To Enhance Curriculum Implementation, Start with Communication
What’s in a journey to curriculum implementation? Well, it turns out, a lot. Amber Jeffers, Director of Customer Experience for Learning.com explains: “When multiple educators are using the same program or application, it’s essential that they all receive the training, resources, and clarity of purpose to understand the value from that program.” To achieve this, the planning must include a framework for generating initial buy-in as well as for teacher success and enthusiasm in the long-term.
This framework is established in the onboarding process, which “encompasses initial training and PD, follow-up and ongoing support afterwards, and sharing out milestones and status updates as the process evolves throughout the lifetime of the implementation.”
Moreover, curriculum implementation starts with a vision to unify planning, garner buy-in from stakeholders and end users, and inspire a multi-year onboarding process. By focusing on this, “schools will have a better return on their curriculum investment later. Leaders need to know upfront what success should look like and plan how to achieve it. If they take shortcuts, they are not nearly as likely to be successful and results will be inconsistent.”
At the core of this of curriculum implementation is communication that involves:
- Mapping a strategic vision, building a stakeholder team.
- Building a stakeholder team.
- Providing opportunities for feedback AND listening.
- Harnessing buy-in and enthusiasm among end users.
- Sustaining commitment in the long-term.
- Cultivating a culture of support.
As districts undertake this process of change, Amber’s biggest piece of advice is: “Put in the time up front and listen to end users because they're the ones that will guide what's realistic.”
Mapping a Strategic Vision
“One of the most foundational things in leading a curriculum implementation is to keep whatever that North Star, or that main goal, is in mind. Keeping this front and center ensures that things don't go sideways, people don't get caught up in the minutia of the process, and the purpose of the change stays true.
This plays into getting buy-in from those that are going to be responsible for implementing. When district leadership knows what that North Star is and can communicate that well, it helps with gaining support from those that are going to be responsible for implementing.”
To align this work, compelling visions offer a clear purpose, end goal, and process for achieving it. As Amber shares, “Most people will perform tasks better if they understand how they fit into the big picture. What do leaders want teachers to get out of the program they’ve been asked to invest time and energy into learning? How will the program support students?”
So, what makes a vision for curriculum effective? According to Amber, “an effective vision is specific and measurable. If leaders can't measure it, they can't manage it. If it's improvement in general, it’s so vague that leaders can't know if they're being successful or not, and the measurements become subjective.
For example, an ineffective vision is we want students to do better or we want to increase student engagement. One teacher may think their students are doing better or are more engaged. But How? What's the bar? How would that impact students in a measurable way? When it's this vague vision that can’t be defined, leaders don't know if it's successful or not.”
To craft a specific and measurable vision, Amber encourages the use of SMART goals, sharing that they are a “low-lift and popular for a reason” and aid in “identifying measurables and outlining the process to achieve those elements.”
Another critical element for a vision is that it connects to a greater sense of purpose among the staff. Amber notes that “there needs to be a connection between the school’s mission and the initiative being planned. If people don't see this, they're not as likely to view the initiative as important.” It’s incumbent on leaders to “communicate what that connection is and share the value it offers to teachers and students.”
Building a Stakeholder Team
Once leaders articulate the vision, Amber advises building out a communication plan for different roles to ensure everyone receives relevant and adequate information.
“Start by identifying the different roles that people play, whether they're a stakeholder, influencer, or end user. A stakeholder usually has some kind of vested interest in the initiative because it affects them or their department. An influencer might be an expert, but it may not affect them directly.
These roles inform the communication plan for each group. For example, stakeholders and influencers just need to high level overviews, whereas, end users are going to need to know how to implement and what they need to do to be successful.”
As leadership works to tailor communication for these different groups, Amber advises, “Recognize what sort of communication method works for teachers, whether that's email or hopping on the phone or getting everybody together in a room. Whatever that method is that works, meet them where they are. Don't try to change the way that they're operating.”
Providing Opportunities for Feedback AND Listening
As this communication plan takes shape, it’s also relevant to consider avenues for these groups to communicate with leadership. “Leaders should incorporate stakeholders, influencers, and end users early in the process and to get their feedback to make them feel that they are listened to, that they have a voice, and that they are part of making this initiative happen. They will have a vested interest in the initiative’s success and an emotional attachment then, and this helps with buy-in.”
Consider opportunities for gathering feedback from stakeholders and end users to refine and optimize the curriculum implementation process. Amber encourages having a retrospective, which is an opportunity “to get feedback from end users and stakeholders about how aspects of onboarding went to understand what worked and what didn't. No rollout is going to be perfect. But then leaders can incorporate this feedback in year two or three when bringing on new features or doing a refresher training.”
