Change Ownership: Key Ingredients to Personalized Learning Success

Mike was born and raised in Sheboygan, WI. Mike attended UW Madison where he received his degree in Secondary Education in Broadfield Science and Biology with additional certifications in chemistry and physics. He’s been a secondary educator for 16 years, 12 of which have been at Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, WI. His interests in education focus on putting students at the center of their own learning experience. He lives in Brown Deer, WI with his wife and dog.

More from Mike on his website.


In my experience, meaningful changes in educational practice happen when teachers are committed to the initiative. It doesn’t have to be initiated by them, but they need to believe in the ultimate goals of implementation. This does not mean that impetus for change needs to be by educators in their classrooms. Because of the daily demands of the classroom, many times educators don’t have their fingers on the pulse of their district as a whole or on the latest findings in educational research.

Make no mistake—educators are open to hearing how to improve their practice. We are solution minded, but for change in our classrooms to be effective, we must be able to own the change. It has to be made relevant to our lives. An initiative without buy-in will die a slow death as teachers fail to implement it with the belief that is required. Without the buy-in of educators in the classroom, what hopes are there for student buy-in? But with a true feeling of ownership by educators, the initiatives will become self-directed and evolve with time.

Purpose of change

When my district was looking to change and highlight student-centered instructional models, they began by asking a cohort of educators to propose changes they would like to make within their own classrooms. This approach created immediate buy-in from the cohort of educators who were given explicit ownership over their practice and were christened change agents. The following year, the district continued this model by accepting applicants to this innovation cohort. The strategy was to create pockets of innovation within the district and reach a tipping point. This model has led to a strong and vocal group of early adopters who believe deeply in the changes to their practice.

The purpose of change is to focus on helping learners reach high standards. When we shift instructional practices, we are not trying to lower the bar for student achievement; we are giving each student the tools she needs to reach that bar. Successful communication of this purpose is framed in meeting the needs of the individual learner and helping her reach the highest standards.

Communicating to students in front of me

While it is essential to communicate the goals of change to stakeholders, the audience that needs to understand the message is the learners in the classroom. They need to understand the purpose. Buy-in may not come immediately. By constantly and clearly communicating the goals in terms of their needs, they will begin to understand as they see how what they do ties into why they are doing it. They are change agents on the journey as well, so their voice needs to be heard and acted on. In the end, they will be co-designers of the change. If the goal is student empowerment and meeting the learner’s needs, their feedback and ideas will help guide and keep the process on track.

Communicating to parents

When I communicate this ideal to parents, they are much more open to the changes I am implementing in my classroom. There are many ways to communicate this—it could be at an open house event or a letter sent to parents before the first day of school. This opens the line of communication and builds that sense of community with parents that goes beyond the things in the classroom to highlight the learning.

When they hear about changes to assessment practices, many students and parents may fear a negative impact on grades. Educators need to alleviate these fears right away. Once the explanation of fairness in practice is communicated, that fear goes away and learners become more willing to take risks and parents are more willing to look at the process of learning (not grading) in the classroom. The faster we can move the focus of our conversations from the grades to the learning, the more meaningful the change will be for the learners and the sooner we will build meaningful relationships and partnerships.

Strong Support Structure

The biggest takeaway in all the conversations I have had with change agents in my district is having a strong support structure. Changing current practices is a long journey and it requires challenging many ingrained practices.

  • Teachers and administrators need to understand that change is a fail forward proposition.
  • Schools leaders need to communicate this mindset to staff.
  • Practices that fail in first implementation need to be recognized as an opportunity for learning.

That is why we began as a cohort for change and not isolated classrooms. Regardless of content standards, it is those larger goals of empowering our learners that drivers our discussions. I would say we need more of this sort of culture in our schools for both staff and learners. By creating meaningful peer supports with open and honest discussion, schools can create a culture of support for those willing to change their practice. By modeling this practice as an educator for students, it can only help make the process of learning transparent and make the classroom a place for learners to take these same risks.

Owning the Change

When educators don’t own the change they are implementing, the change will happen for the sake of change and not for the learners. In my district, I have witnessed many different paths to alter assessment practices that are teacher owned and have been successful. None of these paths look alike— but they have the same goal.

I had the opportunity to speak with several educators in my district who are working towards the same goal of designing meaningful outcomes and assessments that guide that practice.

Jeff Ortman is a high school English teacher of 22 years who believes in rigor in the classroom. He allows students to engage with his curriculum by expressing their understanding in a variety of ways. These different products allow students to learn how they learn best. As Jeff explains in the interview below, this is college and career readiness. It is not the ability to be spoon feed and then regurgitate information on an assessment. It is the ability for a student to know how to deploy tools in order to adapt to a learning environment which may not be tailored directly to her needs and succeed. Jeff’s students understand the importance of collaboration and feedback as a part of the assessment and learning process. He also knows that when learners are connected to the content, they perform beyond even their own expectations.


Lindsay Sayles and Molly Mathia are high school teachers who made big changes in how they look at learning outcomes. They don’t see the traditional classroom walls that separate content standards into traditional course. They were able to see beyond their individual history and English curriculums and find the common themes that enrich the content in each course. Two years ago, they decided to merge their English 9 and world history classes into a single cohort for incoming freshman. Their work focuses on the major themes that highlight themes across coursework rather than the differences that keep them separate. In the video below, they talk about this brave leap of faith, their successes, and challenges.


Julie Wessel and Shari Gajria, along with Rebecca Murray, make up a 3-member middle school science team. They are doing incredible work with using formative assessments to drive instruction, collecting data weekly to help determine the needs of their students. They design and teach unique lessons to different groups of students based on what student needs, not what the schedule tells them they taught to last year’s students. So while they all teach the same grade level science, they split the responsibilities of what each will teach and direct students to a specific teacher based on needs. This means the instructor needs to be willing to give up the traditional notion of “this is my roster of students I am teaching today.” They have found ways to make the structures bend to the needs of the students, not the other way around.


I think the most powerful model of transformation of instruction within our district can be seen in the 5th grade classroom of Kate Sommerville and Angela Patterson. They are two elementary teachers who have created a shared learning community for their 60 5th grade students that is truly unique. I encourage you to listen to their story in their own words below: they are able to eloquently communicate the true keys to successful change in a learning environment.

First and foremost, educational change is built around an idea that goes beyond the learning that happens in the classroom. The kernel at the center of their change is empowering individual learners by building a sense of a community of shared responsibility and individual accountability. All the work they have done has come from that ideal. It’s not about changing aesthetics, it’s about changing learners’ dispositions. They believe in their ideal so much that they have named their classroom T.E.A.M. Togetherness (Together Everyone Achieves More).

Angela and Kate understand that change doesn’t start and end with a single person and her idea. The key to successfully implementing change is transparency. It is the ability to communicate why practices are shifting in the learning environment. Too often, the focus is on how practices are changing and the “stuff” that is needed, so stakeholders only see that learners are using chromebooks or sitting on couches instead of having desks rather than the rationale behind it. This quickly leads to a miscommunication of purpose. It’s in these situations where stakeholders see only the surface change and not the goal of the shift in practice. Clear and open communication of ideals at the start of implementation and throughout implementation is key to create a shared sense of purpose.

Kate and Angle discuss how they communicate up front with parents and have an open door policy in their classroom. Seeing pictures of a learning space is not the same as experiencing a learning space. Because of this policy, they have had hundreds of visitors over the last three years looking to experience learning in their space. I encourage you to read more about their workshop model of instruction and assessment and their learning space on their blog.

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