I had the great pleasure of giving a UDL Talk two weeks ago at the 2019 UDL IRN International Summit. I spoke about something that I think we all need to be more vocal about – our missteps, falls, mistakes, setbacks, and outright failures during UDL implementation.

Implementation takes time, and I am not talking about a month or even a year. According to the National Implementation Network, we should expect full implementation to take more like four to seven years. And what is “full implementation” exactly? That’s when half of your staff is fully on board – just half. And let’s be clear that we aren’t just talking about teaching. Great systems support teachers with high quality professional development, curriculum resources, curriculum leadership, and schedules that allow for collaboration, data-based decision making, intervention, and enrichment.

When we see a product of success, we all too often ask, “How did you do it?” We (ironically!) want a list of one-size-fits-all steps. But – spoiler alert – there isn’t one. While we love to celebrate all of the small successes along the way, we like to keep the failures to ourselves – a mark of shame that we didn’t get things right during every step.

It’s time we change that, as I think what makes our successes so powerful is all of the challenges and frustrations it takes to get there.

So, here are my top three epic UDL implementation failures. Even though I work in an amazing high-performing district with fabulous colleagues, there are still things we need to change to better support all teachers students. I can look back at these now and laugh a little because there were parts of each failure that we got right and we grew from.

1. If you give a kid a cupcake…

How many times has your kid asked you for one more cupcake, one more cookie, one more Choco-Taco (I mean, who doesn’t love a Choco-Taco?!). You know that giving in, saying “Sure!,” maybe isn’t the best idea, but you want to make them happy – so every once in a while you cave.

It backfires. Almost every time. Proof:

Well, I gave the teachers in my district that extra cupcake. Elementary teachers have the hardest job in the universe. They have to design and teach lessons in five subjects with 44 minutes of prep a day. They are literally superheroes. During a Needs Assessment process, they noted their lack of high quality curriculum resources. They were planning everything, from scratch, creating their own curriculum in nearly every subject. They asked for high quality curriculum resources and I wanted to provide that. I knew I didn’t have it in the budget to provide the curriculum in ELA and math and the professional development necessary to understand and use that curriculum, but they deserved high quality resources, I didn’t want to disappoint them. I presented on behalf of the district to get more funds for curriculum and to give my colleagues what I thought they needed – two shiny new curriculums – but still didn’t have the budget to give them corresponding support. In the back of my head I couldn’t help but question, “Is this the right thing to do?”

They answered for me. The plan completely backfired when the teachers shared that the two new curriculums were too much and they didn’t have the proper supports in place to implement them successfully. They let me know, as they should have, and it was devastating.

The thing is, I was mad at myself. They were completely right – I didn’t give them what they needed to be successful. And I knew that before I accommodated the Needs Assessment request (just like I knew that I shouldn’t give my daughter that second cupcake) but I wanted to make them happy.

Lesson learned? You have to go slow to go fast. Give a short term win instead and make a plan for delivering the long-term needs in a way that allows your team to be successful. Admit you were wrong and ask for their feedback to make it better. Get your stakeholders talking about solutions rather than dwelling on your own failure.

2. Bus-gate 2018

Making changes in school systems is hard. Finding money to make big things happen might be the biggest challenge of all. The fact is our schools don’t come with money trees neatly planted on the grounds. We have a finite amount of funds and an infinite list of needs and wants. Sometimes we need to make cuts somewhere to make magic happen elsewhere.

Big yellow school bus looking imposing

Last year, my district decided to make, what we believed to be, some minor changes to the bus schedule. We reduced our bus fleet by six buses, which significantly cut costs, but it also increased run times of bus routes and lengthened the distance between bus stops, requiring students to walk farther. But, it also gave us the budget to add more supports and instructional coaches within our district to push our goal of being fully inclusive further along.

Bus-gate 2018, as we like to call it, caused an uproar in the community. We knew these changes might be challenging for some, but we totally underestimated the level of frustration and anger this would cause for parents. Even though we had conducted public forums to explain changes in the new transportation protocol, there were parents who continued to be outraged by the changes.

In the aftermath, we realized we didn’t do our best job of explaining why the changes were happening and we didn’t put enough focus on the benefits their children were gaining (instructional coaches to assist with instructional support and inclusion in classrooms, for example) in return.

Lesson learned? Communicate clearly with your community about what they will get in place of something that has to be cut. Be prepared for difficult conversations – but always remember your why.

3. Scheduling…ommmmm

Of all of my UDL struggles, this one continues to keep me up at night. In our district, we are moving toward proportional scheduling, which essentially ensures that every classroom is more closely representative of the school community. When moving toward proportionally scheduling, the goal is that all students have equal access to advanced coursework. Sounds fabulous, but the reality is that our education systems in this country weren’t built for this kind of equitable scheduling,

If we truly want to be inclusive, it means that every classroom should be representative of the students in our district. We want to actively prevent disproportionality through thoughtful design and scheduling. For example, if you have 15% of students with disabilities, each classroom should also be comprised of approximately 15% of students with disabilities. Of course, this is not exact math. But the goal is to design courses where all students have access to universally-designed, rigorous grade level instruction that challenges and supports them equally.

There is plenty of research to support that doing this is good for both the lowest performing AND highest performing students. But stakeholders are naturally worried that when this kind of large systematic change happens that their students won’t be either supported or challenged enough. Believe me, I get it. But those barriers will never stop me from fighting for a better system that serves all students.

This kind of change takes a lot of weathering the storm. It will not be an overnight success. There will be an adjustment period.

Lesson learned? What may seem like an immediate failure is often the beginning of long-term sustained change. Go home and have a margarita (or brownie!) and know that the suck won’t last forever.

I would love to hear more about your UDL failures. Let’s keep the conversation going! Tweet your biggest fail with #UDLFail and let’s all start learning a little more from each other!

If you’d like to see my keynote, you can view it here:

My Epic UDL Fails