The Middle Season: Thriving All the Way Through Change

By Anna Surratt

The Middle Season

In my last post, I offered encouragement to school leaders endeavoring on change initiatives at the beginning of the school year. While I hope that the encouragement from that post inspired a strong start to the school year, I know very personally that we are in a much different season as we head into the second semester of school. In this Harvard Business Review article, Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls this season the “miserable middles of change.” This is the season in which we are face-to-face with the reality that our current state is not yet our hoped-for state, and the change we aimed to make is harder than we ever imagined. 

New initiatives and challenges vie for our attention, the organization threatens to sneak back into the lethargy of the status quo, and we begin to question whether or not the hopes we had in August are even attainable at this point. Kanter describes it like this, “Everything looks like failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middle that involves hard work.” 

The Lure of the Past 

Before addressing how to weather the middle season, it’s important to acknowledge and understand some of the dynamics at play that tempt us to cave to apathy and abandon course. We are literally in the middle of the school year, the time of year in which we are simultaneously and rapidly wrapping up one school year while beginning to plan for the next school year. A dear colleague of mine quips that it’s like riding two horses at once, each heading in a different direction. Exhaustion prevails and this leads to what Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky deem “the elegance and tenacity of the status quo.” There exists a tenacious lure to return to the processes, ways of thinking, and systems that reinforced our schools in the past. 

On an organizational level, we may begin to hear things like, “Why do we need to change? What I’ve always done has always worked. This, too, shall pass.” The underlying diagnosis here is fear. Individuals fear the loss of ways of thinking and acting that have brought them success in the past. The problem, though, is what worked in the past usually only continues to work well when things are going well, but does not always work in a new context where challenges threaten old habits. Abandoning course now will only trap us in patterns of thinking and ways of living that inhibit flourishing. 

Thriving Through the Middles: Adjustment Over Abandonment 

While this season feels the hardest to weather, we need to acknowledge the above-mentioned tensions playing into the temptation to abandon course, and instead make some middle-season course adjustments. Adjustments over abandonment will keep the process moving forward, getting you out of the mire of the status quo and closer to your hoped-for state that inspired momentum in August. 

To that end, I offer the following middle-season encouragements as you make adjustments to weather this season:

  1. Maintain Perspective – Check in frequently with those on the frontline of the change initiatives. Losing their perspective is the same as losing your anchor to reality. Spend time asking them:
    • What’s working?
    • What needs to be tweaked?
    • What questions are lingering? 
    • What new ideas do you have? 
  2. Reflect and Learn – Change requires that we constantly adopt a mindset and practice of unlearning and relearning. There’s nothing like the complexity of change to humble us out of the temptation to think we are the experts. Utilize the perspectives and experiences of those on the frontline to make middle-of-course adjustments to your initiatives. 
  3. Celebrate Mistakes – In the book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky encourage leaders to treat those who make mistakes as “founts of wisdom.” Look for ways in which you can elevate the stories and experiences of those who courageously experiment, fail, and learn as they implement the change initiatives. 
  4. Hold Plans Loosely – Expect to constantly refine and iterate as you reflect and learn from actions taken and mistakes made. The plan itself is less sacred than the people and learning that are involved. This does not mean that long-term vision and purpose change; rather, we find rest in expecting that the plans to achieve the vision will shift and adjust as we collect new information about what is working and not working. 
  5. Share Stories – As often as possible, elevate the stories and voices of those positively impacted by the change. This keeps the vision set on what is ahead and lifts attention away from the fear of losing what we once knew to work. 

A Community Approach

Finally, this work cannot be done alone. Donna Orem, former president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), encourages school leaders to find sanctuary in community as a form of self-care through the leadership challenges of the middle season in this NAIS journal entry. God’s design for us to be in relationship extends even into how we learn and grow collectively within the field of education. Find and join a network of others who are striving to sustain and maximize commitment to change within their organizations. The Baylor Center for School Leadership offers Improvement Communities composed of school teams from around the US and globally who are collectively committed to elevating the work of schools through cycles of improvement and collective feedback. 

About the Author
Anna H. Surratt is a Fellow with the Baylor Center for School Leadership and director of lower schools for a private Christian school in Norfolk, Virginia. Prior to her recent positions, Anna served as a middle school math and science teacher in both public and charter schools, as well as a Math Specialist and later Assistant Principal and Coordinator for Professional Learning for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. She has developed a background in Collective Leadership, Design Thinking, and Improvement Science. Using that expertise, Anna supports work with 24 Improvement Community schools while helping us and them design improved change processes.

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