Sustaining the Seeds of Change

Successful implementation of a new initiativeinvolves understanding people-in-context, professionals changing their practice within the conditions and expectations of their setting.

by Jeffrey S. Kress, PhD and Maurice J. Elias, PhD

Perhaps it is the Tu B’Shvat season that has us thinking about things taking root. Or, it could be Maya Bernstein’s recent article about the all-too frequent failure of professional development programs to achieve lasting change and sustain new innovations. The author astutely points to implementers’ hesitancy to deal with the discomfort or threat of new ideas. This is clearly a major impediment to the implementation of new initiatives or innovations.

Bernstein is correct that PD is a much more complicated process, one that (to use Robert Evan’s term) has a “human side.” It also has a systemic side, just like a plant taking root. Growth and change involves interaction with the environment. It is incumbent upon leaders of educational settings, as well as external trainers and consultants, to go beyond just planting a seed of change and to help create the conditions for new practices and initiatives to grow and flourish.

Successful implementation of a new initiative (of any sort… a new Bible curriculum, a set of instructional practices, a tefillah approach, or a derech eretz program) involves understanding people-in-context, professionals changing their practice within the conditions and expectations of their setting. Yes, a new initiative can have an immediate and important impact on a Jewish educational setting. But, sustained implementation is marked by flux, not stasis. Norms, roles, and expectations within a setting change over time, and the implementation of the new initiative must adapt along with this. Further, what is considered to be “best practice” related to the initiative is (ideally) constantly evolving; changes and enhancements should inform ongoing implementation efforts. Also, the individuals implementing the new initiative are themselves constantly changing becoming, for example, emboldened by early successes with the initiative or discouraged by challenges. The great ideas and initiatives that we want to bring to our schools may be built on general principles, but when it comes to implementation they are highly context-dependent. There is no one-size-fits all way to implement a new idea.

It is not the case that a new initiative simply “takes root” after a training, or even as a result of an extended consultation. Too often, the momentum around new ideas fades before a new initiative has had a chance to start doing any good. Rather than sustained effort that transforms a setting, the result is often a reversion to the status quo. What accounts for this lack of sustainability? While there is no one culprit, innovators often underestimate the difficulty of changing a system and the norms and behaviors of those involved. As a result, proper supports for implementation – not only funds, but also, for example, training and consultation – are either not set up at all, or are withdrawn too early. There is a common tendency to think of professional development using an “inoculation” model: A dose of training or professional development – attend some workshops, meet with a mentor – will set participants on the course of lasting change and innovation. We need to take change processes seriously. Hearing new information at a workshop, or even trying something new or coming to a new realization, is not synonymous with sustained change. We suggest thinking about the following elements in preparing staff to undertake educational innovations.

