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5 strategies to increase buy-in

How do we get stakeholders energized around improvement work?

This is a question we spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s a question that’s relevant to Impact Academy fellows who are building leadership skills to support individual and organizational learning, and to participants in the Common Indicators System who are working to collect data on candidate knowledge and skills and program performance using common instruments in order to support cross-institutional learning.

And it’s relevant to the more than 100 leaders from 23 programs with whom we’ve had the privilege of working over the last few months through our Building Blocks workshops. These leaders came together around a shared desire to create rigorous, cohesive experiences for teacher-candidates, and we had rich conversations about what a program designed around candidate learning looked like. But these conversations kept coming back to the question of stakeholder engagement. Program leaders knew that even the most amazing plans for a transformed program could fizzle out if stakeholders were not involved.

Sometimes we hear people say that if adults cared more about kids, then improvement work would move forward. We don’t believe that. We’ve met hundreds of teachers and teacher-educators over the last three years, and we know they care deeply about improving the learning and lives of children. But even when all stakeholders are passionate about improving educational outcomes for students, improvement work can still hit obstacles. Based on our experience working with program leaders around the country, and drawing from the change management literature, we’ve identified some strategies we’ve seen leaders use to overcome these barriers and help all stakeholders pull in the same direction. This is not an exhaustive list but rather is intended as a starting point to help leaders build their toolkits.

Help stakeholders see the bigger picture. Often, teacher-educators work in silos: A faculty member teaching a university course may not actually know what happens when candidates get out into the field. By strategically selecting data about candidate experience and performance to examine with stakeholders, leaders can help stakeholders “connect the dots” between their work and broader improvement efforts. Leaders may also need to help stakeholders “experience” the challenge by encouraging them to speak with candidates about their preparation, look at artifacts or videos of candidate practice, or observe candidates teach.

Eliminate power dynamics. In many places, certain roles in teacher education have been privileged above others.The voice of tenured faculty member, for example, may carry more weight than that of a mentor teacher, leading to certain perspectives being dismissed or ignored. Leaders can address this by creating opportunities for collaboration across roles — although it’s important that these are structured and facilitated thoughtfully to make sure all voices are heard. Additionally, it’s important that bringing stakeholders together happens early and often throughout an improvement effort, as a process that that appears to “check the box” on stakeholder engagement will not be as effective.

Tap into stakeholder values. Improvement work might be important to stakeholders, but there may be other variables that are “closer to home” — such as promotion opportunities or accountability pressures — and thus interfere with the attention or energy they ’re able to give an improvement effort. Given this, leaders can help increase engagement by aligning improvement work with stakeholders’ existing values and incentives. Leaders might consider how improvement work can create opportunities for research or be counted in the “service” component of the tenure and promotion process. If stakeholders are motivated by recognition of their peers, leaders might think about how to communicate successes publicly. Or if prestige matters, leaders can consider how to involve well-respected faculty so that others see the work as influential.

Take things off people’s plates. Most people already have a full load, and improvement work is often layered on top of that. Leaders need to think carefully about what gets prioritized and how improvement work might integrate with existing projects and initiatives — including when it makes sense to remove items from stakeholders’ plates in order to free up time and mental energy for an improvement effort. Leaders might also think about the difference between an upfront investment of time (which can be offset by course releases or other one-time solutions) and what will be the ongoing time commitment for stakeholders in the new normal.

Create conditions for learning. Often, anxiety and resistance can arise when leaders ask people to do things they don’t yet know how to do. This can be especially challenging when expert teachers and teacher educators are asked to feel like novices again. In this situation, people may use avoidance mechanisms, including focusing on logistics or belaboring the process, to delay the vulnerability of learning. To create conditions for learning, leaders can acknowledge that learning can be difficult and model their own vulnerability as they publicly learn new things. Leaders must think carefully about what individuals will need to do differently on a day-to-day basis and create time, protected space, and resources to facilitate that learning. Just as we have to scaffold learning for candidates to move from less complex skills to more complex, leaders must also consider about how to sequence learning for teacher educators.

Leaders need a toolkit of strategies to energize stakeholders, but the approach they take will vary depending on the barriers that different people face. Each stakeholder may be blocked by different issues, and leaders will need to dig to understand the true obstacle before jumping to solutions. In future posts in this series, we’ll dive into each of these above strategies in more detail, exploring examples from leaders in programs around the country. We’d also love to hear from you about strategies you’ve used to engage stakeholders in an improvement process!


Valerie Sakimura

Vice President of Program


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