Steering the Battleship – Change is at the Heart of School Improvement

The following article was contributed by Dr. Ronald D. Fussell, Ed.D., Adjunct Instructor at Creighton University.

Schools are incredibly complex social institutions.  Relationships are elaborate and intricate, stakeholders are intensely passionate, and the leader’s role in managing it all cannot be overlooked.  It is no wonder that change in a school community has often been described as steering a battleship – a slow and deliberate process that requires the coordination of so many interrelated moving parts.  But regardless of the enormity of the task, any seasoned Catholic school administrator will tell you that school change lies at the heart of school improvement, and that it is critical to our identity as Catholic schools.  The Congregation for Catholic Education (1982) highlighted the importance of managing change, stating that “because of change, knowledge that has been acquired, and structures that have been established, are quickly outdated; the need for new attitudes and new methods is constant” (§67).  Put another way (as a former employer once stated) if a school community is coasting, it is probably going downhill.

The topic of organizational change is well-researched in academia.  A recent online search of peer-reviewed journal articles addressing this topic yielded over 500,000 results.  But with all the new knowledge that is being generated around organizational change, and given its importance in educational leadership, it is puzzling that it is so often overlooked in school administrator preparation programs.  If we are not equipping students for the complexity of organizational change, then are we truly preparing them for success in educational leadership?

What if we could distill the process of change into basic principles that, when honored, would set a solid foundation for enduring school improvement?  For example:

  1. Change is a social process.  It occurs amid a tapestry of relationships that exist in the school community.  It is not about asserting authority, it is about encounter and relationship-building.
  2. Change is a mission-centered proposition.   Without a clear sense of purpose,
    schools will drift from one idea to the next doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past (Kaplan & Owings, 2013).
  3. Change requires not that we address the symptoms of the problems that confront our school communities, but rather that we address their underlying causes.

Managing the change process can be overwhelming, but it can be made easier when we acquire a basic understanding of such principles.  And by charting an intentional course for school improvement, our Catholic schools will come more alive in their collective mission to bring greater glory to God and to set the world ablaze with His love.

Be sure to attend Dr. Ron Fussell’s session, Steering the Battleship: Managing the Change Process in a Catholic School, at the 2017 NCEA Institute for Catholic School Leaders (ICSL) on Tuesday, July 19 at 1:45 PM.


Congregation for Catholic Education. (1982). Lay Catholics in schools: Witnesses to faith. Retrieved from

Kaplan, L. S. & Owings, W. A. (2013). Culture re-boot: Reinvigorating school culture to improve student outcomes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Ronald D. Fussell, Ed.D. is completing his term as the Associate Superintendent for Schools for the Diocese of Manchester (NH) and will be joining the faculty at Creighton University in Omaha, NE as an Assistant Professor of Education this fall.  He is honored to have a national voice about important topics such as Catholic school leadership development, lay educator faith formation, and Catholic school identity.