Besides just retrospectives, Amber recommends a “multi-pronged approach” to gathering feedback.
“There are formal things like surveys or requesting feedback over email. That's valuable from the aspect of documentation, and when feedback is anonymous people are sometimes more candid.” Another approach is classroom observation where leadership and coaches go into the classroom and see what the curriculum looks like firsthand. This leads to more authentic conversations between them and their end users than in a more structured survey.”
Understanding the value of this for buy-in and efficacy upfront helps leaders recognize those opportunities, build in structure for generating feedback, and incorporate changes as the implementation progresses.
Harnessing Buy-In and Enthusiasm Among End Users
Time is a major hurdle for teachers, so when leaders begin to connect with end users and introduce them to the initiative, it’s essential to communicate how this initiative fits into teachers’ work, current expectations, and instructional priorities. If it’s relevant, share “with teachers that it’s okay to put other things on hold in favor of getting this new initiative rolled out.”
Then as end users begin to explore and use the curriculum in their own classrooms, leaders must cultivate and nurture their enthusiasm by making sure the end users have “quick wins, which will encourage them to continue implementing and seeing the benefits of it.”
And as their confidence builds, Amber advises, “lean in to the excitement and make sure that enthusiasm is seen as a positive attribute. Not everyone is going to be an early adopter, so encourage those who are to talk about the excitement that they have and the benefits they see. This will resonate with their peers especially if there's still some trepidation around getting started. When people can see a colleague succeeding, it instills confidence they can do it themselves.”
On the other hand, some people will be less inclined to implement, and for those, Amber explains that “leaders often know who they are in advance, so they can get them involved early and get them to be representatives in the stakeholder or feedback group. By encouraging these people to talk about what their concerns are and addressing them, the process is better for everybody. It’s likely they aren’t the only ones with those concerns.”
At the same time, there is also an element of accountability that teachers need to participate in this curriculum implementation. And though Amber has seen more stringent accountability measures, she expresses that support and encouragement are also effective.
“Recognition and accolades for teachers that meet certain milestones or go above and beyond is important. Whether it is weekly champions or top users, find what type of recognition works for the teachers in the district. Part of this will be the district’s culture.”
Sustaining Commitment in the Long-Term
Building on these more short-term strategies, it’s essential to “maintain a routine and a habit of communication, support, and refresher trainings. It is easy for something that was top of mind at first to move to the backburner. Keeping the routine recognition and training opportunities re-engages those involved.”
To manage a long-term curriculum implementation, Amber recommends that “as leaders are initially drafting an implementation, they should also plan also for years two, three, and beyond. There will be more detail for year one because it's usually a bigger lift rolling out the program. But in those later years, leaders can incorporate those ritual or habitual things that need to continue to occur with the dates and times if possible.”
This sort of future planning could resemble something like: “there will be a training in the first quarter in year two to make sure that any new teachers get the training that they need to onboard and that others get a refresher training.”
Another way to re-engage users is to build in “incremental goals and different phases” which reinvest that emotional connection.
Cultivating a Culture of Support
Another aspect of a successful curriculum implementation is establishing lines of support for teachers. To invest their time, teachers need to feel confident that they will have the necessary resources both in the short and long-term as they implement.
“All the inspirational messaging in the world won’t make a difference if at the end of the day the teacher feels like they're in this on their own. Having plans for initial training and onboarding as well as ongoing support throughout the life of the initiative – and communicating that to stakeholders and end users – is essential.”
This ongoing support piece doesn’t just involve formal trainings, however. Amber explains that this can be in the form of “a PLC that can get together or ask each other questions or specific roles and point persons, like coaches or lead teachers, within the district that are responsible for training and supporting their peers.”
Having this foundational support that’s ongoing and accessible “takes away the scary part of change because it's important that folks feel open and safe to be able to ask questions and be vulnerable. It needs to be a safe and positive environment for building that trust; asking questions shouldn’t be punitive.”
Another aspect of ongoing support is documenting resources. Curriculum implementation isn’t effective when “all the knowledge about how to do something or how the initiative will work is in people's heads. Having that written documentation and communicating out where to find those resources is also critical. This could be through a district website, portal, internal drive, or binders. It just has to be somewhere.”
Finally, share with the end users that “if the initiative involves the use of a tool, curriculum, or technology that they purchased from a vendor, there can also be support embedded it or the tool being used, like tool tips and guides are one example.”
In the end, change is complex, but it is a reality we all have to undergo, manage, and lead. Having a process that’s rooted in communication will help build that togetherness – that support, accountability, and growth. By aligning with Amber’s advice, school and district leaders will discover that change can also be something that’s embraced, touted, and a driver of district-wide culture.