How to Lead a School Initiative and Build Olympic-Style Teaching

Think back to your time as a classroom teacher. You are sitting in your faculty meeting, and the principal or superintendent shares a new—wait for it—initiative. I can almost see eyes rolling, staff sighing, and arms crossed about another new initiative. Don’t worry; we have all been there. But what makes people view this scenario so negatively and not be excited about the dreaded “I” word?

There are many reasons why we feel "initiative fatigue" when our school or district embarks on a new plan, even if the new initiative is well intended. We are all laser-focused on finding the solution(s) that are going to boost student achievement and build collective teacher efficacy. But somewhere between theory and practice, we lose focus on the very ways that we can set up the new initiative for success.

As an education leader, consider these five practices when embarking on a new plan with your colleagues.

1. Ensure your plan connects to your vision.

We can quickly get lost in the weeds of the implementation, and rightfully so. We want to be sure each step of the process works the way we envisioned it. But in doing so, we often forget to connect the work to the larger vision of the school or district.

In order to align the work to your larger vision, be sure to connect the dots for your team. Be explicit in how this work connects to the larger organization’s strategic or improvement plan. Also, while working on connecting the dots to the larger plan, be sure your leadership team is on board. We—the collective leadership team—can disagree behind closed doors, but out in front delivering the message, we are one team!

2. Take a team approach.

We know the old saying, “There is no I in team.” For any new initiative, you want to create a team of leaders for the work. Focus on a variety of people who will support the cause. Select a person or two who might be less than likely to support the work. Meet with them one-on-one before the rollout to get their opinions, thoughts, and ideas. Win them over so they can help talk up the initiative, too. As you develop this team to help support the work, be sure you are building champions who will lay the foundation so the work has a place to stand.

3. Communicate early; communicate often.

While this seems obvious, I have seen a lack of communication tank the most well-intended initiatives. Be sure to message the why and be explicit. Avoid making assumptions that people will get the work you are trying to do. I am a strong proponent of instructional and leadership coaching. In the education biz, people immediately jump to coaching as something bad. I always share that Michael Phelps had a coach, and his coach wasn’t just saying, “Good job.” The coach was giving specific feedback to help tweak Phelps's swimming to be the best in the world. We want-Olympic style teaching for our students. To do this, we must overcommunicate the why and how. Then, communicate some more.

4. Know that your feedback and support matter.

If you are bringing in the initiative, you had better be offering support and feedback the whole way. Your teachers and leaders need to see you with your sleeves rolled up, ready to work alongside them to make the initiative a success. Provide support services when they are requested and give immediate feedback when you are observing informally or formally. Create a specific place in your weekly newsletter (yes, you should have a weekly staff newsletter) about the progress for the initiative. This may mean you need to create goals with measurable outcomes (think SMART goals), but also offer support so they can see the successes that are happening.

5. Celebrate often.

We emphasize the importance of celebrating students when they go above and beyond, reach a goal, or accomplish a task. We need to do this with the adults in our schools, too. We need to be sure they know we see the successes that are happening. Consider keeping a stack of blank notecards on your desk (you can buy a pack of 100 multicolor cards from Target), and each morning, write a quick note to a teacher who is doing something fantastic in working the initiative from plan to action. Make regular attempts to share the success and spread the word. The more success you celebrate, the most success you have.

That’s it. If you follow these five steps when implementing a new initiative, the likelihood of success increases exponentially. Being the change agent requires organization, planning, and strategic thinking. Take the time to plan the work, and then work the plan.

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To learn more about leading school initiatives, check out Adam Drummond's new book, The Instructional Change Agent: 48 Ways to Be the Leader Your School Needs.

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