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Finding Common Ground

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.

Teaching Opinion

5 Reasons Educators Take On Too Much

Perhaps it’s time to change our habits
By Peter DeWitt — January 24, 2023 5 min read
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Over the past few years, I have been making a conscious effort to turn down the noise that was coming into my life from the moment I woke up until the minutes before I went to bed. I didn’t even realize how much of the noise was seeping into my life countless times a day until I began practicing meditation and focusing on being more aware of my habits.

No, this is not going to be a blog about meditation. But it is going to be a blog about being more aware.

The noise I am referring to is that of the 24/7 news coverage that was beginning to impact my mood in the morning. What originally was a habit to turn on the television in the living room as I prepared my morning coffee, soon turned into a barrage of negative stories that didn’t seem to bother the newscaster at all.

At the time, they were announcing COVID deaths as if they were scores from the baseball game the night before, and then they covered politics, entertainment news about another breakup, all in an effort to capture my attention. Don’t get me wrong. I still watch the news because I want to be aware of what is going on in the world, but I have turned down that noise to 30 minutes a day.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, before I changed my habits, I would get on my computer at the same time to check my email and then quickly take a sip of coffee and click over to my social media accounts. The emails were work-related, but social media became more and more negative, and although some of the negativity calmed down over time, the morning news still had the same number of negative stories.

That’s when I realized I didn’t need to watch the news in the morning and could listen to a few good radio stations on one of our classic old radios, instead. As for social media, I broke my habit of getting on one social media platform where most of the negativity appeared and chose to read a magazine or book, or even better, hopped on the Peloton. It was a great decision, because not only do I feel physically healthier, but I also feel emotionally healthier as well.

During that period of time when I began investigating the noise in my life, I also explored the noise that we have going on in schools. I began writing a book called De-implementation: Creating the Space to Focus on What Works (2022. Corwin). De-implementation is the abandonment of low-value practices (van Bodegom-Vos L).

The work of de-implementation is about helping leaders and teachers unplug some of what they do in their classrooms or schools in an effort to find that all elusive extra time we are looking for and move from just doing things to having more impact.

Why do we overimplement?

Just like in our personal lives, we can find time in our professional lives to cut down on the noise that distracts us from engaging in work that can be much more impactful to our students and much more emotionally satisfying in our careers as educators.

Unfortunately, this is not easily done in our work settings, because we believe if we stop doing something, it might mean we care less for our students. That is simply not true. The other factor is that I have found in my research that people are much more willing to abandon a practice they believe has been forced upon them than to actually abandon a practice they like, even if it doesn’t work as well as another practice that is recommended to them. This is what I refer to as overimplementing.

There are at least five reasons we overimplement, as I call the practice. Those reasons are:

Thin content, nice packaging – We get tricked into buying things we don’t need because the packaging is nice. Publishers and educational resource companies package things in a way that makes us believe we need it, even if we don’t. Yes, I see the irony of writing this as I talk about a book. In my defense, I have done interviews where I tell listeners not to buy the book unless they need it.

What’s interesting about exploring the nice packaging with thin content idea is that research has found that publishers will use a brain image to make us believe that their resources have more merit simply because of the brain image. For example, in 2008, McCabe and Castel found that individuals were more likely to incorrectly rate books as scientifically meritorious when brain images were included than when only text was provided. Unfortunately, the books that had just text without brain images had more merit in this case.

When we go after the shiny new toy in nice packaging, we may actually be going in the wrong direction. The lesson we need to learn is that we have decide if we really need it before we buy it.

Emotions over evidence – We find it difficult to stop engaging in activities because we have an emotional connection to the activity. Perhaps we have been doing it for years and have fond memories of former classes doing it, even if they’ve been shown not to be impactful or they are not a part of our curriculum. We don’t want to stop because we have been doing the same activities for years and are afraid to let go because we have so many emotions tied to it. There are teachers who will engage in activities that are not a part of their curriculum at the same time they may complain that they are so busy. I have been guilty of this in the past for sure!

Time mismanagement – Meetings have often been the bane of my existence. Too often at meetings, precious time is wasted because the leader of the meeting did not engage in creating success criteria for the discussion, people around the table are unclear of their role in the meeting, or countless minutes were spent discussing issues that none of the people around the table actually control.

Workaholic cultures – I once had an assistant superintendent tell me that their community expects teachers and leaders to work hard and that the community expects to see the cars of educators in school parking lots later into the evening. I asked him how the community would know teachers’ cars were in school parking lots if it weren’t that, in most cases, those people were going home or passing by the school with their children as they went out to dinner.

Initiatives we can’t control – This speaks to the meeting comment I made earlier. Too often, time is wasted complaining about initiatives we can’t control rather than looking at how they may fit into the work we are already doing. Perhaps this is the meditation, but I have learned I can’t control things that come at me, thought I can control how I react to them.

In the End

We have a lot of noise that comes at us all day, every day, and it’s not good for our mental health. Some of that noise comes in the form of meetings that waste our time because they lack focus or activities in the classroom that lack impact. No one is going to get rid of the noise for us. We have to begin finding ways to turn it down by ourselves.

The five ways we overimplement may be a good place to begin that journey.

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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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