  1. Patience: Many veteran educators have a shelf or cabinet which is the final resting place of years of materials from professional development workshops and seminars. These might include excellent resources that are still relevant and potentially powerful. Unfortunately, it is often their supervisors and leaders, or even those running the workshops or seminars, who unwittingly provide the message that it is acceptable for these materials to gather dust. If a leader brings the “innovation of the month” to their organization, or a professional development provider sprints through a laundry list of new ideas and methods, the inadvertent message may be that waiting for what is coming next is more important than attending to what is happening now. Before new ideas, practices, or priorities are allowed to take root, they are often supplanted by other “bright, shiny” new ideas, practices or priorities. A saying attributed to Mark Twain suggests that “if you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute.” We often go a step further: If you don’t like the current new initiative – or even if you do like it – you might as well wait and do nothing because changes and new mandates and expectations are constantly on the horizon. A suggestion: No more revolving door initiatives! If you are planning a series of PD workshops for your setting, consider making the topic of the second session “Following up on the first session,” and not “Here is yet another new idea to put into practice.”
  2. Proactive Planning: Implementing a new idea requires time and resources. How will these be made available? Do staff members, for example, need time for planning or to meet with a team or a mentor? If so, when will this happen? Where? Who will set up the meetings? Will serious efforts be made to clear time in an educator’s schedule, or will the new initiative be something that she is expected to squeeze into an already full plate? It is often unrealistically assumed that implementers will “work it out” themselves. The issue goes beyond extra compensation for taking on an extra responsibilities related to the initiative (though the motivational elements for implementation are important). Even a well-motivated implementer can face structural challenges. Teachers who are supposed to prepare jointly might not share a “prep” time. The space or equipment needed for the new initiative might not be available at the right times. Staff turnover is a foreseeable challenge that will need to be addressed. As new staff come onboard how will they be brought up to speed with regard to the initiative? While the front-line implementers may be very helpful in anticipating some of these challenges, the solutions often require the involvement of leaders who can help ensure that structural elements are in place.
  3. Practice, perseverance, and problem solving: All the clichés hold true: If at first you don’t succeed…. We need to learn to crawl before we learn to walk. A journey 1000 miles … you get the picture. New practices do not spring to life fully formed. Implementers need the safety to try out new ideas, especially ones that might be uncomfortable or awkward, and to learn from the experience of doing so. Leaders need to make it clear that they understand this to be the case. Assessment for fledgling initiatives should be undertaken formatively, with the goal of directly enhancing the efforts of the implementers. It could even be helpful for implementers to engage in a process of action-research to explore their own questions related to the initiative. The challenges to implementing new ideas are considerable, and progress is slow and non-linear. It is important not to interpret these challenges as failures or, worse, as “resistance.” Rather, they are an expected part of the process of fitting Initiative X into Educational Setting Y. They should be approached with the goal of balancing fidelity to the main ideas of the new practice with the realities of the implementation setting.
  4. Partners: Implementing a new practice can be rewarding and exhilarating … at the same time as it is daunting and anxiety provoking. Implementers don’t need to go it alone. Site-based teams can provide support from peers facing similar challenges. Likewise, the experiences of those in other settings who are undertaking similar initiatives can be informative. One important “partnering” consideration is the extent of involvement of an outside consultant.

Consultants as Supports for Sustainability

Consultants are sometimes thought of like training wheels: a necessary annoyance that one can’t wait to be self-sufficient enough to rid themselves of. Come in, do a workshop or two, and say goodbye. One major flaw in such an analogy is that riding a bike is the quintessential exemplar of a skill that sticks with you pretty much indefinitely once you learn it (thus the expression “it’s like riding a bike…”). Implementing new ideas, in contrast, assumes conditions that make it all but impossible to simply “master” the idea and move ahead unimpeded. A better analogy may be to the repairman to whom I turn for regular bicycle tune-ups and repairs. It may be the case that I could learn enough to do all of my own bicycle service. In fact, I have learned how to do some routine maintenance and repair. However, I have decided that it is a far better use of my own time and energy for me to turn to an outside expert in certain situations.

As we argue in the paper that forms a basis of this article, a long-term relationship between a setting and a consultant may be a crucial, and cost effective, element of successful sustainability. While site-based leaders can handle many ongoing maintenance tasks, bringing in extra help may be needed on occasion. While there are costs involved in doing this, it is not the case that “handling it all ourselves” is free. At some point, the setting would need to “pay” in terms of the internal resources (staff time, in particular) needed to address tasks such as training new teachers, providing ongoing troubleshooting, assessment, reaching out to other sites, etc. Without committing these resources, leaders are left hoping that these will be taken care of (see Proactive Planning, above).


To sustain new initiatives, it is necessary to understand the complex evolution of implementation efforts against an ever-changing contextual background. Seeking support is neither a sign of limited internal capacity nor a financial extravagance. If we value an innovation as an enhancement of educational practice, we need to actively maintain the conditions that sustain the seeds of change as they take root, grow, and adapt to their environment.

Evans, R. (1996). The human side of school change: Reform, resistance, and the real-life problems of innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ideas from this article are based on: Kress, J. S., & Elias, M. J. (2013). “Consultation and sustainability of social and emotional learning efforts in schools.” Consulting Psychology Journal: Research and Practice. 65, 149-163.

Jeffrey S. Kress, PhD is Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is also serving as Interim Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. His book “Development, learning and community: Educating for identity in pluralistic Jewish high schools” (Academic Studies Press, 2012) received the National Jewish Book Award for Identity and Education.

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Professor, Psychology Department, Rutgers University.  A recent recipient of the Sanford McDonnell Award for Lifetime Achievement in Character Education, among Dr. Elias’ numerous books are the new e-book, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting. He also writes a blog for educators and parents for the George Lucas Educational Foundation at