Professional Development Opinion

Response: Teachers Must Help Determine New Ideas Being Implemented

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 15, 2013 10 min read
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(This is Part One of a multi-post series on this topic)

Shawn Blankenship asked:

What are strategies to close the gap between new ideas and implementation? The question may need to be adjusted a little, but many educators are reading, sharing, learning, and growing together. However, what are ways in which we can put these new ideas into action in a timely manner? I’m sure self-initiation, problem-solving, risk-taking and the freedom to fail and learn from such failure will be a part of the conversation. As a principal, I would love to have some strategies to close this gap.

Shawn’s question is an important one, and several guests will be responding to his question over the next week.

Today, in addition to commentaries by Renee Moore and Kelly Young (who I consider a mentor and from whom I’ve learned more about teaching than anyone else), I’ll be “leading-off” with my own thoughts...

In schools, I believe the key to “closing the gap between new ideas and implementation” is making sure that teachers are key in determining which new ideas are the ones being implemented. All too often, we are viewed by administrators, particularly many in school district central offices, as their “instruments” in executing “flavor of the year” programs.

And why should administrators make that a priority? Because, if they don’t, it’s unlikely that they’ll be effective.

Many years ago, I helped operate a soup kitchen on San Jose’s (CA) Skid Row. We were well-meaning, but not the most responsible neighbors. On day I was sweeping around the passed-out men and women on our front porch when a police car drove-up. An officer got out and started yelling me, saying that we couldn’t control thing and they received many complaints about us. As the officer continued, one of the men on the porch pulled himself up on the railing and yelled out, “Officer, Larry tries. He tries hard. We just don’t listen to him!”

I’ve often thought about that incident during my nineteen year career as a community organizer and eleven years as a public school teacher. I’ve framed the lesson I learned that day as a question, “Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be effective?”

In my organizing career, I learned that a key to engaging people to move beyond their comfort zone is to first build a relationship -- a reciprocal one. A relationship entails eliciting from others their hopes and dreams, along with sharing your own. It involves finding learning the frustrations and challenges that people are experiencing. It involves looking for ways to help the other person realize those hopes and dreams and get beyond those challenges. And, if these “new ideas” can genuinely help in those ways, then building a relationship means framing the invitation to try it in a way that speaks to what the other person wants, which may not be the way the “idea person” would prefer to frame it. It is the difference between “being right” and “being effective.”

Up until the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson was a master “implementer.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and many others tell a story about his arrival in Washington, D.C. as a Congressional aide. He lived in a boardinghouse with other aides -- and took four showers each night and brushed his teeth five separate times in the morning so he could get to know the interests of his colleagues.

Goodwin goes on:

Many years later, as President, he still understood that he had to talk personally with as many Congressmen as possible, to learn what they needed to make them feel important. So, he would invite individual Congressmen and Senators to breakfast, to lunch, to dinner. He would call them at 6:00 in the morning. If they weren’t up, he would talk to their wives.

Goodwin also highlights an equally critical part of Johnson’s strategy -- one that administrators might also be wise to keep in mind:

Now, people assumed, with only partial accuracy, that the key to Johnson’s success came in his ability to trade dams, public works projects, all manner of goodies, for votes...But the real key to his success was the strength of his convictions and his ability to convince wavering Congressmen and Senators that if they came with him on pieces of legislation that he proposed--Medicare, civil rights, poverty, aid to education, aid to the arts--they would be creating a legacy of their own that would be remembered for years to come. [emphasis mine]

Creating a legacy is key.

Though the “goodies” can be important tactical tools, during my organizing career, I also always found that the best leaders were interested -- in their own way -- at how organizing could help them create their own legacy. It could be us having a conversation about how their children might look at them and learn from them if they saw their parents leading a negotiation session with the mayor or how they wanted to be able to describe themselves ten years from now -- the key to getting a real “buy-in” to investing themselves into making change was creating an avenue to building a legacy.

This all takes time. But, as Larry Cuban reminds us, the most effective administrators are marathoners and not sprinters.

Readers might also be interested in learning more about these tactic and strategies at The Best Posts & Articles On Building Influence and Creating Change.

