A colleague of mine, a fellow educational presenter, reached out to me a few weeks ago and asked me for support with how to help a principal “get his staff” motivated for a new school-wide initiative. The issue, according the principal, was that the teachers would resist change. In addition to providing the training, my colleague was asked to make sure to “get them all on board.” While this scenario seems troubling, it is all too common in schools across the U.S. While I provide professional development, support, and implementation training in many schools, I often hear similar issues come from leadership. A common question asked repeatedly is “how do I get teachers to ‘buy in’?” In response, I suggest that leadership take the time to cover the basics that too often are missing from the initiative process.
The Missed Message
Often leadership begins a new initiative kick off with professional development training that starts with WHAT the initiative is and the rest of the training on HOW to implement it. The most important piece of information about a new initiative is the WHY—and yet answers or discussion around the WHY is not provided. How “on board” would you be if you had no idea why something new was taking place? If we are going to ask educators to invest their time and energy, we must provide the evidence for why they should. Do the research. Be prepared. Professional development should always include why the initiative is taking place. Here are a few questions to think about and acknowledge for any new training.
- Who decided on the initiative? Why?
- Why is this considered a good investment for teachers? For students?
- What does the research say? What evidence is there that this will have a high impact on student learning?
- What does the school data say? Where does the data show that this initiative is needed? (Actually provide the data!)
- What would be the short term benefits? What would be the long term benefits?
Take the time up front to discuss the WHY of any new initiative. Be prepared to spend time discussing the WHY and know that is foundation for the initiative to move forward. But this only the first step. After explaining and sharing the WHY to teachers, be ready to listen. Adoption of a new practice cannot happen until open dialogue occurs for all stakeholders.
Take It To The Teachers
Before starting a new initiative, ask the teachers what they think about it. Too often leadership is hoping for “buy in” and yet a new initiative is never discussed with teachers beforehand. If teachers do not have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss any concerns before the initiative is adopted, how can they be expected to be on board? Too often teachers are not asked what they think! Leadership should plan for discussion to gather input before adopting any new practice. This can be accomplished in a staff meeting, by visiting department meetings or grade level meetings, or even bringing teacher leaders together for a smaller group discussion.
Here are few questions to think about and acknowledge when asking for teacher input:
- What would the benefits of this initiative be for your students? For you?
- Do you feel this initiative is relevant to your grade level or subject area? Why or why not?
- What do you see as barriers if we decide to move forward with this initiative? Short term? Long term?
- What expertise do you already have in this area?
- Do you feel this initiative could be modified to fit your student needs?
- What other options or modifications would you recommend?
- What questions or concerns do you have if we adopt this initiative?
Often teachers have many questions, but it is too late to ask once an initiative has already been adopted. By that point, to ask for “buy in” is too late. Teachers feel as if they have no voice or choice once training has started. Take the time and invest in teachers by asking what they think before it is too late. Have the dialogue that often gets swept under the rug.
After listening and having discussion around an initiative with teachers, the leadership team (including teacher leaders) should review and discuss the feedback. This provides the leadership time to think about how to best support teachers and modify or differentiate professional development as needed. In the rush to “do something” when feeling a sense of urgency, giving time to reflect gets overlooked. This reflection and discussion time helps decision makers on whether or not to move forward with the initiative. If moving forward with the initiative, answering the questions and providing this specific feedback to teachers will lay the foundation for the initiative. In addition to addressing the WHY, leaders should also be prepared to answer most of the teacher’s questions or concerns before the new initiative takes place. While it is likely that there will not be 100% acceptance of any initiative, addressing the why and sharing out answers or possible solutions to questions asked beforehand will certainly help. Teachers must know that their concerns are not only heard, but addressed in a timely fashion. Feedback should always be specific and timely for all those involved.
It is important to prepare and plan for any new initiative before moving forward with any professional development training. Just as important is to plan and prepare for follow up and support for teachers after the training has taken place. For teachers to invest their time and more importantly, their energy, they need know there is a long term goal in place. Too often a new initiative does not address how follow up will be support be provided, because often is simply does not occur. Some questions to think about and address:
- How will this initiative be supported throughout the year?
- When will time be provided for feedback and reflection on the initiative?
- How will follow up be provided?
- What will happen if the new practice doesn’t seem to be working?
- Who will provide follow up support?
- How will all stakeholders be held accountable?
- How will stakeholders collect data?
Waiting to address these questions after an initiative already has started is too late. Provide the answers beforehand, before training begins. Dialogue between teachers and leadership must happen long before a new initiative takes place. Too often if the question is “How do I get teacher buy in,” the answer is probably, “It is too late.”