather than changing over to this new, more effective and efficient pay option. The idea of opting for this newfangled approach to getting paid seemed just a tad too risky, or simply different, apparently. My dad’s colleagues were focused more on what they would have to give up (an actual paycheck they had been receiving for many years which they fully understood) than on what they had to gain (e. g., never having to worry about depositing a paycheck again, and having their money deposited into their accounts sooner and more safely than previously).

Obviously, almost every single working person reading this post today has their paycheck directly deposited into a bank account and never gives it a second thought. In fact, many readers have likely never received a traditional paycheck requiring a visit to the bank. Trust me, though: in 1976, this change initiative struck me as nothing short of radical. Many of my father’s peers--presumably older and wiser than me at the the time--obviously felt the same, too scared to opt in to a program then, that, today, we all realize would have made their lives distinctly better. You know what eventually happened, of course. Over time, the fear went away, as more and more employees learned from these “risk-taking” early adopters that direct deposit is, indeed, a change for the good, not a change to be feared.

When I accepted my first full-time job in education (teaching 1st grade), our large school district offered direct deposit, but it was not required. Having learned from my father several years earlier, I eagerly signed up for my pay (a whopping annual salary of $12,673.00) to be directly deposited into my checking account. Like many employers, our school district allowed employees to choose either form of payment for quite some time. Then, a tipping point was reached and Direct Deposit became no longer an option, but simply the way the district paid all employees. The few remaining holdouts were simply required at that point to change from receiving a traditional paycheck to a direct deposit pay stub.

When I moved to Illinois in 2009 and served as a principal at a middle school, I learned that, apparently, direct deposit--something I had long taken for granted--was not the required form of pay for employees everywhere. That February, we experienced a blizzard that caused us to cancel school for students. As principal, I still went in to catch up on work. That morning, one of our teachers knocked on the door. I let her in and asked what she was doing out in this crazy weather. It turns out that the day before had been a pay day and this teacher stopped in to pick up her paycheck. I was stunned and asked her why in the world she did not simply have her check deposited automatically into her account (privately, I was flabbergasted that there was a person alive in 2009 who made a conscious decision NOT to opt for direct deposit when it was an option). Her answer, of course, made no defensible sense; rather, she said something along the lines of, “I’ve taught her for thirty years and have always received a paycheck.” Still somewhat stunned, I dug through the mail, found her paycheck, and sent her on her way, incredulous that a change my dad embraced as an obviously smart thing to do in 1976 had still not been accepted by everyone 33 years later.

As one who often thinks about change, I have been reflecting on this quirky example. If something like direct deposit, with absolutely no downside and only benefits, had not won universal acceptance after more than 30 years, what does this say about more daunting change initiatives we may need to consider?

A few thoughts:

  • In schools, when initiating change that only impacts adults (not children), perhaps it behooves us to offer choice, allowing trailblazers to opt in. If the change proves to be beneficial, more and more folks will begin taking the plunge.
  • Having said that, once the change has been embraced by a significant majority of employees over time, it may make sense to eventually do away with the option altogether, and simply mandate change for all at that point.
  • On the other hand, if the change involves what is best for students, and we can determine that the change will improve students’ lives in some way large or small, I am less sure that we can afford to let adults in our schools “opt in” to the change. Perhaps the change needs to be mandated for all at the outset.
  • We must actively listen to resistors and be open to reasoned arguments against the change, even delaying or opting against change when appropriate. At the same time, any argument along the lines of, “But we have always done it this way” does not qualify as such.
  • Change is still a tricky deal. No matter how beneficial the change, some will simply never voluntarily undergo it. Again, I worked with a highly intelligent person who opted against having her pay directly 2009!

Recently in our district, we were debating how (not whether) to move forward with a change relating to technology. At first, I was not convinced it was a student issue as much as an adult issue, and I argued for taking a “Direct Deposit” approach, allowing anyone
who wanted to try the new technology to do so without requiring everyone to follow suit. However, others insisted that it would impact not only teachers, but also students, and felt we should move forward with the change for all staff. We are still debating the pros and cons of this one. On the other hand, many districts have changed over to standards based grading, assessing, and reporting. Although I realize many schools start by allowing individual teachers to implement such practices, this is one that seems so beneficial to student learning that I wonder if we should move forward as an entire school or district--once, of course, we have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to move forward with an effective implementation? What are some change initiatives in your setting for which you would allow others to choose whether to enact? And what are some others that are coming down the pike that would be non-negotiable change initiatives? There will always be resistance with any change, of course--even complete winners like Direct Deposit. However, any such resistance some may be feeling is likely due to focusing on what they know they will have to give up rather than on potential benefits of the change.

Changing from the “tried and true” to the “new and unproven” is never easy. Unfortunately, some proposed changes are not quite as obviously beneficial as changing from traditional paychecks to direct deposit pay. Still, our very finest people know that if there is a chance the change will be beneficial in some way for students, it is incumbent upon us to take a chance. Accepting change if we suspect it will benefit students--even when we are giving up something that is working well--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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