How to Balance Teacher Buy-In With the Need for Innovation

As educators, we continue to grapple with the how much teacher “buy-in” is needed to successfully begin a tech-driven learning initiative. In an article I wrote last year entitled (provocatively enough) Greatest Lesson: Teacher Buy-In is Overrated, I explained that “the digital transition is not a fad or something we might be able to get to, but rather, an immediate necessity that cannot always wait for optimum levels of teacher buy-in.”

Since the publication of that article, I’ve heard feedback about the value of buy-in from teachers and school administrators across the country. Some educators agreed with my suggestion that school leaders can’t wait for 100% teacher consensus on change before moving forward with a tech-driven learning initiative. Others disagreed with my position, arguing that only when their entire teams are on board with a learning initiative does the initiative have any chance of being implemented equitably, with fidelity, and ultimately, successfully.

I believe the shift from hardcover textbooks to digital core instructional materials should intrinsically change classroom instruction. The shift to digital content can provide all students equitable access to content. It changes the student engagement quotient and it empowers educators to more easily differentiate instruction. And these are just a few of the benefits of the shift to digital teaching and learning.

However, making this shift and realizing the benefits of the transition to digital resources requires investment. Yes, the appropriate technological needs must be accounted for, but more importantly, the digital transition requires an investment in the teachers expected to use these new resources.

The classroom teachers in a school system undergoing the digital transition need to learn new skills and pedagogical content knowledge as they evolve their classroom practice. In addition, teachers beginning the digital transition need time to rethink and redefine instructional practices to ensure they are truly building modern learning environments and maximizing their new digital resources.

Often, teachers’ concerns over these types of issues are viewed as impediments to achieving buy-in, when in fact they should be viewed as prescient warnings to possible roadblocks on the road to a successful digital transition. School leaders need to remember that teachers are asked to wear many hats each day, including instructor, coach, mediator, therapist, medic, disciplinarian, cheerleader, and many, many more. Our incredibly busy teachers’ time is valuable, and they are right to be skeptical of changes or new initiatives that don’t immediately impact their students.

But teachers must continue to evolve their practice so they can meet the ever-changing needs of students. We know today’s students are different; they are used to interacting with digital content in their daily lives. Even more importantly, our world is changing. To deny children digital learning experiences is to deny them opportunities to acquire the very skills and competencies students needed for success beyond the classroom.

So, how do school leaders balance buy-in and the need to make the digital transition?  They get started on building dynamic digital classrooms and they develop buy-in along the way. Here are three concrete ways school leaders can get started on this process:

1. Employ the concept of “boorish redundancy” to the promise of digital. When Rick DuFour reshaped our thinking about the importance of collaboration through professional learning communities, he emphasized the need to share this vision with boorish redundancy. Mike Schmoker followed up in his Results-Driven Handbook with the need to develop the vision for a guaranteed and viable curriculum with boorish redundancy. The promise of digital also requires a vision shared with boorish redundancy. The digital transformation doesn’t occur overnight. It requires a thoughtful, planned and shared vision that begins with leaders who articulate the why and how boorishly, over and over again. In order for teachers to embrace the investment of time required, they need to know that this plan won’t fall into the “last year’s new thing, this year’s new thing” category.

2. Learn the research, then follow it where it leads. This is a broad statement, but it has very specific implications, particularly in three areas: the research on buy-in, the research on effective professional development and most importantly, the research on effective digital pedagogy. Interestingly, the research on buy-in, especially when it comes to school reform initiatives like digital transformation, is clear that teachers become more positive when they better understand an innovation. This, of course, points directly to the need to implement effective professional development to ensure that understanding. The research is equally clear on the power of professional development. Sustained, rigorous, job-embedded professional development that is directly linked to what teachers do in their classroom works will help educators acquire the instructional skills and strategies necessary for a successful digital transition. Finally, those leading the digital transition must understand the research on effective digital pedagogy, and must continue to participate in sustained professional development. Leaders need to understand digital pedagogy so they can help teachers employ those resources effectively in the classroom. Today’s students are different, and so are the tools at our disposal to serve them—why shouldn’t the way we teach change?

3. KNOW. As school leaders, we need to just know — not all the answers, but the questions, the needs and what we are willing to do to ensure that all students are future ready. As you plan for a successful digital transformation, one where buy-in will eventually come, remember to:

Keep the focus on your students.

Nurture the coalition of the willing; in time, it will expand.

Open the doors of your classrooms to show the process of innovation.

When in doubt, remember the power of the reflective question “Where are we now and where do we need to go next?”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, school leaders need to keep in mind the idea that teacher buy-in is a mutual agreement earned by promoting the benefits of a particular course of action, not through top-down pronouncements. Sometimes, individuals are incredibly stalwart in their positions and are not open to change, but it is incumbent as school leaders to make an effort to change their minds.

The strategies above are three ways school leaders I’ve met are working to achieve educator buy-in as they begin their digital transitions. What are some of the ways you are building “coalitions of the willing” among your teachers? Send a note to [email protected] and let me know–I’d love to hear from you.

For more, see:

Dr. Karen Beerer is Discovery Education’s Senior Vice President of Teaching and Learning. She began her career as a classroom teacher, but also served as a reading specialist, an elementary school principal, and as a Supervisor of Curriculum and Professional Development. Prior to joining Discovery Education, she served as the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment in the Boyertown Area School District (PA) for 8 years.

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