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Facilitative Leadership for School Improvement

This might sound familiar to you, either from your own experience or watching a school leader:

It’s time to write your school improvement plan. You really want to lead your building or district’s improvement efforts. You want to engage stakeholders in meaningful ways that create authentic buy-in and commitment, rather than just compliance (What Are We Selling?). You gather input and have teams identify problems and next steps. You facilitate how those are combined to make a coherent plan for moving forward. The group creates timelines and action steps. It looks beautiful!

And then...nothing really changes.


The reasons why change is not successful in schools range from poor planning to identifying the wrong solutions. However, even plans that are well created using a shared process that builds authentic buy-in often fail. In our experience, these can be grouped into two categories: (1) lack of pre-planning work and (2) lack of post-implementation follow through.

1. Lack of pre-planning work. This is the definition of “proactive” leadership. Change is hard and takes time. One of the most valuable things we can do is get in front of possible change and begin to set the stage. Plant seeds. Soften the ground. Build capacity. Successful change rarely happens without that work, but leaders are often so busy with the day-to-day reality of leading, that it is extremely difficult to get ahead of that work.

Here are some ways to be proactive:

  • Discuss possible changes with teacher leaders to brainstorm barriers and leverage points before the rest of the staff. Get feedback and be prepared to change your plan.

  • Collect evidence that might be helpful in convincing staff a change is important. This might be student work samples, lesson plans, or specific data (ie: student time on task).

  • Collect models of what your “islands of excellence” are doing. These teachers exist in almost every building. Samples from their classroom can help overcome the argument of “that can’t work here.”

  • Have a small number of teachers try something in advance to see what the results (and barriers) are before going whole staff.

2. Lack of post-implementation follow through. We might want to just say “go” and expect the plan to be executed, but that almost never works. What we need to do is include a part of the plan where initiatives and action items are reviewed, evaluated, and the plan modified on a short-term basis. The famous military quote might seem a little over the top, but still accurate: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In this case, “the enemy” is the inertia that exists in all systems. If we’re not prepared with lots of formative assessment and ways to modify the plan, then inertia almost always wins.

Here are some ways to engage in post-implementation follow through:

  • Plan for implementation walk throughs after a professional learning session. Evaluate how much implementation of the new practice has actually taken place and who needs more support. Be prepared to differentiate that support through coaching, PLCs, and your own feedback.

  • Analyze student behavioral referrals to monitor the percentage of students needing different tiers of support, differences among teachers, and other needs that might become apparent. Be prepared to shift resources as those needs arise.

  • Have PLCs share their agenda/notes with your building leadership team so that they can look for common needs and identify best practices. Support the leadership team in supporting their teacher teams.

While these examples are specific to building leaders, the same ideas hold true for district leaders and even instructional coaches. As a district leader, how can you “get in front” of the work that your principals will have to do with their staff? How will you monitor change in formative ways that allow for adaptation? As a coach, how can you prepare a reluctant teacher to engage in a coaching cycle? What does your post-implementation follow-up look like?

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