Assessment Opinion

Leading to Reduce Stressors in the System

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 04, 2015 6 min read
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Any number of things can cause an educator to experience stress: challenged students, discipline, time pressures and workload, coping with change, being evaluated by everyone, self-esteem and status, everyday issues of administration and management, role conflict and ambiguity and often poor working conditions (Myers & Berkowicz). A Google search reveals antidotes to stress ranging from exercise, recreation, mindfulness, medication, acupuncture and prayer. All have helped people return from the ravages of stress. But what if stress could be avoided? Let’s look at three sources of stress and possibilities for avoiding them.

Risk Averse
Pressure for schools to change from a 20th century to a 21st century model remains constant. Preparing students for the workforce they will enter, whether they head to college or directly to career can no longer be successfully accomplished in the model that exists. Change is complicated. Whether leading change or following a leader attempting to lead change, risk taking is central. Being willing to make a plan and take risks, large or small, requires a willingness to expereince failure as part of progress.

One vital characteristic of innovative, forward-thinking districts, observers say, is a commitment to encouraging administrators, teachers, and students to take risks and not be afraid to fail. (Ash)

Building leaders have the responsibility and, hopefully, the ability to support an environment that embraces trying new things and taking risks. Some even celebrate it. They do this even better when the assurance and encouragement comes from the top.

Superintendents also need to encourage students, teachers, and staff members when they hit the inevitable snags that come with rolling out a new initiative, said Scott McLeod, the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, or CASTLE, at the University of Kentucky (Ash).

But whether a teacher in a classroom, a principal in a building or a superintendent in district office, whether supported by a board, or a supervisor, acceptance and encouragement of risk taking makes a difference. Among our workforce some are inherently more comfortable with risk taking than others. And, there are those for whom risk of any degree is, in fact, frightening. These who are risk averse need to feel safe in order to step into their creative and risk taking place. It begins with opening a conversation and extending an invitation for each teacher and principal to take an expressed risk this year, make it an acknowledged objective and a learning experience. Students need teachers and principals who model risk taking as part of the learning experience. They must trust that the environment is supportive. Schools are learning organizations with principals as lead learners. They need to be places where everyone, child and adult, feels valued and safe so that risk and failure join with success and achievement as part of learning. Then, aversion can decrease and comfort, grow.

Accountability Averse
Pressure for schools to change from a 20th to a 21st century model also includes new accountability measures. Quality educations are a result of quality teaching skills and learning opportunities. And with family mobility increased because of improved transportation capacities and the need to move due to employment opportunities, it is important that educational standards are the same across the country. Although the first attempts at using national standards to evaluate teacher and principal performance may not be perfect yet, the fact that some type of accountability system that contributes to the guarantee of a standardized quality education has a place in this century.

That said, as the methods for this accountability are still struggling toward an agreed upon valuable system, the measures and their meaning contribute to the stress, especially of those accountability averse. Accountability and evaluation are often received as judgment. It is another thing which people fear and try to avoid.

Teaching and learning involve behaviors. As educators, there has been an accepted practice to depend on demonstration of students’ knowledge attainment as evidence of student learning and used for teachers’ accountability. Although much is being discussed about whether what we are measuring for the students is truly a reliable measure, it remains a measure only of what a student, each student, knows and sometimes, is able to do, with the information they learned. If we truly examine what learning is important, especially in this century, there is much that is not measured like the ability to be creative, ability to work with others to solve a problem, good communication skills, and the ability to critically problem solve. We are still holding students accountable more for the information learned than the important skills they may have used in order to gain the information. Similarly, teachers are held accountable for their students’ scores. There are questions about how to consider the other aspects of the teachers’ work with students. For some, students living in poverty, students with learning gaps and challenges, students for whom English is a second language, students who have moved frequently, students with struggling with mental health issues...all are considerations when evaluating a teacher’s success.

So, we need to be more careful and more respectful than ever as we enter the evaluation and accountability conversations. Leaders and teachers both might need training and giving and receiving feedback and how to keep language focused on behaviors, not on people. It may be easier said than done, but it begins with each individual person deciding how to lead, firmly and compassionately, those who are accountability averse into an environment calling for change.

Just Plain Worn Out
Whether members of a family, a classroom, a school, a district, any of us can have moments in time when we are just plain worn out. We get tired pushing against, fighting against, doing things we don’t believe in and those we do not understand. Being worn out can last for a day or a year, each of us has a different capacity for resilience and different strategies for renewal. Each teacher and leader makes an individual choice about changing our own minds or abdicating choice, living as if our choices were in someone else’s hands. Leaders who abdicate will have teachers who do. Leaders who reveal their fatigue and their ability to recover from it will have teachers who figure out their own way to do the same.

According to helpguide.org work-related causes of burnout are:

  • Feeling like you have little or no control over your work
  • Lack of recognition or rewards for good work
  • Unclear or overly demanding job expectations
  • Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging
  • Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment

Schools can easily be breeding grounds for these five descriptors but the people working in the schools, teachers and leaders alike, can also turn these factors around or, at least, address them with behaviors to minimize them. It may be easier said than done, but it begins with each individual person deciding how to handle themselves in an environment that is calling for change.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.