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Islamic Schools as Change-ABLE Organizations

To meet the needs of the future, we cannot afford to stagnate within stale paradigms. However, many educators and educational leaders follow entrenched practices, doing things the way they have always done them, and they are resistant to change. Change is a challenging process because humans are creatures of habit and may fear a departure from the status quo. In this interactive session, we seek to empower the audience with research-based approaches and practical steps to become effective Change Agents at their schools by exploring the following:

1. A Watercraft Analogy for Describing Four Organizational Cultures (Daniels & Mathers)

2. Eight Steps for Leading a Change (Kotter) and How to Map for a School Setting

3. Driving People vs. Driving Change

4. Dream Schools

5. Reasons Why Educators Resist Change and How to Ease into It

6. Using the Change Formula (D x V x F > R) to Guide Leaders on How to Keep Resistance for Change to a Nontoxic Level (Beckhard & Harris)


“It had long ago come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things” (Leonardo da Vinci). Islamic schools are not short on sincerity in aiming to be the best educational institutions for their clients; that is, our Muslim students, and this holds true for all of the school community stakeholders. However, the leadership model may deprive the school of many valuable improvements. This may be in the form of a change that a school community member would like to make in the school, which might be in the form of a new initiative or project. Many of us are working every day thinking of ways to improve our schools and designing better ways to engage students more deeply. We need to reach a point where each member of the school community feels empowered to be a change agent. This paper is an attempt to provide some mindset recalibration, as well as some effective tips on approaching and affecting change.

A Watercraft Analogy for Describing Four Organizational Cultures

“Many of the components of complex organizational cultures operate at the unconscious level” (Daniels & Mathers, 1997, p. 32). In their book Change-ABLE Organizations, Daniels and Mathers used watercraft as an analogy to describe different organizational cultures and help explain what is unique about the Change-ABLE organization.


Raft (Bureaucracy)


· Flat design and buoyancy enable moving cargo

· Needs calm, still water

· Not much control over mobility (currents and/or poles)

· The crew knows they can’t control water, so they go with the current

· Progress is slow; no change

· Daily tasks are done based on previously evolved rules and procedures

· No need to plan strategically, since trips are similar

· Good crew knows everything’s place and every task’s timing; passed on from old to new crew members, to new generations

· Discipline maintained by regular and surprise inspections

· Strong relation between longevity and status

· Well-defined hierarchy of authority

· Crew members often enjoy the ride

📷Dory Regatta (Professional Association)

· Attractive for those who long for autonomy and mobility

· Small rowboat which can go into rapids

· Can go where rafts cannot go, and much faster

· Suited for exploring the unknown

· Small size comes with restrictions on load

· Rower sits backward causing navigation problems and the danger of running boats into each other

· Provide support services to raft to make a living

· Seize opportunities to provide valuable service for a paying customer

· Each trip is likely to be different

· Each day brings new possibilities and surviving tomorrow depends on how well today’s possibilities are converted into profitable realities

· Dory people exchange information cautiously to enlarge their knowledge base and remain autonomous and mobile

The Galley (Autocratic Organization)


· Long, low ship propelled by oars

· Capable of long-range travel in all kinds of water

· Depends on one or more rower per oar

· Rowers sit backward, no idea where the boat is going, nor how the journey is progressing

· Teamwork is key; pulling speed/beat determined by the leader

· Responsibility is limited to one’s own oar.

· If galley goes into circles, it will be the Leader’s problem.

· Some senior rowers can pretend to row; skillful rowers may spot them but won’t call them out from fear of retaliation when they do same

· Norm is to pull your own oar and let Leader worry about how others are pulling theirs

· Leader stands on a raised area in the back with one hand on the tiller. He/she is the only one who knows where the boat is going and if making progress.

