How do you determine that your teachers are engaged in school improvement initiatives or just compliant?

How many of you drive the speed limit?  My guess is not many.  Why is that?

The limits are posted clearly on nearly every road.  If you don’t obey the speed limit, there are police officers who may write you a ticket.  Many of you, like myself, have probably been ticketed for a traffic violation of some kind more than once.  However, even if you have been ticketed for speeding, it is likely you are still speeding.  Again, why is that?

Ultimately, the answer is simple.  We act in a way that we believe is in our best interest.  We don’t believe that driving the speed limit is in our best interest.  The likelihood of getting a ticket is pretty low, and we live our lives in a constant state of rushing.  Although it is silly if you do the math on time saved, we believe saving that minute or two on our morning commute is more important than following the posted speed limit.

What if the consequence was higher?  Would that change people’s driving habits?

Consider this… Even in places where the death penalty is possible, capital crimes haven’t ceased.  Consequences don’t lead people to change their behavior; influencing their beliefs does.

What does this have to do with school improvement?

The cycle of school improvement in many places generally goes something like this…

The school leader goes to a conference or reads a great book and encounters a cool new idea.  They think, “This is awesome!” and begin to make plans to bring it to their school or district.  They hold a faculty meeting and show the grand vision for the new and needed change.  They arrange for training of staff and then wait for the leadership awards to start pouring in…

One or two years later, a certain percentage of staff have implemented the change, some have half-heartedly complied and gone through the motions, and some have basically ignored the new initiative and  are just waiting for it to pass.  The leader thinks to themselves, “Why won’t these teachers implement this great idea that would be great for kids?  What is their problem?!@*?”

The problem is easy to understand, but extremely difficult to overcome.  The problem with many failed initiatives is that teachers don’t believe that the initiative being proposed is in their or their students’ best interests.  Most teachers I know are some of the most fantastic people I’ve ever met.  If they believed a proposed change or initiative would lead to better outcomes for their students, the overwhelming majority of them would implement it even it would mean more work for them personally.  However, most of them have had the experience of many new initiatives coming and going without making much difference in what happened for students day to day.  They approach new initiatives with a pretty well founded cynicism.

So how do we determine if they are engaged in school improvement initiatives or just compliant?

First, we can’t take the role of the ticket writers.  Many leaders believe that the way to sustain change is to communicate a vision, and then monitor compliance.  They use evaluation, write-ups, or walkthroughs as a hammer to ensure 100% compliance.  This philosophy will never lead to sustained change.

Second, we have to realize that change doesn’t get done in the faculty meeting or staff email.  It gets done one conversation at a time.  It gets done in one-to-one relationships.  It gets done with a lot of talking and a lot of listening.  It gets done inviting disagreement and conflict in a safe environment. It gets done addressing the concerns and obstacles of the people closest to the change.  It gets done over the long haul.

How will you support positive school improvement in your school or district that will extend beyond your tenure there?  How are you influencing others and building leaders amongst the teachers, who are the foundation of any successful school improvement? How will you keep your people engaged in the work that really matters and filter out all the outside noise?  Would love to hear your thoughts!  Please feel free to contact me at or


6 thoughts on “How do you determine that your teachers are engaged in school improvement initiatives or just compliant?

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thank you Mary Beth! When people who are awesome like something you wrote, definitely is a confidence booster… Hope you are having a fantastic summer with the little ones!


    Great article!
    I am in leadership classes right now and shared this with our Dept head of the ELPS program at UNC. She liked it.
    I am so excited to get into this program of admin and principal licensure! I hope I can pick your brain! Keep on writing, too bad you are far away or I would definitely pick you to go shadow!

  2. Kelly

    What a great question to pose. I think reflection is key. After new initiatives are implemented teachers and administrators should come together to share what they found to be strengths and weaknesses of those initiatives. Ideas should be shared to tweak the programs for the following year. Teachers have to feel they can openly reflect upon and modify everything they are required to use. Rarely do we come back together as a collective group to discuss how we felt the initiatives worked. Listening to and trusting teachers’ opinions is also key!

    1. jsagel Post author

      Thanks for the comment Kelly! Often, when I look back at things I wrote, they are more of a challenge to me than anyone else. I realize more and more that I have a long way to go to being the kind of leader I write about. I appreciate your thoughts!


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