Schools need effective, practical approaches to helping more students succeed academically.
A focus on student motivation and meaningful, engaged learning, on project- or problem-based learning, on personalized, customized learning, or on technology rich learning environments are all approaches that can help make that happen, but require a paradigm shift for teachers, since few of them have experienced these approaches themselves.
Successfully implementing initiatives that require a paradigm shift for educators requires strong, deliberate leadership for school change. The key pieces of Positive Pressure and Support (setting expectations, supervising for those expectations, and supporting those efforts) are necessary components of that leadership, and is the primary way to drive your initiative to a higher level of implementation.
Teachers will start using more core strategies of your initiative when they know it is expected of them and is being monitored—but they need (and deserve) support in getting there. What follows are some of the support strategies that I’ve found helpful.
Support: Celebrating Successes
Celebrating successes is the place to start. Implementing signficant school change is a long road, so the people working to implement those changes need encouragement and to know they are on the right track. Your expectations may be high, but teachers, like students, need to progress (to some extent) at their own pace and within their own capabilities. Nudging, prodding, and pushing are much more effective when combined with pats on the back and kind words, even if it is just small things being noticed.
For the teachers most resistant to change or the most challenged by the change, celebrating baby steps is especially important. With our own children, we didn’t wait to get excited until they could run. We got excited when they could crawl, then when they could stand, and again when they could put one foot in front of the other, and on and on. We need to celebrate each developmental growth step the staff passes through.
Often the best “celebrations” aren’t time consuming or expensive. As you’re walking down the hall, walk beside the teacher and say, “Your kids were pretty engaged during that lesson. You must have done a great job with that new strategy!” Or stick your head in the door during the teacher’s break and say, “Do you mind taking 5 minutes at our next meeting to tell the staff about that thing I saw you do this week? I think others will want to know how to do that.” Or as you leave a walk through, hand the teacher a 3×5 note card, where you’ve written, “I know you were frustrated with how things went in general, but I think you need to remember that the part where you did X, Y or Z went pretty well.” (Notice how the whole thing doesn’t even have to go well to celebrate the parts that did!)
Celebrating growth, progress, and success gives the message that this is important, that you noticed what they have done, and that they are on the right track. This is the fuel that keeps a staff working on hard work.
Support: Facilitate the Sharing of Ideas
By definition, this is “new” work: new to the teachers, new to the students, new to the leadership team. Sure, this initiative may be similar to others, or share components with those you’ve worked on in the past. But I’ve been defining large-scale school change as often being A change that teachers don’t have much experience putting into action, even if they have read about it, have heard about it, or are familiar with the key ideas.
And I have a friend who likes to say, “Teachers can’t do what they haven’t experienced.” Teaches are more often stumped with implementing an initiative by that lack of knowing what it looks like, feels like, tastes like, that not knowing for sure how to put it into action, than by any intent or determination to block or sabotage (even if blocking and sabotaging are how fear of failure most often surfaces for teachers!).
As the high school in Auburn is working toward implementing Customized Learning, many of our teachers are starting to use a Parking Lot, a kind of poster used to solicit students’ ideas, questions, feedback, and input. One of our teachers recently told us that he doesn’t believe in the Parking Lot because he put one up and students don’t use it. But, if we want teachers to put into practice something they haven’t done before, we owe it to them to help them find ideas on how to put it into action – how to make it work. We know that Parking Lots have been implemented effectively elsewhere. What strategies did those teachers use, and how could we connect our teacher with those strategies?
I wrote quite a bit in the last post about how talking about the initiative in meetings and modeling lessons can help with sharing ideas. Having teachers share in staff meetings and professional development sessions about their challenges and successes with their work in the classroom provides opportunities to get advice from their colleagues and to learn new strategies. So can having teachers visit schools and classrooms where the initiative is already in action (even within your own building or district!). Alternately, have teachers watch videos or read stories of how others implemented similar work – not informational pieces “about” the initiative, but those that actually illustrate “how” the initiative works, those that provide vicarious experiences.
Regardless of how you make it happen, you need to be thinking about where you can help teachers find their new ideas on how to implement the core strategies of your initiative.
Support: Provide Opportunities for Training and Professional Development
Part of support is looking for ways to provide further training and professional development. In fact, PD may be the first thing you think of when you think “support.” I know if you are thinking of a new initiative, you are already thinking about how to get your staff trained.
But you can’t think about this only in terms of initial training. If this is a big initiative, such as Customized Learning, then you need to be thinking about implementing it in phases, that means delivering training in phases, too. In Maine, the training for the first couple phases of implementing Customized Learning is generally “Own The Learning” (awareness), “Classroom Design and Delivery” (creating a culture of voice and choice), and “Instructional Design and Delivery” (working with the curriculum and organizing instruction around it). Not all the staff needs to be trained in the phases at the same time. In fact, staggering the training for staff can mean that folks a phase or two ahead can become resources for the rest of the staff.
