It was the best of initiatives; it was the worst of implementations. From the start, everyone seemed in love with the idea. The dream was to move leaders, teachers, and students from inconsistent patches of professional learning into well-established, consistent, and vital professional learning communities across the district. Increased teacher collective efficacy would naturally result. Site leaders learned of this new effort as the school year began. While initially surprised with the timing, no one could argue with the intended outcome.
Then that thing happened that usually happens.
In one school, a high-performing team of teachers questioned why the initiative was even needed; they felt collective efficacy had already been achieved. In another, teachers were adamant that more meetings wouldn’t equate to any more efficacy. District leaders mistakenly considered the cadre of teacher leaders as a ready-made source of support that could drive the work with relative ease. However, they increasingly came to understand that each teacher leader possessed a unique set of abilities, lived experiences in the role, and varying duties that informed how they operated. A year later: Leaders and teachers couldn’t see how the pieces fit together, and mindsets devolved into WIFM—what’s in it for me?
Take the Time to Assess Needs
Comparing and contrasting the hundreds of programs and initiatives I’ve led and evaluated, I can readily separate them into two distinct categories: Those that leveraged inquiry on the front end by assessing needs and identifying strengths, and those that did not. Needs assessment is, in part, giving voice to the very people who the initiative will touch and involve and those whose support is requisite to success.
Needs assessment said another way is getting smart about what currently is, so that what we choose to do is predictably successful. The Cheshire Cat of “Alice in Wonderland” said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, anywhere will do.” Needs assessment acknowledges that our work as leaders is too important and consequential. Anywhere will most certainly not do.
Barriers to Needs Assessments and Some Practical Solutions
A world-renowned education researcher once observed, “Every educator and policy maker has ideas and knows exactly what will improve their school. That’s the easy part. But does the solution really fit the need of the school? Do the school players have the commitment or readiness to venture forward?”
As educational leaders, what keeps us from sharpening our understanding of the challenges and opportunities that cross our minds and desks each day? What gets in the way of moving forward in more informed and intentional ways that increase the chances that our initiatives not only hit the mark but do so predictably for the teachers, students, families, and communities we serve? Here are three barriers I regularly encounter.
The barrier I most frequently encounter is time. There aren’t enough hours in the day to give the needs-assessment effort a fair shake. And yet, by not making the time investment, you end up implementing an ineffective initiative with exponentially more time wasted. I’ve seen needs assessment happen over months, but I’ve also seen initiative-informing insight gained in an afternoon.
Start here: Assuming valid and reliable data, some needs assessment is better than none. Needs assessment need not always be comprehensive and deep to hold value. Gather as many essential players as you can and learn from their shared experiences and perspectives. Tap existing data sources that will help you quickly understand needs as well as strengths. Listen for evidence that helps define the current situation and the reasons why an initiative is needed.
Another reason it doesn’t happen is the result of leaders who lack confidence in their ability to conduct needs assessment, which I will call talent. Yet, assessing needs is a natural effort that we engage in daily. If you’re working with a struggling student, you’re conducting needs assessment. Coaching a teacher? Here, too, you’re likely assessing individual needs and capabilities. The act of building an individualized education program is, at least in part, needs assessment.
Start here: Recognize that your needs-assessment-like work focused on individuals can be parlayed into a larger, more systemic effort to get smart about a challenge, need, or opportunity. As a leader, nurture your natural inclination for inquiry and press for understanding.
Number three is straightforward: The act of doing needs assessment is unfamiliar to some leaders. Many could state its general definition and bullet out some examples of what might be involved. But the deep connections among needs assessment, initiative design and implementation, and even program evaluation may be underappreciated. Let’s term this one an underappreciation of tactics. When pressed, I’m confident leaders can and do appreciate the systemic and complementary nature of these elements. However, I see more opportunities to act upon that appreciation.
Start here: Recognize the risks when initiatives aren’t attentive to needs. Acknowledge that effective needs assessment also uncovers strengths upon which initiatives can build and bloom. Use your relationships and social capital to give voice to the people involved, ask questions, and test your understanding and assumptions. Such tactics are key to the quest for initiatives that produce predictable results.
I believe as educators and leaders we are well-prepared to do this work. What’s more, I’ve witnessed leaders find joy as they take this critical first step into the initiative-design cycle. It beckons a leader’s natural curiosity, as they step deeper into the world of the people involved, invite the sharing of their voices, viewpoints, and visions for the future. It also satisfies a leader’s need for understanding, love of data, and desire to raise the voices of the staff and students in their charge.
Take a moment to imagine the setting in which this doesn’t happen: Picture yourself as a participant in a program or initiative that didn’t reflect your needs or strengths, that wasn’t relevant, and that perhaps resulted in learnings that were never applied. If your lived experience is anything like mine, you’ve recalled multiple examples. Take the time early on to get smart before you start; your teachers and students will thank you for it.