Five Ways to Build Administrator Buy-In for Teacher Inquiry

Mention peer observation inquiry (OI) in education circles, and one of the first questions is always, “How do you build teacher buy-in?” It’s a critical question, and one I’ve addressed in previous blogs, and in-depth in my book, Opening Doors to Equity.

Teacher leaders, however, ask another important question: “How do you build administrator buy-in and support for peer observation inquiry?”

The question in itself is a beautiful thing. Like all good questions, it shakes up assumptions. Do we assume, for example, that the most effective research-based shifts in professional learning design always begins from the top? What about when teachers are at the cutting edge of initiating job-embedded professional learning, and are working double time to bring their administrators on board?

The Power of Teacher Leaders

Since Opening Doors to Equity was published one year ago, I’ve heard from dynamic teacher leaders who are shifting professional learning from the ground up. They start with a team, or even multiple teams across a district and school. They lead collaborative, data-driven professional learning connected to practice. They build a culture of safety and risk-taking in which colleagues observe one another to improve teaching. Many such leaders are trying hard to get administrators to understand and support their work.

Building Administrator Buy-In

Here are five powerful ways to build administrator buy-in for observation inquiry, or any teacher-lead approach to intensive, classroom-centered professional learning:

  1. Align with District Initiatives
    Observation Inquiry is not one more initiative to add to your plate; it is the plate. It’s a process that helps teachers collaborate to solve problems that matter to schools, and achieve the highest priority goals for student learning. When choosing a problem of practice for observation inquiry, always start with district initiatives and students’ data-driven learning priorities. Build from this place of shared vision to help administrators see that your deep collaboration is not a side activity, but a core process to realize a shared vision for the school.
  2. Demonstrate Impact
    Track and demonstrate the impact your collaborative inquiry is having on students, on teacher practice, and the adult learning culture in your school. Use data and stories to share bright spots (such as this kindergarten team’s example), so leaders see the value of your work.
  3. Share the Research and Policy Base for Job-Embedded Professional Learning
    There is widespread agreement among researchers of professional learning with impact that “Effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, connected to practice (…), is connected to other school initiatives, and builds strong working relationships among teachers.” (Chung Wei, R., Darling-Hammond, L., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S., 2009). Education policy in the U.S. now aligns with this research by defining professional development as “activities that are sustained (not stand alone, 1-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom-focused” (Every Student Succeeds Act [ESSA] 1177-295 42[B]). Share the links to these sources with administrators and discuss how you are specifically helping translate this theory to practice in your school(s).
  4. Solve the Logistical Challenges of Peer Observation
    Peer observation requires creative solutions to cover teachers’ classes as they observe peers. Make this challenge a solved problem by creating a solution that works within your local schedule and budget. Effective solutions include:

    • Hire substitute teachers to cover observing teachers on a rotating schedule. The total substitute costs for a full year of OI are less per teacher than the registration for a typical sit-and-get workshop. You get deeper learning for a better price.Use an “I’m in, you’re out” approach to have the administrator cover a class for a 30-minute window so one teacher can observe a peer.
    • If there is extra prep time in the schedule, use it to have teachers rotate coverage for peer observation.
    • Use a video platform such as to have teachers upload and share videos in a private group.
  5. Build relationships and mutual trust
    As a teacher leader, build mutual trust with administrators. This involves listening to understand their concerns from a school-wide perspective, inviting questions and feedback, and sharing your own process in ways that build mutual respect and trust. Invite your administrator(s) to sit in on a lesson debrief or join your team through a full inquiry cycle. Administrators need to see the power of your work to get behind it. When you open doors and communication channels, you open new possibilities, as well.


This post includes ideas generated during a Google Hangout session with an international network of teacher leaders and district administrators who are leading observation inquiry in their districts. Thank you Greg Wolcott, Maureen Torrez, Adrianne Sublett, Lynne McCune, Naitnaphit Limlamai, and Terri Fradette for your leadership and contributions.

I lead professional learning and design curriculum to realize the vision that every kindergartener who enters public schools will graduate high-school prepared to thrive in a changing world.

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