Change for the Better

Donna Murphy has a counseling caseload of 400 students at her high-achieving high school and has more than 250 members in her very active NHS chapter. She also serves on the leadership team in her school and helps in a host of other school functions and activities.

So it’s easy to see why she streamlined procedures for her leadership group and focused on two things: simplicity and efficiency.

“It is just critical for me to make things easier—for everyone,” says Murphy, the head of school counseling at Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore and NHS chapter adviser. “And I think that should be one of the goals of any new adviser or current advisers who want to institute changes.”

Often, advisers want to change things in their organization or hope to energize a group they’ve just taken over. Murphy has been in both situations, having become an adviser for struggling NHS chapters in the past and now working to improve the group at Eastern Tech that’s existed for decades under the previous well-liked adviser.

She and other experts say that any such changes they make should have some of the basic elements that educators would recommend for projects in their classrooms:

  • A plan or an outline for the changes with specific, measurable goals
  • Good, reliable resources (human and material)
  • A timetable for completion with steps for “formative” assessment of progress along the way
  • A way of evaluating the effort and a structure for fine-tuning or amplifying the changes—or even abandoning them if they aren’t working and don’t seem to be worth retooling

The First Steps

“If someone is new to a position, I don’t think they should undertake any major changes for a year,” Murphy warns. “It’s a time to learn about the organization—especially if you are new to advising a student leadership group. It is important to find out how it operates and who the key players are.”

Murphy had an advantage at her current school because she had an opportunity to work with the chapter as an interim adviser when her predecessor was out due to a health issue. When she later took over full time, she had a good idea about the changes she wanted to make initially, such as streamlining the application process, growing the chapter, and energizing leadership to enhance the group’s ability to complete more tasks and projects. She advises that anyone new to a position or considering changes should be methodical.

Rhett Carter, adviser for the NHS chapter at Plano East Senior High School in Plano, TX, took over that group—one of the biggest chapters in the country with 1,000 students—about three years ago. He immediately saw changes he wanted to make but proceeded deliberately and chose priorities carefully.

“First, I wanted to make sure we were in compliance, which had not been the case. But the group also lacked energy and it had just gotten stale. I wanted to find some ways to get basic structures down and build some enthusiasm,” Carter says.

Douglas Reeves, the founder of the Leadership and Learning Center, who writes about change in school and advises educators about instituting new approaches, recommends a 100-day plan for implementing changes, with checkpoints along the way to assess progress and to see if the group needs a shift in direction.

That introductory period should include consideration of the staff and students involved—those who can help or hinder the effort to reach those specific goals that the new leader has identified. He warns new leaders who are hoping to change an organization that they should be skeptical about advice on getting buy-in from all stakeholders since it can waste time and effort and may not ever be entirely possible.

“Rather than pursuing buy-in—something that almost never happens with significant change—leaders should have a culture of hypothesis testing,” Reeves says, noting that it can stall change if a leader tries to “get everyone’s approval for an approach.”

“In some cases, try the new idea, observe results and short-term wins, and then see if people buy in. If you wait for buy-in, change may not happen,” Reeves says.

Reeves explains that advisers should follow other practices from their classroom and seek “constructive critical thinking” about their plans. They should consider the potential problems and possible alternatives, but not expect everyone to approve.

Murphy notes that in a school, of course, it is important to get approval for some initiatives, and it is critical to establish a good relationship with the school administration early on, then get administrators’ input on what changes might be best.

It’s also important to clearly understand going forward which actions the administrators expect to have a say in and which don’t need their approval. A lot of time and energy can be wasted waiting for input from very busy administrators, but a lot of problems also can be created when advisers overstep their bounds.

“It is a good idea to have a clear understanding of what they want to know about or approve,” Reeves says.

Murphy says collaboration with others in the school is important, too. Other advisers may need to know about changes. Office staff often should be involved since they handle communications about group plans and activities, and the building management staff is often critical to a leadership group and should also be informed.

It’s About Goals

Goal setting is always a key item in discussions of change in an organization, and Reeves says goals should be clear and have the most “bang for the buck” for the members of the group and the school. Experts suggest establishing a list of possible goals, then scaling it down and making some long- and short-term plans.

