By Tom Many, EdD

“Throughout the history of mankind nobody has ever washed a rental car.” – Larry Summer

According to Evelyn Johnson, the lesson to be learned from Summer’s quip about rental cars is that without ownership most teachers are unlikely to ever buy-in to a new idea, nor are they likely to implement a new idea very well. Johnson argues that if lasting improvement in teaching and learning is the goal, then teacher buy-in just isn’t enough.

Recently, I watched the concern for buy-in play out in real time. A principal was encouraging a team of teachers to embrace the PLC model during the upcoming school year. She was enthusiastic about the benefits of creating a collaborative culture, her vision of what the school could become was crystal clear, and no one listening could doubt her sincerity or passion. She concluded her remarks by identifying teacher buy-in as a top priority and challenged her teacher leaders by saying, “We must get teacher buy-in, without buy-in, we will accomplish nothing.”

Unfortunately, even if these teachers are able to acquire a modicum of buy-in from their colleagues, they may still not accomplish their goal. What this and many other well-meaning leaders fail to understand is that if a teacher buys-in today, they can just as easily sell out tomorrow.

“Without well-structured processes, leaders may find themselves attempting to sell solutions to people who don’t own the problems.” -Wellman and Lipton, (2004, p. 7)

When leaders speak about the need for teacher buy –in there seems to be an inherent expectation building principals will somehow convince teachers a new idea is worthy of their support. Relying on the ability of a single person to create buy-in, no matter how charismatic that person may be, is an approach that rarely works and results in principals trying to sell things to teachers that teachers do not want or need.

Sharon Drew Morgen (2017) describes what is really happening when principals and teacher leaders seek buy-in from their colleagues. Morgen explains that, “We are doing what salespeople do; pitching an idea from our own map of the world and assuming that the listeners [teachers] will react as we want, that with logical justification and the right amount of persuasion, we can get people to do what we want.” She highlights the fundamental problem with this approach saying, “We are pushing from the outside, hoping to get specific results from the inside.” (Page 1) Buy-in works outside-in.

The concept of buy-in is associated with compliance, alignment and accountability, and while creating buy-in may be expedient, the resulting changes are often temporary. The truth is that to “buy-in,” teachers do not have to agree with the new idea and certainly don’t have to commit to it; they just have to do it. What often happens with buy-in is teachers align their practice only to the extent required to be compliant.

It’s not that buy-in is a bad thing; it’s just that buy-in is not enough. A far better goal is to cultivate a teacher’s feelings of ownership for the promising practices that improve teaching and learning. Teachers are motivated to embrace new ideas or a fresh approach based on a set of internal values and beliefs. Ownership is about commitment, engagement and responsibility, and while establishing ownership on the part of teachers may take longer, it is far more likely to create lasting change. In contrast to buy-in, ownership works inside-out.

Brianna Crowley (2013) recounts a moment when the difference between buy-in and ownership became clear; “I recently had [a conversation] with a colleague and fellow PLC teacher leader over the term buy-in. We were preparing for a conference presentation about technology implementation, and after our discussion changed the title slide from ‘Teacher Buy-in’ to ‘Teacher Ownership.’ In our minds, the former indicates a sense of duty or compliance while the latter indicates a culture of embracing and advocating for change.” (Ferriter, 2013)

Ask yourself, would the teams in your school behave differently if there were buy-in or ownership around the belief working collaboratively is more effective than working in isolation? Would teams approach their work with more or less commitment if there were buy-in or ownership around the importance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum, writing common assessments, or providing students with access to extra time and support? Would the level of energy teachers were willing to commit to ensuring all kids learn be any different if they bought in or had ownership around the belief that learning is the fundamental purpose of our school?

When true buy-in is thin, the smallest of obstacles can eventually derail a supposedly agreed upon proposal. – Kotter and Whitehead, (2010, p.4)

Principals typically make two mistakes when attempting to move from buy-in to ownership. First, they under communicate why the change is important and second, they focus their communication on the head instead of the heart.

Correcting the first mistake is a relatively straightforward proposition. If you think you have adequately communicated the rationale for a change, think again. Principals must remember you simply cannot over communicate. Most leaders underestimate the amount of communication necessary and while we are pretty good at explaining the ‘what’ and the ‘how,’ the most effective leaders focus on the regular, routine, almost relentless communication about the ‘why’ associated with improvement initiatives. To paraphrase Rick DuFour, the most effective leaders return to the ‘why’ again and again with boorish redundancy.

Addressing the second mistake is a bit more complicated. The concept of buy-in is built upon the notion teachers will listen to the merits of an idea, accept and/or acquiesce to it, and implement the new idea in their classrooms. Communication designed to produce buy-in often take the form of logical and rational arguments based on research and evidence; they speak to the “head.” In contrast, communication designed to promote ownership focuses on teachers’ values and beliefs and appeals to the “heart.” We know people support that which they help create thus, the best way to promote ownership of the PLC process is to engage teachers in the work of a PLC as members of a collaborative team.

Those who “do” develop deeper knowledge, greater self-efficacy, and a stronger sense of ownership in results than those who talk about what should be done. -DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many (2010)

Many principals believe without buy-in, school improvement initiatives will fail. This kind of thinking is on the right track but is only partially correct. Principals and teacher leaders need to push past buy-in towards a higher standard and build ownership.

Dufour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R. & Many, T. (2010). Learning By Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work – 2nd Edition. Solution Tree: Bloomington, Indiana.
Ferriter, W. (2013). Three Tips for Building Teacher Buy In. Retrieved on 06/23/17 from
Johnson, E. (2017). How can I get teachers and staff to buy into the RtI process? Retrieved on 06/23/17 from
Kotter, J. & Whitehead, L. (2010). Buy-in, Saving Your Good Idea From Getting Shot Down. Harvard Business School Publishing: Boston, Massachusetts
Morgen, S. D. (2017). Buy In: What is it? And Why is it Important? Retrieved on 06/23/17 from http://www.businessperform,com/articles/change-management/buy-in.
Wellman, B. & Lipton, L. (2004). Data Driven Dialogue: A Facilitator’s Guide to Collaborative Inquiry.

Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.

TEPSA  News, August 2017, Vol 74, No 4

Copyright © 2017 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

© Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association

Sign up to receive the latest news on Texas PK-8 school leadership.