Sustaining Change: Cheerleaders and Bulldozers

Sustaining Change

 Every January 1, many people create a New Year’s resolution with the intention of making major life improvements. My resolutions were to eat better, exercise more, and lose 10 pounds. It is now July, and I only have 15 pounds to go.

This upcoming school year, you may have some big changes planned, and articulating what to change and why you want to change it is the easiest part. Fully implementing and sustaining the change is more difficult, especially because it requires other people’s investment and cooperation. This area of implementing change, the how, is where things tend to fall apart if those driving the change do not fully consider all the variables that are necessary to maintain long-term change.

I have witnessed many evidence-based best practices and programs fail to launch or last within a learning organization because essential variables were not sufficiently considered. Research on change implementation provides school leaders with essential components that support successful implementation of a new program or practice, called implementation drivers. There are three categories of implementation drivers: competency, organization, and leadership.


The competency driver focuses on building capacity among staff to make the desired changes. These individuals within the organization must be provided with the training and supports needed to make changes in knowledge, attitudes, and behavior necessary for successfully implementing a new practice or program. Too often I’ve seen decision makers of large learning systems check off the “training” box with a one- or two-day inservice training and then expect progress to miraculously take place. These “drive-by PD” or “one-shot trainings” are rarely, if ever, efficient in changing teacher behaviors or practices. Competency-building supports must be purposeful and extend beyond the initial training. Coaching and feedback are essential competency drivers.

One necessary, but often overlooked, step in the competency support system is identifying the “early adopters,” or the professionals within your school or district who show that they believe in the new practice or program and can serve as models of the attitude and behaviors needed to successfully implement it. These staff members can be champions for the effort and can be coaches for colleagues who need more feedback and support before achieving competence.

For example, a school principal might want to pilot a coteaching program. For this driver, he or she must clearly identify a high-quality training plan for staff on coteaching best practices and then select the right people to be the first practitioners and coaches for other teachers.


Competent, well-trained staff are only one piece of the puzzle. If knowledgeable staff are not provided with the time or opportunity to perform necessary implementation tasks, how can they be effective? The organization driver focuses on the systems that enable staff to do what they need to do. Are comprehensive policies and procedures in place to provide a framework for action? Were proactive budgeting decisions made to ensure that the change is possible and realistic? Do revisions to the school calendar or accommodations within the schedule need to be made to support collaboration among colleagues to achieve goals?

As school leaders, we may think we have done all the necessary organizational planning, but we will not know if we do not have a process for collecting data on how the change process is going. An essential aspect of the organization driver is “keeping a finger on the pulse” of implementation using data and feedback loops between staff and leadership so that leadership can be responsive, quickly addressing any problems and reinforcing what is working.


Everyone can use a good cheerleader and a good bulldozer. In the change process, the leadership driver can do both. Although leaders are involved in every aspect of implementation, the leadership driver is focused on leadership strategies that are fitting for the circumstances. The early phases of implementation might be particularly challenging; being adaptive in responding to unforeseen changes and obstacles as the individuals in the organization learn and grow helps the overall process stay on target. Adaptive leadership reminds people of why we are asking for the change and cheers them on as they awkwardly attempt to change for the first, second, and even third time.

Using the coteaching example, the first few attempts at including two teachers’ roles within a lesson might not end up being an exemplar lesson. We need to let them know it is OK to not get it right the first time as long as they are learning. We also need to share any good news with parents, school boards, and other stakeholders (for example, provide data at a board meeting on the increased reading proficiency of all students in the coteaching pilot program) while aligning these successes with the larger mission and vision of our school or district.

Leaders also need to clear the way for them to succeed. We need to not let the naysayers get into their heads as they press forth with something new and different. We need to buy them time to do it right, and we need to create the path for others to follow in their footprints. In many cases, this takes us back to square one, where we identify the next batch of people we want to be involve in the change and then cycle back through these drivers until the change becomes part of the way we do things.

Putting It Together

You might have found an amazing, evidence-based program, and you might have a brilliant vision about how that program will transform your school or district, but without careful planning for the implementation drivers, that vision could be as unfulfilled as my latest New Year’s resolution.

Oran Tkatchov’s education career has included roles as a middle school English teacher, high school English teacher, and charter school director. For more than a decade, he directed and provided professional learning in the areas of special education and school and district improvement at the Arizona Department of Education. He currently supports professional learning at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. His latest book, Success for Every Student: A Guide to Teaching and Learning, 2nd Edition, will be available in September.