When I was a classroom social studies teacher, our director of curriculum and instruction invited me to join my colleagues in evaluating a number of prospective social studies resources. My fellow teachers and I met with textbook consultants, pored over materials, and made a series of recommendations, which the school followed. When the new resources arrived, we not only were invested in their success but felt valued as teachers. Because we were involved in the process of selecting and vetting the new curricular materials, we were prepared to undertake the professional development and training that was necessary to implement them—in other words, to follow the implementation of the new curriculum with fidelity.
As my position and responsibilities have evolved over the course of my career, so has my understanding of how change happens in education. My current role in my district is instructional supervisor. I supervise the high school ELA department, as well as the middle and high school social studies departments. I started my career in education as a social studies teacher for five years.
My path in education has afforded me a well-rounded view, encompassing perspectives ranging from the classroom to the school building and school community as a whole. In each of my roles, as a teacher, building administrator, student coordinator, and instructional supervisor, I have learned to relate to all parties affected by change (teachers, students, and families) and to actively listen and empathize in order to galvanize an asset-based, solutions-oriented approach to implementation.
Getting teacher buy-in for changes
Administrators are often tasked with the challenge of getting teachers on board with new innovations, from curriculum to revised district protocol, including deadlines, new or revised lesson plan templates and structures, classroom environment expectations, and even professional development itself. However, it’s not enough to get teachers to just comply with changes: Ideally, they will be invested in implementing the changes with fidelity.
Here are three ways that administrators can initiate successful innovation and transcend a culture of compliance.
1. Make sure the innovations are needed: Administrators often believe that implementation with fidelity is simply holding teachers accountable. However, accountability measures, while necessary, really only ensure compliance—there is a difference between taking ownership in execution and simply checking a box. If teachers do not perceive an innovation as effective or necessary, even compliance itself may still be a challenge. More important, moving beyond compliance into high-quality implementation may be all but impossible.
Administrators new to a district and seeking to make changes are particularly susceptible to the desire to innovate without a specific need. Years ago, a new school leader came into our district and canceled our reading intervention program at the close of the school year. This was particularly unfortunate because students in the program had demonstrated immense growth in reading. Teachers did not understand the change, nor did they believe in the new program. As a result, implementation became a mere matter of compliance.
As the adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The decision to introduce new curricula, to update lesson plan templates, or to create schedule changes should not be made without taking an inventory of what is already in place. Perhaps the interactive literacy intervention program you would like to introduce at your current school was highly effective at your previous district. Nonetheless, is there any evidence that the current intervention program in place needs improvement? Resist the urge to make changes based on what is familiar to you without first gathering data and making an assessment.
2. Explain the shortcomings of the status quo: The administration at the high school recently decided to make the transition to block scheduling. As an instructional supervisor, I was afforded the opportunity to lead a discussion about the scheduling change. We anticipated apprehension from those who had never taught periods longer than 45–50 minutes. Instead of dominating the conversation with talking points about the benefits of block scheduling, our team transparently enumerated the flaws of the previous schedule: too many transitions, an overabundance of daily homework and due dates for students taking eight classes per day, not enough class time to engage deeply, and inequity in course assignments to teachers.
Focusing on these issues galvanized the team behind the need for a better schedule. Thus, the new block schedule now had a purpose: to address the drawbacks of the old traditional schedule. Consequently, while a minority of teachers still expressed some disapproval about period length, feedback from the majority of teachers remained positive.
Training, in and of itself, is not enough. In my experience as a teacher and administrator, I have found that people are far less likely to embrace something new when they do not understand why a change is necessary. Even as a parent, I have listened to my daughter’s teachers express frustration over the challenges associated with teaching a new curriculum when they could not articulate the reasoning behind the new curriculum: “I know it’s a lot, but this is what we’ve been directed to teach.”
The likelihood of buy-in is vastly increased when educators recognize the “why.” Moreover, when establishing purpose, it can be tempting to lead with the bells and whistles of the shiny modern innovation. Yet, while updated features and extras are often valuable, it is of the utmost importance that those who will be tasked with taking on the new understand the shortcomings of the old.
3. Choice, voice, and buy-in: After identifying an opportunity for improvement, including teachers in decision-making processes is a definitive way to increase buy-in. Choice does not always have to be expansive, but a good-faith effort to provide any group with a measure of control is an act of initiative and empowerment. Moreover, affording choice cultivates voice and a sense of shared leadership. These are key factors in developing a positive building culture and team morale, as well as encouraging teachers to take ownership of new endeavors and implementing with fidelity.
This strategy is especially useful when choosing new curricula. Teachers may not necessarily be included in all aspects of this kind of executive process. However, even if the choices are narrowed by instructional leadership, allowing teachers to have some voice in the selection of curriculum strengthens the likelihood of effective implementation.
As an instructional supervisor, I was recently afforded the opportunity to vet high school social studies resources. Just as I was given a voice and choice when I was a teacher over the adoption of materials, I was determined to do the same with my team as well. Before making any decisions (and with permission from the vendors), I shared all of the demo access I had been given with my teachers and welcomed all feedback. In this instance, we unanimously agreed on adopting a new curriculum.
Challenging the status quo and disrupting established models is a fundamental aspect of improving education and education systems. Ultimately, it is incumbent on every school leader to accurately assess the need for change by identifying the deficiencies in what currently exists and including teachers in these processes. When teachers understand why the old is flawed, know why the new is necessary, and have a voice in innovation, fidelity is possible.