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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Stress, Anxiety, Initiative Fatigue … Oh My! Perhaps It’s Time to ‘De-Implement’?

By Peter DeWitt — May 16, 2021 6 min read
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We know that school leaders, as well as educators, students, and families, have been through many challenges over the last 14 months as a result of COVID-19. The reality is that those challenges have been daily, because of schedule changes, contact tracing, finding substitute teachers to cover for teacher out because of the virus, and a whole host of other crises that come up seemingly every hour.

Academic and a social-emotional focus used to be for students, but over the last year, many schools are beginning to understand that a balance between academics and social-emotional learning are for teachers and leaders, too. There has been an increase in stress and anxiety, and it could have a devastating impact on our school communities if we do not change it.

This is not a new COVID issue. This increase in stress and anxiety has been happening for the last couple of decades. In the United States, 42 percent of principals indicated they were considering leaving their position (NASSP, EPI). According to the Learning Policy Institute, “Nationally, the average tenure of a principal is about four years, and nearly one in five principals, approximately 18 percent, turn over annually. Often the schools that need the most capable principals, those serving students from low-income families, have even greater principal turnover.”

The Center for Creative Leadership found that “eighty-eight percent of leaders report that work is a primary source of stress in their lives and that having a leadership role increases the level of stress. More than 60 percent of surveyed leaders cite their organizations as failing to provide them with the tools they need to manage stress.”

Queen and Schumacher (Principal Magazine) found that “as many as 75 percent of principals experience stress-related symptoms that include fatigue, weakness, lack of energy, irritability, heartburn, headache, trouble sleeping, sexual dysfunction, and depression.”

Teachers are certainly not immune to stress and anxiety either. The American Federation of Teachers (2015) found that “78% of teachers reported feeling physically and emotionally exhausted,” and that was well before COVID-19 entered into our lives.

In the U.K., Education Support released a Health Survey, showing that “75% of teachers, teaching assistants, headteachers and other education staff said they have experienced a variety of stress or anxiety symptoms in the last two years”

  • Almost 1 in 5 (19%) said they had experienced panic attacks.
  • Over half (56%) had suffered from insomnia and difficulties sleeping.
  • Over a third (41%) had experienced difficulty concentrating.

Initiative Fatigue

For far too long, more and more initiatives have been piled on schools. Some of that piling on is the result of the behavior of those in schools, and other times, it’s due to a sheer need for greater resources. Need money? Jump through this hoop. What we see in schools is that the schools that lack the most funding, typically in areas with a majority of Black and Brown students (Perry. 2019) are the same schools that are asked to compete for grants and funding even though they lack the professionals to write the grants and go after the funding.

Have an issue? Let’s pay for this Band-Aid as opposed to really looking at the root cause of the issue because it may be impacting more than just that one area. The issue here is that as different problem areas come up, many schools look to the specific program that they can implement, which may or may not be based on research, but that program may be an attempt to fix a surface issue, though it doesn’t always help with the deeper underlying issue that problem may stem from in the first place.

What this means is that the longer teachers and leaders have been working in their school, the more they have seen initiatives come and go and begin to lose faith in the process, so the initiative, whether it’s good or bad, loses steam before it even begins.

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?

We need everyone from state education departments and the U.S. Department of Education to help in the process. And that process may be one in which schools de-implement initiatives.

Is It Time to De-Implement?

Let’s look at it this way. Since COVID came into our lives, many teachers and leaders worked together to suspend practices that they really didn’t need because they were in crisis and didn’t have the time to do them. For example, teachers began to look at vital standards, which meant they had to focus on those standards that were most important for learning. Isn’t it time that we look to do that at the building or district level as well?

One of the topics John Hattie has introduced to me is that of de-implementation. According to this research study, which is one of the articles on the topic that he sent to me, de-implementation is the process of “abandoning existing low value practices.” If you look at the article, you will see that it focused on research in the medical field. If the field of medicine can focus on de-implementation where lives are at stake, can’t schools begin to understand the process and how it might work given that lives are at stake?

In this research study, the authors state that de-implementation comes down to four areas. Those areas are:

  • Partial reduction
  • Complete reversal
  • Substitution with related replacement
  • Substitution with unrelated replacement of existing practice.

The authors continue the description of de-implementation by writing, “De-implementation is a graduated continuum of individual, team, and organizational change that require different strategies in terms of learning and unlearning. Learning refers to the process of acquiring new skills or knowledge. Unlearning is a process of discarding outdated mental models to make room for alternative models.”

This means that school leadership teams, along with district-led modeling, need to take a hard look at the individual initiatives that are happening within their schools and gain an understanding of which ones have not worked, why they have not worked, and decide whether they need to focus on them anymore. It also means that the longer we have been working in schools, the process of unlearning will be key to this process.

In the End

Research shows that school leaders and teachers are under a great deal of stress because of increasing workloads, as well as the complicated backgrounds of students within their care. What this leads to is burnout, and worse, it creates a need to leave the position, which ultimately is affecting the education that students receive.

We can no longer pile more and more on the plates of educators and need to take a seriously look, and then engage in actionable steps, to de-implement those initiatives that no longer work and waste our time.

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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