As committed educators, we constantly examine our craft and seek to find new ways to better our skill set. In addition to those standards we set for ourselves, we are also asked to implement new initiatives and programs. In recent years, there have been changes at the district, state, and national levels that have challenged us to adapt and modify our current practices, and while change can be a healthy and positive thing, there is – many times – accompanying stress with those changes. Many teachers, being on the “front lines”, are struggling as they try to blend the old and new with their current class of students and still maintain a unique teaching style. When the number of initiatives becomes too great, one word can sum up many teachers’ feelings – “Help!”
This stressful condition has a name: initiative overload. It can occur when people become overwhelmed by the number of new initiatives, the degree to which they are expected to learn and implement new programs, and/or the time frame they are given to adjust. This concept is not exclusive to the world of education, either: even businesses struggle with this issue when workers feel that, with the influx of new ideas, they are “on a conveyor belt, simply waiting for the next initiative to come along” (from http://www.goalsandachievements.com). In education, many teachers feel that, just as they are getting a handle on one set of changes, a new program enters the picture. “Jack of all trades, master of none” becomes the mantra, where the teacher is barely treading water to make it through the day, sometimes just one step ahead of the students. Moreover, many teachers may feel that they are being asked to sacrifice beloved lessons, projects, or even their personal teaching styles in favor of scripted programs and district curricula that leave little to no room for individuality. In this type of situation, what’s a supervisor to do?
Clearly, there is no simple answer, and a one-size-fits-all approach will fail to work. However, by considering the ideas below, you may find that it is possible to balance these seemingly competing educational demands:
. A simple first step begins with awareness – the awareness that initiative overload is a very real condition that may be affecting teachers you know. A supervisor who possesses the skills to recognize when teachers are suffering will put him or her in a position to make positive change with the teaching staff. Low teacher morale, chronic complaints, and increased absenteeism are just a few indicators that teachers could be feeling the pressure and do not know how to cope.
. Once you identify that initiative overload may be the culprit, do your best to investigate. What is it that creates the stress? Is it a feeling of not knowing how to implement the curriculum? Misperceptions about the new programs themselves? Discomfort with new, unfamiliar subject matter? Anxiety over how they will be evaluated?
. Use the information you gather to make informed decisions and an action plan that will get to the root of the problem. For example, if teachers don’t feel properly prepared to teach a new curriculum, you could create an action plan like the one below:
• Bring in coaches to work with teachers.
• Teach demonstration lessons (either you teach the lesson or bring in a master teacher to assist).
• Coordinate professional development days that address teacher concerns.
• Allow teachers to observe other teachers who already use the program (Sometimes seeing lessons in action mean more than hours of discussion and PD!).
• Try to limit additional responsibilities as much as possible to give teachers time to prepare and reach a comfort level with the new material.
• Find ways to make “time” in the curriculum for teacher choice and autonomy. This way, the teachers will have the opportunity to retain favorite lessons and/or modify them within the parameters of the new programs.
Finding out what lies at the core of the teacher stress is the key that you will need to unlock any barriers that may exist between you and the teaching staff. By collaborating, listening to concerns, and making your own expectations transparent, you will be able to initiate productive dialogue and forge collegiate relationships. Classroom teachers are much more motivated to change and to commit to new programs and expectations when they feel that their supervisors exhibit empathy for their concerns.
Now it’s your turn! Reflect on these suggestions and decide which steps you can take today to help your staff rise to the challenges facing them. With increased awareness and an action plan, you will succeed, no matter what changes may come your way!