📷The Sea-Going Canoe (Change-ABLE Organization)

· Very large and capable of carrying provisions and cargo

· Paddlers sit on both sides but facing forward; their eyes are on landmarks and stars that guide the Canoe to its ultimate destination

· The Leaders stands among the paddlers on a raised platform, able to see what comes over the horizon a little before the other crew members

· Each paddler is informed about the boat’s ultimate destination and is knowledgeable about needed landmarks, thus able to adjust own paddling to ensure Canoe goes in the right direction

· Paddlers constantly communicating what they see

· Experienced paddlers help others pace their paddling to save their energy for rough waters

· Paddlers value their Leader but are not Leader-dependent


The Raft

Analogous to classic bureaucracy

· Based on “holy hierarchical” mindset

· While private industry gave up on this model in the twentieth century, many governmental agencies still embrace it

· Rules majority of the world

· Fails in highly competitive and rapidly changing environments

The Dory Regatta

· Analogy for professionals

· Their creativity and ambitions have been driving forces in history

· However, it must be integrated with other organizations to make their discoveries valuable

The Galley

· Analogy for autocratic organization

· Has been thriving since WWII

· The most dominant form of organization in the industrialized world today

· Leader-dependence is both risky and crushes leaders who are expected to direct the whole ship in such a complex environment

The Sea-Going Canoe

· Analogy for change-ABLE organization

· Makes better use of its human resources

· Holds everyone accountable for its overall purpose

· Has access to more current and reliable information; analyzes it more intelligently for decision-making

· Able to implement decisions more effectively because of members’ involvement and commitment

Source: Daniels & Mathers (1997).

Eight Steps for Leading a Change and How to Map for a School Setting

📷After spending four decades observing leaders and organizations trying to evolve, Dr. John Kotter identified success factors and wove them into an award-winning eight-step process:

1. Establish a Sense of Urgency In a school setting, using students’ data would probably be the most effective way to draw attention to the problem you are trying to solve. Whether they are standardized test results, discipline reports, or alumni surveys, they must always remain student-centric.

2. Creating the Guiding Coalition Be strategic in recruiting eclectic members who also represent all stakeholders in the school, such as board, administration, teachers, and parents, to form a leadership committee who will drive such change.

3. Develop a Change Vision Having a clear vision/mission is essential to facilitate successful change. Clarify how the future will be different from the past. Using “backward design” can be a very effective tool to develop end goals, metrics, and a school-wide change plan.

4. Communicate the Vision As simple as this step may sound, it is not easy to carry out; nevertheless, it is a cornerstone of facilitating change. It reduces resistance to change and shields it from various fast-paced distractions in a school environment.

5. Enable Action by Removing Obstacles It is important for change agents to keep an eye on potential or unexpected obstacles in the way of aspired change. Whether the obstacle is fear, ineffective decision-making structure, or stubborn staff, appropriate measures need to be taken to address each of these obstacles.

6. Generate Short-Term Wins Change requires exertion and effort. Since staff can get weary during the process of effecting change, it is important to create realistic milestones which can be recognized in order to energize and encourage staff to persist.

7. Do Not Let Up Achieving the initial success does not mean we have arrived at the end of the road. Change agents must remain relentless in building on recently achieved success and gained trust/credibility by measuring progress using initially-used measures: establish the urgency, communicate positive results over time, and propose more changes/adjustments. Part of not letting up is taking the necessary firm actions against those who are resisting the change vision after proven success.

8. Make It Stick (Institute the Change) This can be accomplished by making this change a process, not an event, by documenting it as part of your expected processes and evaluation criteria. Also, it is critical to incorporate the new culture in hiring procedures and to continuously educate existing and new staff about the way your organization functions and why.