Response From Renee Moore

Renee Moore, NBCT, teaches English at Mississippi Delta Community College. She is 2001 Mississippi Teacher of the Year; member of the Board of Directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory; co-authored Teaching 2030 (2011) and blogs at TeachMoore:

I worked for several years as a Teacher Leader in a small rural school district. I taught half the day, the other half I worked with my colleagues. Sometimes we met in small groups, discussing lessons or looking at student work. This was before professional learning communities had become vogue, but that’s what we were.

Most often, I sat with individual teachers exploring how to use new technology. Our district had recently gotten wired, and with the help of several grants, new hardware and software was sitting in our classrooms. But most of the teachers did not know how to use the equipment or the programs. Oddly, the time and mechanism for professional learning among the adults was given only limited attention in the writing of these grants, or overlooked completely. Having a peer, not a tech expert, to work with and talk to about what this new innovation will mean in my classroom made teachers more comfortable and more eager to try things that some of our administrators were sure they’d never do.

Something I learned during that time that has stuck with me: Most teachers want to know anything “new” is truly safe and useful before they trust it with their students. I found this to be true not just with new technology, but with new ideas, reforms, approaches, curriculum redesigns, and other things often imposed upon us, rather than developed by us.

Teachers need time to play with new ideas and plan for successful implementation. Given the luxury of time, and a way to pilot new things (maybe one class at a time), and time to reflect on implications and possibilities before going all out, most teachers will not only embrace effective new educational ideas, but create them. This process doesn’t necessarily have to take months or years, but it is a necessary process for many teachers, especially those who have seen so many reforms and gadgets come and go. The time and support for adult learning should be built into any implementation plans.

Response From Kelly Young

Kelly Young is founder and executive director of Pebble Creek Labs, a training and curriculum consulting company focused on instruction, literacy and leadership development. Since 1998 Pebble Creek Labs has partnered with schools and districts to promote student achievement and develop educators. Kelly can be reached at kelly@kellyjyoung.com:

A culture of Implementation

The inertia gap between new ideas and implementation is a common dilemma in our schools. The solutions are unique to settings and circumstances, but overcoming it begins with an orientation to action and a school culture that values implementation. Collaborative teacher time is too limited and precious for good ideas to stay inert in a “needs more study, let’s have more meetings, no implementation” cycle.

You have heard the saying “paralysis by analysis”. Paralysis by over-talking, over-studying, over-planning is just as common in schools. Certainly study and planning has its place, but the prevailing orientation must be toward action and practice.

Ironically, in many respects, the talk-study-planning phase is more fruitful once practice occurs. It is informed by experiences, the study is more focused, the planning about future practice -- all buoyed by the energy of activity.

One cannot say enough about overcoming the stasis of non-action and recognizing the power of momentum.

Study within timing parameters

One consideration in the planning phase is to put a time limit on when “roll-out” begins, choosing a date that is both reasonable while also ambitious. This conveys an expectation that we are going to “try this”, and that through practice we learn most and become better.

Implementation with collaborative support structures

Once implementation begins, some form of regular Study Team meetings, which brings teachers’ together to discuss and reflect on their practice, is powerful in institutionalizing a culture of implementation. It creates an environment of reflection, refinement, planning and support for on-going practice, while making public this practice. Such public and collaborative practice also institutes an accountability with support toward implementation.

Also, monitoring of implementation via classroom visits supported by informal conversations is an incredibly simple yet powerful method of promoting practice. The saying “what gets monitored gets done” is apt. The motivation here is really to support and praise--to cheerlead if you will--implementation.

Data collected on practice for reflection and dialogue

In addition, we often create “weekly practice logs” where teachers’ tally, or journal, about practice, which they bring to study team meetings. Such structures institutes the good practice of self-reflection through journaling or data analysis, heightens professionalism via accountable practice, and sets up more focused meetings.

New teaching techniques necessitates practice. Just as one learns any new skill--music, language, dance, or sport through trial. Practice, with on-going support and study, is necessary to create schools that are imbued with a feeling that “we implement here”. It is both exciting and powerful to be involved in a school with a true culture of continuous innovation.

Thanks to Renee and Kelly for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in the last post in this series.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for Part Two in a few days...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.