(Originally posted on Eduleadership.)

By Justin Baeder

When change happens too fast, it overwhelms people and diminishes their confidence that they’ll be successful. Skills take time to develop, and no one wants to be judged too quickly on a skill they are still developing.

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But some people think they should have three or four years to implement every change. Is this an acceptable learning cycle? Do three crops of students deserve to be practiced on while we drag our feet at getting up to speed?

Of course not. Part of responsible planning is to ensure that our “implementation dip” affects students for as little time as possible.

We need a sense of urgency, and we need to move as quickly as we can without jeopardizing our success.

Here are a few things we can do to speed up change.

1. Make the case

People need to develop a shared understand of three things:

  • The problem—why a change is needed
  • The rationale—why this is the right change
  • The theory of action—how this change will solve the problem

Too often, we identify the problem well, but fail to make a strong enough case for the specific change. When the going gets tough—and it will—resistance creeps in and people try to revert to the familiar.

2. Support and celebrate early adopters

You probably already have teachers who are pretty far along in doing what you want to take school-wide. Support them, give them access to advanced training, and make them experts. Help them become wildly successful.

They won’t necessarily want to be responsible for school-wide implementation of the change, but they serve an important “proof of concept” role, so make sure they are successful. If they aren’t, how will people who are less motivated succeed?

3. Set a date

Once the decision has been made to implement the change, don’t leave it open-ended. “When we have time” is not a date. “When there are no other big changes taking place” isn’t a date.

Set a date, and make it clear that the change will be “online” school-wide by that date.

4. Make a checklist

But setting a date isn’t enough. You also need to define what constitutes change.

When my school implemented a new writing curriculum, I made the mistake of thinking that it was enough for people to attend training and start using the new materials. Some people took off, while others dragged their feet.

As the months went by, I was dismayed to see that some teachers were not using the new curriculum. At all. One teacher didn’t even know where her copy was.

What was missing? Clarity about the key behaviors that signify the change.

I immediately came up with 10 indicators of implementation, and focused my walkthroughs for a month on these indicators. None were about skill, and all were about behavior.

As I visited each classroom, I checked: Are you starting writing with a short minilesson? Does your minilesson have a focused teaching point? Are you planning units by sequencing your teaching points? Are you documenting teaching points on anchor charts? Are you spending a good chunk of time conferring with individual students?

I collected data, and shared the aggregated results with staff. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s powerful to see that 80% of your colleagues are doing what they’re supposed to, and you aren’t. After that, things moved along more quickly.

At this stage, don’t even worry about whether people are executing these elements skillfully. That will come in time and with good coaching. The first step is to do. You can’t get better at something you haven’t started doing.

5. Coach Toward Excellence

Implementation isn’t a great destination; we need to push for excellence, and excellence requires continual growth.

With our writing curriculum, we quickly realized we needed more expertise, and that expertise came in the form of classroom coaching.

Coaches don’t particularly like being asked to help people get better at things they aren’t doing yet, so make sure you push for full implementation before bringing in coaches. But when you do, get ready for amazing growth as teachers start to zoom up out of the implementation dip.


Do you have a story of making change happen, slow or fast? What worked for you? What barriers did you encounter, and what helped you overcome them? Leave a comment below.

Justin Baeder is Director of The Principal Center and host of Principal Center Radio. He helps school administrators increase their impact on student learning through the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Follow Justin on Twitter at @eduleadership