Murphy believes goals should initially involve an examination of existing systems rather than new initiatives. For example, she simplified a complex and lengthy application process for members and eliminated a requirement that they get several letters of recommendation. In a school where a high percentage of students apply to multiple colleges, that change pleased teachers, who were swamped with college recommendations; and students, who were busy with a challenging load of schoolwork and multiple college applications.

Along with some other moves she made—including a goal to make the group visible in a number of ways—the changes boosted the membership quickly and broadened participation.

“I looked for ways to make that process much simpler, and it paid off for everyone involved,” she says.

Carter started by updating and more closely following bylaws while tightening requirements for service—despite some complaints from students—and providing more opportunities for service projects.

“People would say to me, ‘Well it’s not that big of a deal; it’s just the NHS.’ But that was the point. It’s an Honor Society, and it needed to have standards, and I thought with this many students involved it could play a major role in the community. Too often, students just wanted to keep their GPA up and do a few service hours so they could wear the stole at graduation.”

Another key goal was putting a good set of officers in place at Plano East Senior High School—16, in Carter’s case. He established a process of interviewing candidates himself, then allowing the group to choose from those eligible to elect for top positions.

Beyond that, Carter wants to work on some other specific goals, such as making the meeting process more valuable. He also wants to build on his own work mentoring officers so they can refine their skills and take on more responsibility for the group to engage other members better.

“I have concentrated on training officers and members and giving them responsibility for the changes we want to make and finding ways to enlist all members in the effort,” Murphy says.

That can help because both Murphy and Carter note that new advisers or those hoping to make a change in their group often don’t recognize how much will be involved. It is essential to plan to provide a boost after the initial energy for a change has worn off, Reeves says. Changing student positions or seeking ideas from different members midyear and giving them new responsibilities may provide new energy.

“It is important for a number of reasons to have students developing ideas, making plans, and following through,” Carter says. “It is valuable to them, and it makes our job easier and more rewarding. I really enjoy that part of it—seeing them grow.”

Check and Promote

Take time to evaluate the changes you’ve made—and make sure officers and members do, too. Murphy meets regularly with officers with a specific agenda and several times a year has a pizza lunch with them.

“It is important to evaluate what you have done and how you have approached your goals,” Reeves says. “Then it is critical to fine-tune your efforts.”

In addition, Murphy and Carter both say it was critical for them to raise the visibility of their groups. They found ways to make them more active, with initiatives that could involve the entire school. NHS members at Plano East Senior High School made cards and gifts for teachers and others in the community, including a children’s hospital and the local police department. Murphy established a mentoring plan where each member was assigned to work with at least one new student at the school to provide support, and she positioned her students to more often represent the school.

Experts say it is also important to let others see evidence of the changes the group is making with reports through the school or district site, on social media, in local media, or on a bulletin board where pictures and reports on events are posted. It energizes members, builds interest, and shows the administration and others what the group is doing. “We want to be involved in the school and community, and we want others to know about it,” Carter says.


Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.


Sidebar: Tools for Change

For new advisers moving into a position with a leadership group or veteran advisers taking over a group hoping to shake things up, it may be helpful to take a close look at the tools available, says Douglas Reeves, who writes about change in education and consults with schools about the process. They include:

  • Culture tools. Rituals, traditions, and self-sustaining patterns of a group can be maintained or shifted to bring about change and reach new goals.
  • Power tools. This strategy uses power such as consequences for actions as motivators for change.
  • Management tools. These can involve “training, procedures, and measurement systems,” Reeves writes. Advisers who give students responsibility for the organization and its activities are using a key management tool. These tools generally involve information.
  • Leadership tools. Conversations, role modeling, and vision help to define leadership. These tools involve inspiration.

Leadership expert Steve Denning says typically change goes off course when those tools are used inappropriately. Leaders can overuse power tools and not use leadership tools enough. Or, he says, they may have goals without the proper management tools in place, or they may place too much emphasis on leadership tools and take on too much responsibility without enough management.

Both experts agree it may be helpful for leaders to understand these tools and, in examining their goals for a group, consider how much they will use each and what the work will entail.

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