Implementing a New Curriculum: Seven Lessons Learned

Implementing New Curriculum, Pink

By Jen Arberg

I’ve shared with you a lot already about how we implemented a new math curriculum in Guilford County, North Carolina. It was fun to share all of the ways in which we are celebrating and although it is hard to talk about, I was brutally honest when I talked about all of our growth points.

I’ve realized while writing these posts that we’ve also learned a lot of lessons along the way. Much like in teaching, I think the best lessons and ideas are meant to be shared, so I knew I would be doing you a huge disservice if I didn’t share with you the most valuable things I took away from implementing a new curriculum as a district leader.

1. Engage Parents Early

We spent a great deal of time making sure parents were engaged with the curriculum once the school year began, and those parent nights were extremely helpful and beneficial, but in retrospect, I really wish we had planned for more engagement on the front end of implementation. If we had done more to encourage parent buy-in during the adoption process and to educate them on how different their children’s math classrooms may look this school year, I think we could have saved ourselves some push-back and questions early in the year.

2. Create Processes

It is one thing for someone to tell you what it is like when all of those white and orange boxes show up at your district, but it is a whole other thing to experience it for yourself the first time. We had a LOT of books, which was very exciting but overwhelming at the beginning. Getting everything to the right place and in the right quantity took a lot of driving from one end of the county to the other, delivering a teacher book here and a student book there. Since those first stresses, we have developed much clearer processes for schools to request additional books, which has made life much easier at the district office.

3. Find Your Teacher Leaders

I can’t stress the power of having positive teacher leaders that are on the ground and implementing with fidelity in your buildings. It is one thing for resistant teachers to hear positive messages from you—it is an entirely different thing for them to hear it from teachers in their own building, teaching the same lessons and the same kids. You have to find those teacher leaders who are willing to be the force of positive change and make sure they know how much you appreciate the work the are doing. Whether it is thanking them in person, calling their principal to say how amazing they are, taking them to Starbucks, or publicly recognizing them on Twitter, saying thank you matters and will go a long way in instituting long term change in your district.

4. Change Is Hard

I know I have said this a lot, but I learned how true this really is while going through curriculum implementation. People are going to be emotional about the change and they will inevitably take it out on you. When things got really tough, I reminded myself that people were upset because I was disrupting a system that didn’t work and that was ok. Nine weeks into the year, things started getting a lot better, and by January, most were starting to see that although change is hard, it is also worth it. Stay the course.

5. Remember Your Purpose

I won’t lie to you, there were days I wanted to cry and give up. There were days I wanted to say, “y’all go back to what you were doing and I’ll just look the other way”. But when those days popped up, I reminded myself that although the “big people” in the district are sometimes the loudest, the “little people” are the reason I am here. Kids deserve access to high quality grade level materials and it is my job to make sure that happens. Tell yourself that on repeat.

6. Invest in Professional Learning

I know that budgets are tight, and being good stewards of district money remains every leader’s top priority. However, the importance of ongoing professional learning for teachers was magnified during this implementation. Teachers spending time engaged in professional learning was the great differentiator of our students’ classroom experience and we made sure to make professional learning investing a priority. As we move toward next year, we are continuing this investment, because we have seen how transformative it really is.

7. Spend Time in Classrooms

The best time I spent all year was in classrooms seeing our new curriculum in action. No, I didn’t always have time and often it meant I was working long hours into the night to catch up on the work I missed during the day, but it was always time well spent. Spending time in classrooms was the reminder I needed for what I was fighting for everyday. Get there as often and for as long as you can.

The saying “it’s not always easy but it’s always worth it” may never ring more true than it does for a district implementing a new curriculum. Although we definitely had pain points along the way, we learned so much and had so much to celebrate as well. We are starting to see our efforts pay off and what can happen when all kids have access to a high-quality curriculum and that was worth much more than any stretching we experienced as a district.

Next on the agenda is our high school math curriculum. We’re excited to bring our implementation “been-there, done-that” wisdom to the table as we begin working with Open Up Resources’ new beta high school math curriculum authored by the Mathematics Vision Project. I’ll be sure to keep sharing what we learn along the way.