Changing the Way We Look at Change: Change the Frame, Change the Game

By Veronica McDermott and Yvette Jackson

Educators tingle from head to toe when learners leave the lesson saying, “Well, you really gave me a lot to think about,” or “I never thought about ________ like this,” or “I wish I had known this years ago. I can’t wait to try _____!” Changing the way people look at things is the heart of learning and the start of changing the way people do things. The two go together: change the frame and you change the game.

Frames of Reference

Our work focuses on transforming frames of reference. How students, teachers, and administrators see themselves affects how they see each other; conversely, how students, teachers, and administrators see each other affects how they see themselves. Confident and competent leadership inspires confident and competent teaching, which, in turn, inspires confident and competent learning.

Nowhere is this shift in focus, this change in frame of reference, more needed than in schools and districts—the ones labeled “failing,” or “dangerous,” or “dropout factories”—tucked into the farthest reaches of our country. These are the ones that, in truth, have not been given a fair shake, are often written off, and, when all else fails, are closed down.

Frames of reference are powerful determinants of behavior, and leadership plays a dominant role in shaping frames of reference. In other words, how leaders see themselves shapes school relationships, school mores, and school life.

Leaders as Architects

We have found that those leaders who redefine themselves as architects work from a position of strength buoyed by support. Architects are designers. They shape and pull and see potential in empty spaces or underused corners. Leaders who are architects recognize that they can reshape, draw out, and uncover the potential in the empty and underused corners of their schools. They have passion to revitalize, to craft, to inspire a new school culture.

But architects never design alone. They use a team of experts that they gladly gather around them to make the dream a reality. Leaders who see themselves as architects gladly tap into the resources that exist on their team: the teachers, students, and community members who, together, bring their perspectives and expertise to the enterprise of school transformation.

The current sanction-filled education climate has the effect of convincing leaders that they have little control. Indeed, a recent publication for leaders began with the ominous words, “We may have lost control, but . . .” Buy into this frame of reference, and you will lose control. Come from a different frame of reference and you—and your team—will regain control of yourselves and your school. Education leaders who re-conceptualize their role, who change their frame of reference, who see themselves as architects of their school’s destiny can—and do—make a difference.

Yvette Jackson is internationally recognized for her work in assessing and capitalizing on the learning potential of disenfranchised students. As director of gifted programs for New York City Public Schools, Dr. Jackson designed the New York City Gifted Programs Framework. She later served as the executive director of instruction and professional development for the New York City Public Schools. She currently serves as chief executive officer of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education.

Veronica McDermott began her career in the public schools of Long Island, New York, in 1970 and has worked in numerous educational roles ever since, including superintendent of schools, principal, district director, dean, and classroom teacher. She has taught, presented, and consulted for school districts, colleges and universities, and national and international organizations. She also has written for many national and local publications.

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