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The Success of Professional Learning Initiatives Depends on Your Team

We know you’re excited about moving student learning forward in mathematics and have already started some research-based initiatives. Whether you are conducting a needs analysis, providing instructional coaching, launching learning communities, or  implementing a new curriculum, you have probably already noticed the elephant in the room:

Change Is Hard.

Anytime you ask a person to think differently or act differently than they did before, you are also asking them to reject a little bit of what they thought or did previously. Rejection, whether direct or implied, rarely feels good. The old adage “Never be ashamed to admit you were wrong; it shows you are wiser today than you were yesterday” has been attributed to many people, but few of us are truly clear-headed and confident enough to be so wise in the face of an active learning challenge. 

Don’t Fight the Resistance.

There are many psychological and emotional factors that contribute to anyone’s resistance to change: Pride in one’s work. Belief that one’s experience is sufficient and one’s methods are effective. Bias in attributing success to one’s own merits and disregarding failures as anomalies or the fault of others. While that list goes on, the important thing as a change leader is NOT to fight these psychological and emotional forces, but to acknowledge them. Leaders who recognize the magnitude of the change they are asking from their teams of educators - dedicated people who are finally receiving the public recognition they deserve for their service to our communities - are much more effective in inspiring their teams to join them in the effort of their own professional growth.

Offer Support.

To demonstrate the idea of being supportive in order to overcome resistance, consider this simple example: Imagine your staff is being asked to use a new web-based video conferencing tool to conduct virtual meetings with their teams. Which of these two “inspirational” messages would be most helpful?

"Here’s a new web-based video conferencing tool. I got it all installed on your computer! It’s really not that hard so you should be able to figure it out and conduct your next staff meeting using it."
"Here’s the new web-based video conferencing tool you’ve been hearing about. I got it all installed on your computer! Now this is definitely a lot different than the in-person system you used before! We chose this particular platform because there are all of these useful features I’m excited to explore with you. I’m most interested in [this functionality of the tool]… Which feature do you think might be most helpful to you? Shall we take a look at it together or do you want to poke around yourself and see what you learn?"

From a leadership perspective, it’s tempting to use the first approach. It may be a steep learning curve for your staff members, but you get to the end result (here, your staff conducting virtual team meetings) quickly. However, consider the costs to your team. Some team members will rearrange their days, dig in, and teach themselves what they need to know, but may resent the requirement to do so. This could lead to complaining with their peers about their frustration, thus creating a negative work environment. Other team members simply will not be able to teach themselves on a deadline -- due to very real obstacles of logistics and skills -- and will feel misunderstood, unsupported, and incompetent. The risks of an under-supported implementation, therefore, include non-compliance with the new initiative, process confusion, frustration, and a negative work culture.

Invest Time and Effort

It’s apparent from the example about web-based tools that the second approach is more time-consuming in the short run because you have to dedicate more personalized effort to those who request it. The risks of an ineffective implementation and the operational and cultural costs that may result, however, more than justify the effort to undertake a more robust rollout process. And that example is just about the platform for a meeting! 

The work it takes to roll out and implement effective professional learning initiatives, programs, and curricula are far more complex, and therefore, require far more learning and support resources upon introduction. The time and effort you invest in the people who are being asked to change, learn, and shift will ultimately yield returns when initiatives can move forward without resistance dragging efforts back. 

Empathize Without Minimizing

The most important aspect of leading change is empathizing with your team and anticipating the concerns that may arise. What will they find confusing about the new initiative? What will be difficult for them? How might the change affect not only their usual processes but also the team culture? Will the new initiative threaten the authority of some of your more respected team members and boost the credibility of others? Or vice versa? How people FEEL about the change is just as important as the merits of the initiative itself, and will make or break its success. 

That’s not to say that effective change leaders seek to minimize change associated with an initiative -- that would defeat the larger goals of undertaking a professional learning program to begin with! The value of anticipating the potential technical, logistical, interpersonal and cultural challenges is that you are then able to plan for them. Certain changes are necessary and need to be supported with communications and training, but some aspects of resistance may be better avoided with careful implementation tactics. 

These suggestions of leaning into the resistance and supporting change apply not just to the launch of a new initiative -  whether new curricular materials, teaching methods, or instructional coaching - but throughout the entirety of implementation. After all, despite all of your research on, excitement about, and hope for the initiative, it is your team who will determine its success. 

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