But even if an initiative doesn’t lend itself to clearly defined phases, make sure that you are thinking of training in ongoing, not “one shot,” terms. In our kindergarten iPad initiative, we had one training at the end of the school year for teachers new to the initiative to get their iPads, learn how to use it for as a personal tool, and how to start identifying apps that might relate to their teaching. That was followed, late in the summer, with a two-day training helping teachers think more about teaching with the iPads. Then, throughout the year, we took advantage of Early Release Wednesdays, meeting nearly every other week.
Where are there other opportunities to get staff trained? Can you cajole your colleagues in another district for a handful of seats in their training? Is there a workshop or conference coming up in your region that directly addresses a need within your initiative? Do you have staff that you could groom to train others on some aspect of the initiative? Do you have someone you could free up to go into colleagues’ classrooms and coach them?
Your walkthrough data, teacher survey data, and conversations about the initiative at staff meetings should help you focus on the training and support your staff needs most at that moment.
Support: Provide Resources
Do your staff have the resources they need for this initiative? Do they have their own school-issued iPad or laptop? Does the wireless network adequately support as many simultaneous users as you are likely to have? Are there apps or programs your teachers need? Can teachers get to the websites they need to get to? Is there a book that will will help them design their lessons? Are there materials teachers need to execute those lessons? Do teachers have access to the expertise (perhaps in the form of books or of people) to put their learning activities into action? Do they have a reasonable number of the texts or equipment they need?
I was once involved with a non-traditional school in a mid-sized city. The school was trying to be a project-based career academy for students who were over-aged, but under-credentialed. We had a pretty effective and engaging online literacy program for students who were struggling because of their literacy ability. But the district Director of Curriculum (who also used to be a literacy specialist) insisted that we only use the district-approved literacy program (you know, the one that hadn’t worked for these students yet…). But we said ok, and she promised to send us the materials.
What showed up were the left over materials from the other schools in the district. Not only were there not enough of any item for there to be a class set (and we had 12 classes), there wasn’t even at least a single copy of each key set of materials in the program!
If you want your teachers to put your initiative into action, then make sure they have all (reasonable) materials they may need to do so.
Support: Remove Barriers and Run Interference
Doing something new is hard enough. But it is almost impossible if you see barriers around you, or you are left exposed to criticism. One of the most important ways you can support your staff is also something that they may never know that you do: removing barriers and running interference. Teachers making a good faith effort to implement your initiative deserve support in getting obstacles out of their way.
Many of the typical barriers you’ll remove simply by following the other suggestions in this post. Does a teacher not know how to implement a component of your initiative? Connect them with training or other teachers who can share their ideas on how to do it. Is not having certain resources or materials interfering with the teacher increasing their level of implementation? Find a way to get them the resources they need.
Time may be the largest perceived barrier for teachers. Find ways to create protected, designated time for planning and collaboration. Even if you have the protected time, sometimes teachers have so much going on that the time is used for other things, or to vent (perhaps not even about the initiative). Working to have those planning and collaboration times, and creating an agenda for each meeting to guide the work can remove that barrier.
Another type of barrier is the unhappy parent or colleague member. Such complaints are often based on a little truth, but often with a lot of missing information. As a leader, you have an opportunity to protect your staff from attacks and distractions. You can deal directly with the unhappy person and take the heat, then bring the legitimate pieces of the concern to the staff member in a much more calm, safe, supportive way.
Another way you help run interference for your teachers is by encouraging everyone (especially yourself) to “seek first to understand” (one of Stephen Covey’s habits of highly successful people). What is the full story of the thing the person is upset about? Students don’t like the way the teacher is teaching? What exactly is the teacher trying? What parts does the teacher think are going well and not so well? What does the teacher see as his next steps? It may be perfectly appropriate to respond to the parent or colleague, “Well, that teacher is working hard to implement the initiative beyond where he has been trained. He’s aware of the challenges he is having and has already asked for help in addressing those challenges.” And frankly, we need teachers who are willing to take those kinds of risks and blaze a trail of the rest of the staff.
My mantra is that if we want teachers to learn how to do things they haven’t experienced before, then we better be ready to support the heck out of them. If you want to drive your school initiative to a high level of implementation, help your teachers help you get there. How you get your teachers the training and ideas they need, work to remove barriers for staff doing this work, run interference as they make good faith attempts to implement new ideas, and how you connect staff to resources will also leave your teachers feeling supported as they work to meet higher expectations.
How do you plan to support your teachers as they strive to implement your large-scale school change?