How to Cope with Change

by Andy Howard and Kristina Kauffman

"The best laid schemes o' mice and men often go astray" Robert Burns (1759-1796)

"Life is no straight and easy corridor along which we travel free and unhampered, but a maze of passages, through which we must seek our way, lost and confused, now and again checked in a blind alley. But always, if we have fiath, a door will open for us, not perhaps one that we ourselves would ever have thought of, but one that will ultimately prove good for us." A.J. Cronin (1986 - 1981)

"Thirty years ago most people thought that change would mean more of the same, only better. That was incremental change and to be welcomed. Today we know that in many areas of life we cannot guarantee more of the same...[we] cannot even predict with confidence what will be happening in our own lives."  Charles Handy

man walking on road The title of this module refers to a "journey" which is very fitting for this section on coping with change. Since ancient times, writers have used the metaphor of a journey to describe a world full of changes.  For example, Homer, the classical Greek poet, describes in vivid images the many changes Ulysses faced in his decade long journey. 

While the reality of change was recognized by the ancients, the last 30 years of human history have seen the pace of change accelerate to unprecedented levels. It is possible to see the events of September 11, 2001 as an attack on the pace of change, and on the very nature of that change in the modern world. Most people do not rail against change with such force that they cause wars of violent attacks, but many of life's conflicts can be seen as a struggle with change, its scope, its speed and its impact.

Can you recall a time when you resisted change? Do you have a colleague who is uncomfortable with the impact of technology? Have you seen a faculty member or administrator reject necessary changes because they were imposed by a "higher" authority in the community college system? It is common to respond to change with fear, particularly when we confront so many changes everyday.

stick figure rearranging a flow chartCommunity Colleges are constantly undergoing change. In fact community colleges may be key to supporting the positive changes in our society. Beginning a generation ago, these changes included:

  • Continued expansion of access to higher education through open admissions, affirmative action, outreach to working adults
  • Expansion of remedial and developmental programs to support students underprepared for college work
  • The introduction of new curricula: black studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, global studies, environmental studies, interdisciplinary studies.

In the late 1980s and 1990s changes included:

  • Demographic shifts in the college population ranging from the concern about low growth or declining enrollments in the 1980s and 1990s, to preparation for the massive influx of new students (Tidal Wave II) at the beginning of the 21st century
  • Expanded community service courses
  • The creation of contract education courses
  • A trend away from a broad liberal arts education, with it a focus on social concerns, toward an emphasis on career preparation and personal development
  • Increased responsiveness to market demands for graduates with skills in problem-solving, communications, working in teams, sensitivity to diversity, and ethical decision making
  • Multiculturalism and a commitment to diversity
  • Introduction of writing across the curriculum
  • A large and growing body of research on college teaching and learning
  • Emergence of "faculty development" and the establishment of support programs and centers for college teaching and learning
  • New instructional approaches rooted in "active" learning
  • New technologies: media, distance learning, computers, the Internet and World Wide Web
  • Competition from providers outside traditional academia, such as University of Phoenix.

Changes which began in the 1990s, but became broadly apparent in the early 21st century, include:

  • Massive retirements and the corresponding influx of Generation X faculty
  • The growth of the assessment movement to measure "outcomes"
  • Introduction of systematic methods to evaluate teaching, including student evaluations of teaching, teaching portfolios, and peer review
  • Paradigm shift from teaching to learning
  • Changes in the training and socialization of new faculty (including
  • Renewed concern for a commitment to civic life, and the corresponding development of co-curricular community service and academic service-learning programs
  • Students who have BA degrees returning to the community college for retraining
  • The continued expansion of online learning.

For more on this topic see Developments that Changed Teaching and Learning from which part of this list was derived.

In sum, Community College instructors face three key sources of pressure to change:

  1. Students' needs reflect broad societal trends and the community college is seen as their hope for training and retraining, as well as provision of the first two years of a transfer curriculum.
  2. Their professional fields are constantly changing, particularly for those who provide occupational training.
  3. State legislatures and other funding agencies demand continued improvements, accountability and relevance.

man hanging on to a rope in mid airHow can a community college instructor cope with change?

Community college instructors by necessity must be able to cope with change, move with the times and be flexible. As "professors" who both create knowledge and impart it to others, community college instructors also must question change, validate the necessity for change, and maintain their intellectual integrity. These are often difficult tasks. Responding to change not with fear, but instead with reflection and purposefulness is key to surviving with integrity.

Those who adapt with the least stress:

  • Accept that change is inevitable.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus recognized more than 2000 years ago that nothing is this world is constant, except for change. Anticipate change and be ready to move.
  • Recognize that some change can be a choice. While the outside world constantly forces change upon us, there are many areas of our life that we can choose to change.   Choosing not to change can be a conscious, rational choice. It is important:
    • to recognize why we choose to reject change
    • understand fear
    • not to be driven by fear.  
  • Monitor change by examining their situation and the situations around them. Change can come abruptly, but more often it occurs over a long period of time. Focus on ways you can adapt and flourish in the new environment.
  • Practice learned optimism and keep an open mind. What caused the changes? What factors or issues influenced these changes? Try to see the benefits or the "good side" of these changes. Don't let fear, doubt, irrational thoughts and anxiety stop you from having an open mind and a rational outlook.
  • While ideas are the power behind change, significant change comes in behaviors rather than beliefs. Many people sincerely believe they should lose weight, but they don't do it. It's the old "put your money where your mouth is" or the "walk the talk" behavior that evidences change. Most of us spend far more energy fearing change, resisting change and thinking about change than actually making change.

An outstanding book on change, Who Moved My Cheese?, has helped thousands cope. Ideas derived from the book appear in our list.



If you accept the reality of change you can adapt more quickly, letting go of the old so that you can enjoy and prosper in the new environment.When roadblocks, locked gates, and unexpected turns

  • Move with change: be an active participant. Be in charge. Don't be a passive participant in the changes that are happening in and around you. Work with the change, not against it.
  • Enjoy change by savoring the adventure.
  • Encourage others. Remember, changes that occur in your life also affect those around you. Do not hinder other people from moving on because of your resistence. Sometimes, the best way to deal with the changes happening in your life is by helping and encouraging other people who may also need to adapt to that change.
  • Learn to adapt to change. Be ready to quickly change again and again. Accept the change. Change happens for a reason, and the more quickly you are able to adapt and move on, the better it will be for you and the people around you.

People who perceive themselves as being in control of their lives, and to a large extent over the events in their lives, are among what the psychologist S. C. Kobassa  calls "hardy copers." Hardy copers' have commitment.  They know their values and goals and intend to pursue them diligently. They know who they are and what they want. They perceive change as just another hurdle to jump along life's raceway. They are willing to take responsibility for their actions and do not blame others for the transitions that inevitably come into their lives. 

Others find relief from their fear of change in their religious faith.  They believe that God is in charge of their lives and trust that God will guide the change, give them the strength to cope, and ensure that changes they perceive as bad eventually work out for some good.  

Whatever mechanism you develop to cope with change, you will find surviving the journey a more enjoyable and prosperous experience when you have prepared in advance.  We hope that we have helped you to "pack" your toolbox for an academic career that fulfills your dreams.  We encourage you to envision success.

Please write and let us know how you cope with the changes in the community colleges and in your career.

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