We’ve all been there. We’re in our schools, having an otherwise productive discussion on curriculum design, mission, vision, you name it, and then the conversation turns to that pervasive concern, that black hole of a conflict—buy-in. Suddenly, the conversation turns to resistant teachers, skeptical parents, disinterested community partners, and our seemingly unending strategy session on how to get their buy-in. In my time as a teacher, “buy-in” was the single topic that transcended all other topics, seeping into every meeting and every endeavor. All roads in my school led to buy-in.
“Buy-in” is a phrase we use a lot in education, and not just in our school-based practice. It’s all over our literature and research too. Go to any scholarly search engine—even go to Google Scholar—type in “teacher buy-in”, and spend the next few months of your life reading articles addressing it. It’s everywhere, and understandably so. To create any change, we need everyone to move in the same direction. We need everyone to support the same goal and work together to achieve it. However, I argue that we are approaching solidarity incorrectly—or at least we are approaching it with the wrong words. I argue we don’t need “buy-in” at all; we need belief.
“Buy-in” is transactional—one side selling and the other buying. It implies a peddlers’ sometimes not-so innocuous techniques, selling something the other can often live without. It is optional. The seller isn’t dependent on individual sales; when one buyer fails to purchase, there are many others the seller can convince while still turning a profit. Buying is temporary; it’s one-touch. Purchases are external; you carry them on your person or leave them at home. Purchased goods are rarely good for a lifetime. They are perishable, breakable, easy to be thrown away, and even easier to buy again, often from a new seller.
In education, we don’t need buy-in. We need belief. As leaders, we can survive if some do not buy what we’re selling, but we cannot survive if everyone does not believe in what we are doing. Belief comes slowly, it’s hard-won, and it’s visceral. It comes from a place of felt truth that seeks to spread truth to others. It comes after debate and internal struggle, in second thoughts and sleepless nights, and when it’s finally felt, it’s unshakeable. Purchasing an idea isn’t permanent, but believing in one is. It’s constant, omnipresent, and invasive. You can’t wear it or leave it at home; it lives in you, and you live through it. What’s more, the approach one takes when trying to make another buy something and when one wants another to believe something is radically different.
I understand the intent of the phrase “buy-in”. I understand its source. However, I can’t help but wonder the ways in which the semantics subconsciously slow our approach to success. Consider how our efforts to fully realize a school vision would be different if we approached it, not as selling a product, but, instead, as inculcating an idea. Most importantly, consider the ways in which our teachers, students, and families can be empowered to transform a school when they are released from their limited role as a buyer and trusted to be dynamic carriers of a collective ideal. After all, we aren’t salespeople; we are visionaries. We don’t want a staff of consumers; we want a staff of believers. We don’t want a transaction; we want a team. Our schools have the ability to spread agency, to empower, to inspire, to achieve our unending goals, but only if we are on the same side — only if we all believe.
The distinction between “buy-in” and “belief” is more than semantics; it is a critical cognitive shift that can reframe our explicit and implicit approaches to the research and practice of educational leadership. It’s not enough to buy into the work; we have to believe in what we’re doing. Nothing short of belief will do.