Getting Buy-in and Dealing with Resistance

How did you get the faculty to buy in? That is the question I get asked most often in my work with educators across the country. Brockton High School transformed itself from a school ranked as one of the lowest performing in Massachusetts to a National Model School, recognized for the past 14 years by the International Center for Leadership in Education for sustained excellence. We accomplished this by focusing relentlessly on literacy. Led by our leadership team, the Restructuring Committee, we implemented a Literacy Initiative across the curriculum that focused on teaching the students the skills they need in Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Reasoning, in every classroom. But that first required us to teach those literacy strategies to our faculty—in EVERY discipline.

That brings me to the most honest answer I can give to the question about how to get buy-in. The truth is that you probably won’t ever get buy-in from everyone, particularly when you are asking people to do something they have never done before. Change is difficult. The reality is that if we waited for buy-in from everyone, we’d still be waiting.

Strategies for successfully introducing change
But implementing a change does not always require a sledgehammer to make it happen. There are some important steps that leaders should take to help gain buy-in for any school- or district-wide initiative.

  • Engage everyone in the planning process. When I was a teacher, I was most skeptical when “yet another thing” was foisted upon us with little explanation and almost no planning. At Brockton High, we engaged faculty into the planning process by using “Structured Discussion Groups” to get faculty input. Our Literacy Charts, which detailed the skills our students must master, were reviewed and revised by our faculty numerous times before they were adopted.
  • Encourage discussion, even when there’s disagreement. We used the World Café Method to get teachers across grades and disciplines talking with each other in organized, focused ways.
  • Communicate the message! We all need to understand WHY something is important. Through meetings, workshops, discussion groups, newsletters, emails, we tenaciously kept a focus on literacy in every classroom.
  • Provide the necessary training and support. How often did I find myself saying “What is it you want me to do? Please just show me!” Use faculty meetings and PLCs as the vehicle for this—colleague-to-colleague is powerful.
  • Value instruction. Our transformation would NEVER have happened without high-quality instruction. Celebrate and publicize the good stories!

But for many, what really brings about buy-in is RESULTS! When teachers see something is working well and benefits their students, the buy-in almost always follows. Unfortunately there are some who never buy in and perhaps even resist.

Tips for approaching the resistors

So what happens when there is resistance to a critical initiative in a school or district? This is NEVER easy. In fact, it can cause those “pit in the stomach” moments when you have to have a difficult conversation with someone. However, it’s important to remember that all resistance is not negative. Let’s think about a few of those who may resist.

  • Mr. My Classroom Is My Kingdom Many schools have fostered this environment by not engaging teachers in school-wide initiatives. Pulling them in and utilizing their classroom expertise can make those teachers leaders and help them understand that all students need the best instruction; it cannot be limited to a few classrooms.
  • Ms. I Tried This in 1982 and It Didn’t Work Then PD, support, and data are necessary to demonstrate to Ms. I Tried This Before that it isn’t the same, and that this will improve student performance. Colleague-to-colleague review and discussion of student work will provide the evidence of the power of writing.
  • Mr. Not on My Watch Occasionally you might run into this contrarian, even an obstructionist. All the engaging activities should still be tried, but in rare occasions the leader has to step up, mandate, and monitor. If you allow a few to opt out of an important initiative, it not only lessens the importance of the work, but it also hurts the students who don’t receive this powerful instruction.

I have always felt that true leadership is getting people to do what they NEED to do, but for some reason they can’t or won’t. Engaging faculty to bring about buy-in is usually a recipe for success, but in some cases leaders have to confront the resistance directly.

Getting Buy-in and Dealing with the Resistance is one of the sessions I will be presenting at the 2017 Model Schools Conference in Nashville, from June 25–28, and I’ll be sharing more “how-to” suggestions for answering that critical question: HOW do you get buy-in?

For more information about how Brockton High implemented the Literacy Initiative, check out the book Transforming Brockton High School: High Standards, High Expectations, NO Excuses.