While there are many factors that lead to teacher burnout, and one blog post cannot adequately capture them all, I do believe we can have a blunt conversation about initiative fatigue, its creation of time poverty, and how both of these concepts are dangerous in our educational landscapes.
Neuroscience research is definitively clear that as humans, we can only process so much information at any given time. This is not because we are cognitively weak, and it's not because we don't care about the information--it's brain science. As humans, our brains are wired to protect our bodies from perceived threats. When we feel overwhelmed and unsafe, we will operate from our amygdala, instead of our prefrontal cortex. Our amygdala is what triggers our fight-flight-or freeze instincts, and it is there to send warning signals of protection.
Initiative fatigue occurs when leaders fall trap to the tendency to pile more and more projects onto their peoples' plates. It also occurs when leaders fail to provide the structure, clarity, and boundaries around exactly what aspects of a project must be implemented and which are merely optional. In education, "projects" often pile up in the form of funding that are tied to grants. Because we have operated in large part with scarcity mentality, schools often find themselves in precarious situations of choosing funding (with strings--aka--initiatives--attached) or foregoing funding that may otherwise support teaching and learning. It's a real, "damned if we do, damned if we don't" situation.
When we apply for available grant dollars and then implement their attached projects or programs, we are exchanging our leaders' and teachers' time for the funding. Every new initiative, every new grant, every new curriculum revision, every new training, every new conference, every new committee, every new meeting, every new project--takes time.
It goes like this:
If we had more funding, we could provide better X to our teachers or students.
Providing X will help our teachers feel less stress, anxiety, worry, burnout, overwhelm, lack of confidence, etc.
To provide X, we will need to apply for this grant and its funding.
When we get the grant, we can't simply use the funding--we must follow the requirements, jump through the hoops, take teachers' time to train them on the projects tied to the grant.
Training our teachers requires even more of their time, which they don't have to give (time poverty).
Once they are trained, there is no time or energy left to actually implement X (our initial idea!) well.
We have X, kind of, but we are also so tired that we can't even use it well.
And so, we look for a new solution--we say, "What if we had Y! If we could just implement Y in our school--then everything would be okay."
But we don't have funding for Y, so we look for another grant, and...
If you give a mouse a cookie happens all over again.
It is incredibly common for districts to have multiple top-priority initiatives happening at once. When we ask a room full of principals or teacher leaders, "What is your district's focus this year?" We hear chuckles and snorts. Why? When we chase everything, we chase nothing--and principals and teachers can see this with extreme clarity. It is often much harder for the district team to see the initiatives as they pile up.
In his EdWeek article, Stress, Anxiety, Initiative Fatigue...Oh My! Perhaps It's Time to De-Implement?, Peter DeWitt shares, "Perhaps it’s time to really take a look at the stress and anxiety teachers and leaders feel and do something real about it. Their hefty workloads are preventing them from working together to really support any initiative, especially those that could already be working within their school. Instead of looking at what needs to be piled on to the plate of teachers and leaders in an effort to fix something, perhaps we should begin looking at what can be taken off the plates of those teachers and leaders?"
Can we all just read his words, nod in big, emphatic agreement, and shout, "YES!"
It's easy to sit around the table and talk about all the ways we want to support students. And it's easy to find new strategies, initiatives, programs, grants, lessons, resources. We don't have a scarcity problem in education. We have a disorganized, overabundance of competing, ill-researched ideas problem. We have an implementation problem. We have a clarity problem.
Also: we have a politeness problem, too. What do I mean by that? I mean it's really hard for some of us to say no. We feel really honored, excited, and special when our buildings get selected as pilot sites or host sites for big companies or programs. We say yes to projects, grants, programs, and resources--and we totally clutter our organizational closets.
In our free course, Strengthening Our PLCs, I share five strategies for creating strong teams. The fourth strategy is to have boundaries. Have boundaries, people! Set limits. Say no. Protect your people. Respect their time.
Time poverty is a concept that is typically used to describe people who do not have access to the time they need to complete both necessary and leisure activities within their lives. Within schools, time poverty can occur when we build schedules that do not prioritize access to additional time and support for all students. Time poverty can also occur for our staff--when we overwhelm them with various trainings, meetings, locations, modes of communication, and areas of focus.
When we have to ask, "Where are we meeting today? What is this meeting? What do I need? Why are we doing it?" These are all signs that somewhere, someone has not been clear. Time has been wasted and people feel unsafe and uncertain.
When we schedule meetings and time can also create the feeling of time poverty. For example, if we need to have a PLC meeting--and this conversation really needs 45-60 minutes, but we only have 30...time poverty. I will leave this meeting every time feeling as though we failed to accomplish our goals. I may add additional items to my to-do list, taking away time from my personal life and loved ones. Failing to provide our teams with ample time to complete their work can be just as detrimental and overloading them with too many competing projects to accomplish. Both lead to the feeling (and reality of) time poverty.
Initiative fatigue and time poverty combine in the very worst ways in education. They are a Molotov cocktail of sorts that are exploding in teacher (and leader) burnout across nearly all of our schools and organizations.
It's not a mystery as to why teachers and leaders are suffering from burnout. It's structural and it's systematic, and it can be changed.
Here are 17 tangible action steps you can take, right now, to stop the onslaught:
Seriously re-evaluate outside training and PD that your cabinet members attend. If administrators spend more than 2 days off-site during the school year attending trainings and conferences--have the courageous conversation as a team about changing these practices.
Say no to pilot programs.
Say no to additional grants that are not currently in place. Ask yourselves, "If we were to accomplish the goal without this grant funding, what would we need to do?"
Streamline meeting times and dates within your buildings to occur on the same days, in the same spaces, at the same time.
Streamline communication methods.
Streamline curriculum housing tools and locations.
Ensure equal teacher-work time in all buildings across your district (especially on teacher work days).
Avoid scheduling PD or meetings during teacher work days.
The day before school begins is not an appropriate time for PD. Teachers need that time in their classrooms. Principals need the time to prepare to open their buildings.
Understand that optional trainings may not feel optional to everyone. Keep a strong pulse on whether or not optional feels optional.
Streamline your SIP process within your district.
Have predictable district team meetings that elicit feedback from teachers regarding curriculum, pacing, assessments, etc.
Do not hold a meeting that should have been an email.
Improve email formatting and communication by leadership
Use virtual calendars to set meeting appointments at the start of the year or each semester; also have lists of all meeting dates for teachers to view at the start of the year
Ask yourself, "Is this ask worth my teachers' time? Really?" And then add up how many collective hours you are giving away (ie, a 60 minute meeting with 30 teachers is 30 hours of productive, personal, or leisure time). Is that meeting worth 30 combined hours of time?
Think of the compounded impact you would have on your people and their time if you committed to even just one of these seventeen suggestions. How many hours can you buy back for your people? You know they are worth it, so what is holding you back?
DeWitt, Peter. “Stress, Anxiety, Initiative Fatigue ... Oh My! Perhaps It's Time to 'De-Implement'? (Opinion).” Education Week, Education Week, 17 May 2021, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-stress-anxiety-initiative-fatigue-oh-my-perhaps-its-time-to-de-implement/2021/05.
Scarlett, Hilary. Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-Based Practical Guide to Managing Change. KoganPage, 2019.