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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Educators, It’s Time to ‘Declutter’ Your Practice

By Peter DeWitt — September 30, 2021 7 min read
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In a recent Education Week article, “Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be,” reporter Madeline Will wrote,

Encouraging yoga or meditation can’t make up for systemic issues that cause stress, experts say. “You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems,” said Chelsea Prax, the programs director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers. “Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem.”

Most people who engage in meditation and mindfulness understand that deep breathing is not the only way to deal with, and work through, the systemic issues going on in their lives. Deep breathing allows us to step back, be present, and understand how we can begin to alleviate the stressors in our lives. However, working on our own personal issues takes more than breathing. Unfortunately, I’m sure the above statement about taking time to just breathe is an accurate depiction of how some school personnel try to alleviate their issues. We need to remember that it’s what we do after the breathing that matters. In this blog post focusing on creating a culture of care by Sean Slade and Alyssa Gallagher, they write about beginning with a culture of care.

What we do need to do is take a look at whether we are engaging in compliance activities because we have policies in our heads that make us believe we are supposed to be doing what we are doing (is this a written rule or something you heard from a third party?), as well as look at whether we are being martyrs who work long hours because it makes us feel that we are somehow doing our jobs to a deeper extent than others. What we do know, besides the self-induced issues we may face in our daily practices, is that there are demands put on teachers and school leaders that cause them to be reactive as opposed to proactive. Instead of looking at the plate, people seem to be getting more duties added to their plate (Join this committee and this committee and this committee!). This has become a crisis in schools that we need to address.

In fact, in a 10-year study by NAESP, Fuller et al. (2018. P. 3) found that it is becoming increasingly difficult to fill principal positions, “citing a salary not commensurate with responsibilities, time demands of the job, an ever-increasing workload, and stress as factors that could discourage good candidates.”

Teachers experience high caseloads of students or very little prep time. In some cases, their PLC collaboration time is considered to be contrived collaboration (Hargreaves and O’Connor). All of that contributes to their stress, which is exacerbated, of course, by public fighting about vaccinations and whether students should wear masks in school.

If the public would allow teachers and leaders to stay out of their political arguments that waste the time of superintendents and boards of education, as well as teachers, ,and students, educators would have more time to spend on learning as opposed to the next sound bite from CNN or Fox News.

What school leaders and educators within the schools really need to be able to focus on is looking at their practices that have impact on student learning, and that takes engaging in dialogue around the topic of deimplementation.

Is It Time to Declutter Your Practices?

I’m a big fan of decluttering. If I haven’t worn something or used an item in over a year, it’s time to get rid of it. OK, except for pants, because I did a lot of Zoom meetings in shorts, so pants are coming in handy right now for in-person workshops and coaching. However, I don’t like clutter in my life because it makes me feel as if I cannot breathe with so much stuff around me.

Deimplementation in school is like decluttering at home.

In the same article on teachers not being OK, Will wrote,

Only 2 percent of teachers said there’s nothing their school or district could do to help relieve their stress. Administrators can help make teaching more sustainable—but it will require structural changes. Teachers commonly said it would help if their school or district provided additional time to plan or catch up, reduced class sizes, waived some expectations or required tasks during periods of particularly high stress, or reduced the number of required meetings.

This is absolutely all true. I would add the fact that it’s difficult to lower class sizes if schools lack teachers in their schools to actually teach students. Many states are experiencing a shortage of teachers, and many are being forced to hire emergency-certified teachers, which may just exacerbate the issue.

However, when it comes to some of the sources of stress and anxiety in schools, it’s not just administrators who can do something about this, it’s teachers as well, because the stress and anxiety felt within schools isn’t just due to someone forcing mandates on us. It’s about the mandates we force upon ourselves, too. Having the courage as a whole school to openly discuss these issues is hard, but it’s worth the time and it centers around deimplementation.

According to this research study from the medical field, deimplementation is the process of “abandoning existing low value practices.” If the field of medicine can focus on deimplementation, then educators should be able to do it as well.

In this research study, the authors state that deimplementation comes down to four areas. Those areas, along with some examples of each, are:

  1. Partial reduction
    • Formal observations — I’ve met leaders who try to complete 4 or 5 observations in one day. By doing that, they are looking to get them done, which misses the point of what observations are all about. A partial reduction would be taking more time to spread the completion of formal observations over a longer period of time, as opposed to trying to complete them in a short period of time. Partially reducing the observations each day and spreading them out over a longer period of time (as well as looking at them as a learning cycle interconnected with faculty meetings, PLC’s and building goals), will help create more balance within the school climate. Additionally, having a mindset that observations are an important learning opportunity for students, teachers and leaders will also help.
    • Meetings — I work with a lot of schools, and meetings are going to be the death of them. They have meetings to establish what they will talk about at the next meeting.
    • Assessments — We overassess students in the classroom. The issue is that we assess and never really do anything with the results. If we assess less, then we may ultimately do more.
    • Checking email — I am addicted to checking my phone every five minutes. I think we can get a lot of time back in our lives if we set boundaries for checking and responding to emails. That also means leaders letting teachers know that they should not be checking email after they leave school each day.
  2. Complete reversal
    • State assessments — Yes, this is a big dream here, but it comes up in every survey I have done on deimplementation. Teachers could do so much with their time if they did not feel the pressure to test prep for months at a time.
    • Deficit mindset — We need to replace the deficit mindsets around COVID learning loss, special education, gender, race and poverty, and replace them with a growth mindset.
  3. Substitution with related replacement
    • PLC’s — Replace contrived collaboration with actual collaboration where teachers and students have a voice in the process.
  4. Substitution with unrelated replacement of existing practice
    • EOY workshops — Too often, end-of-year workshops are provided to teachers just because the students are done after a half day and leaders want their teachers to have something to do. Replace EOY workshops with giving teachers actual time to collaborate and reflect on their school year.

These are just some quick examples of what comes up in surveys when we explore deimplementation. Consider what you would add. A caveat about what you may add can be found below.

In the End

Partial reductions are just that, but they help us engage in a larger discussion around workload and boundaries. Just because we may do more during the day doesn’t mean we are any more effective; it’s probably quite the opposite.

Additionally, one of the issues I find is that people often want to get rid of what they believe is imposed on them as opposed to looking within their own practices to see what isn’t working. If we want to get time back and ease our stress and anxiety, it means we have to look at the big and small items we can deimplement. That begins with teachers and leaders taking a breath, being present in the situation, and then engaging in honest conversations about what we need to be doing in our day-to-day practices in school. All of these discussions are about helping leaders and teachers reconnect with why they got into education in the first place.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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