Driving People vs. Driving Change

Change is an art, not a recipe. Some may follow the eight-step process outlined in the previous section and yet fail to achieve aspired change. According to McKinsey’s Quarterly Transformation Executive 2008 Survey, “the painful reality is that most transformations fail. Research shows that 70 percent of complex, large-scale change programs don’t reach their stated goals.” (McKinsey, 2008). April Mills explains in her book, Everyone is a Change Agent, how she initially fell victim to this “cargo cult” thinking, and thus failed in her efforts. Many change agents tend to use coercive methods and fear to bring on a change. Some examples include, but are not limited to: perceived archaic top-down commands, pay deduction threats, or bad performance reviews. If the change agent is a peer, he/she may use the principal’s authority to drive staff into that change. This approach may work, but only superficially, as staff may sabotage its core implementation. This is similar to senior rowers in the Galley who master acting as if they are rowing without actually doing so. The more effective approach is to clear any obstacles that are preventing your team from internally choosing the change and embracing it with conviction. The following Power Curves diagram shows the relation between energy to drive implementation, and distance traveled toward the aspired change.


© 2019 April K. Mills, Everyone is a Change Agent,, permission granted to reprint with attribution. Includes Kotter’s 8 steps to lead a change.

Dream Schools

The following steps are outlined in Tait and Falkner’s Dream Team (2019) and have been included to give direct guidance in a practical school community application.

1. Gather stakeholders to brainstorm their ideas for “What I think is… (some need or problem to be solved).

2. Capture these ideas and hone them into brief common targets for sharing a vision.

3. The next part is very important; do not skip it. Give all stakeholders time and ample opportunity to comment on the vision. Their feedback will fortify or negate the legitimacy of the vision. This can be done through surveys and informal chats.

4. Next, cultivate ownership by asking what they think they can do to make the vision a reality.

5. Decide how you will quantify or analyze for verifying success. Establish benchmarks and interim goals. Achievement of these milestones fortifies continuous improvement and effort.

In Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath (2010), the analogy of an elephant and rider to explain the challenge of change management is used. The tiny rider represents the leader and logic, and the elephant is the big, heavy, hard to budge behemoth of people’s emotions. The change agent, as the rider, focuses to direct the elephant, which is their school community, toward a destination by motivating, taking feedback about feelings and inspiring progress toward a common vision.

Know that directing change is not a precise science, it is more of an art. The range of human dynamics can affect progress, but the important point is to keep the lines of communication open and hunger for driving change to be seen in a positive light. Ownership of the effort by each stakeholder is critical, and this can only be achieved by consistently listening for clues on attitudes. Yet rarely will everyone be in alignment, and so the issue of what to do will need to be anticipated in advance.

Reasons Why Educators Resist Change and How to Ease into It

Resisting change is a common behavior experienced by many school leaders, as well as by change agents. In many cases, this resistance is due to the fact that teachers already face many other daunting and overwhelming tasks. Despite following best practices in driving change, some staff may still refuse to even explore the possibility. Cognitive psychology can explain this negative behavior. Kahneman and Tversky (1979) shared their findings that the human brain is wired to be risk-averse, meaning that people will likely choose to avoid loss rather than making gains. Some of the threats teachers may perceive by the new change(s) are:

· an extra workload that accompanies any change;

· loss of something valuable, like status (not being the go-to expert anymore) or competence (had to re-learn something new);

· bad memories of previous, poorly-implemented change;

· poor understanding of the change or the need for it;

· fear of the unknown;

· lack of trust in the change agent; and

· concerns about not having sufficient time to implement change.

It is important to keep in mind that it is not that teachers resist change; it is that they sometimes resist “being changed.”

Using the Change Formula (D x V x F > R) to Guide Leaders on How to Keep Resistance for Change to a Nontoxic Level

Although change is an art, it has also entered the realm of science now, since many studies have been focusing on it in the past 40 years. One approach that has been developed to guide leaders facing resistance, to keep it to a nontoxic level, was proposed by Beckhard and Harris. They developed a formula for leaders to keep in mind. The formula is D x V x FS > R, where D represents the Dissatisfaction level in the current status quo by stakeholders (teachers, parents, and students); V represents the change’s Vision and its anticipated positive impact; FS represents the First Steps expected to embody the proposed change; and R represents the Resistance level of those expected to model the change. This formula suggests that managing resistance can be possible if the product of D, V, and FS exceeds the amount of resistance, R. The following are some strategies that can help with this approach:

1. Using data to generate awareness of the status quo. According to Edwards Deming, a mathematician from the early 1900s, “In God we trust; all others must bring data.” If a change has to do with new teaching methods or curriculum, then highlighting poor results from recent standardized tests will be an effective approach to engage staff.

An illustrative example was when a founder and principal of several Islamic schools was newly appointed to head an existing school. It was observed that the Arabic program was not effective, as students had still not mastered the basics of the language, although many had been at the school for seven to 10 years. She tried to work with the teachers to strengthen the program and to show them the gaps, but they fought her every step of the way. To them, she was the "new" leader; they thought that she simply did not appreciate all of their hard work and efforts. One day, she walked into each Arabic class and handed every student a very basic evaluation without giving the teachers advanced notice. The teachers were furious and complained to the Board about her. However, after she had compiled the results and shared data with the teachers proving how weak the students were, they were ready to start listening and to make changes in the program. The changes took place gradually, but in a systematic manner and, over a period of two years, clear and measurable growth and improvement could be seen in the students' mastery of Arabic skills.

2. Engage staff in shaping the vision, involving them in the collection of research and evidence supporting the change, and encouraging and facilitating their participation in developing an action plan will give them a sense of ownership in its successful implementation.

Another example of what happens when all stakeholders are not involved in decision making occurred at an Islamic school when some parents complained to the Board that their children were not learning math properly. New math books were selected by a board member and principal without input from teachers. Accompanying curriculum resources were not purchased along with textbooks in an effort to not spend more money, and neither was training conducted on the proper use of the new books. When books were given out at the beginning of the year, the principal faced a lot of pushback from teachers. Some of them did not use the new books at all but relied on copies of the old textbooks. The Administration did not discover the extent of the problem until a few months into the new school year and finally ended up trying to return the unused books and buying different ones in the following year. It was a very costly mistake at the expense of students. The following are points to keep in mind for facilitating change with stakeholder input and participation:

· Offering professional development and using demonstration to model new methods will help dismiss staff fears.

· Breaking a big change into smaller, easy-to-follow steps.

· Revising procedures needed to move rewards from the old system to the new one. Staff needs to see the value attached to the change, in order to offset the losses they initially perceive. Public and private praise of those who embrace change will keep the momentum going.

· School leaders devoting adequate time to genuinely listen to their staff concerns regarding the new change. This will ensure that members of staff feel valued and respected, which helps with their self-efficacy and perceived status.

· Change agents observing staff throughout the newly introduced change life-cycle. Individual staff members may falter at different parts of that life-cycle. Some staff may need a one-on-one sessions to explain the vision of new change during the introduction period. Likewise, as change rolls into the classroom, leaders must identify various teachers’ needs and provide them with the necessary support.


The need for change in our schools is evident, because, whether your demographics have changed or not, the world has changed, and so our students’ education must meet these challenges as well. Adaptability is necessary for survival, and school is a preparatory ground for teaching relevant skills.

Change is a process, not an event. It is an art, not a recipe. Change must be planned and implemented well, otherwise, it may experience an early death or exist in a superficial form at your school. Turn your school into a Sea-Going Canoe by leveraging your human resources.

Drive change by engaging all stakeholders, not by using fear tactics; driving people by coercive methods will just lead staff to sabotage your change. Change may result in the loss of some staff, but remember that, in order to make an omelet, you may need to break a couple of eggs. Always consider the best interests of the beneficiaries, the students. Never assume you have all the answers; acknowledge that there are other valid perspectives and assume the best intentions in your vocal critics. Stop waiting for things to happen to you, start your change and happen to things. Be a lake, not a pond; make a difference. Renew your sincerity with Allah, and ask Him for guidance.

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