Current Events in Education

Initiative Overload: A Teacher’s Harsh Reality

“What do you do, as teachers, to take care of your students?” Hands went up throughout the room. My colleagues and I, at the school where I have been teaching for the past 15 years, were attending a CPI session on non-violent crisis prevention and intervention.
After a brief discussion, the session coach then asked, “What do you do, as teachers, to take care of YOU?” Silence overtook the conference room, as my colleagues glanced at each other with blank stares. No one raised their hand.
I suddenly broke the silence. “This is sad!” The CPI coach agreed. It was sad. None of us had any idea what, if anything, we did for ourselves. This is, unfortunately, the harsh reality in many schools. Teachers are so busy taking care of their students’ needs and are overloaded with so many other tasks that they either don’t think, or do not have the time, to do something for themselves.
Teachers are so busy taking care of their students’ needs and are overloaded with so many other tasks, they don’t do anything for themselves Click To Tweet
Schools and teachers are usually very good at thinking about the well-being of their pupils. We consider ourselves to have a duty of care to our pupils. We do not usually think about our own well-being – until it is too late and we are sick (Delaney, 2013).  
Recently, during one of my graduate courses, I heard about the relatively new term, initiative overload, or “…the tendency…to launch more change initiatives than anyone could ever reasonably handle” (Abrahamson, 2004). I immediately thought back to my CPI training session. During that meeting, teachers vented their frustrations and explained how it was almost impossible, and sometimes even frowned upon, to do something for their own health and well-being for a change.
I remembered an incident a few years back when I decided to go for a jog during my lunch break. I changed my clothes in the washroom and proceeded to head out the door of the school. The principal looked at me as if I was crazy and one teacher actually said, “Wow. It must be nice not to have anything to do today.” I felt worthless. “Is this normal?” I pondered. I thought I was being a positive role-model for students and setting a good example of healthy living by exercising!
I notice regularly that teachers are marking student work or organizing and running extra-curricular activities during their lunch hours, attending department or committee meetings during their spares, and meeting with the principal and parents after school. This seems to have become the unspoken norm, and is to be expected, in many schools. A teacher’s contract work week in my area is 32 hours and some change, on paper. But honestly, which teachers work only 32 hours? It is virtually impossible to accomplish everything we are expected to do in that short timeframe. The School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) survey, performed by The National Union of Teachers in the UK, revealed that “…classroom teachers in the primary sector were working on average 50.9 hours per week. The figure for secondary teachers was 49.3 hours” (2005).
When do teachers have time to relax, loosen-up, and just breath?
Demands on teachers have been increasing over the past few decades (Valli et al., 2007) in a linear, or even exponential way. (I apologize for the function talk; I am a math teacher!) With curriculum pressures, exam preparations, student discipline issues, school activities, budget cuts and overloaded classrooms, teachers have more than enough on their plates. Now, add to that a plethora of new initiatives that teachers are expected to learn about, master, and implement in their classrooms. In some schools, those teachers receiving the training are even expected to come back to their job, share their new knowledge and teach their colleagues. Cue the formation of yet another new committee!
Many educational initiatives are mandated externally and are exclusive, as they do not use or ask for teacher input. Teachers can tend to feel a certain loss of control and decreased value as a professional in these instances as they are, yet again, imposed the newest program or reform. “Many teachers felt that they were not in control of their work…(and) it caused them stress”, as indicated in a 2001 study commissioned by the Department of Education and Skills in the UK.
Emotional responses to mandated change are predominantly negative…(as it)…is largely associated with legislated government reforms…(which are)…disliked and resented because they are either vague…or implemented poorly in excessively compressed timescales with insufficient resources and other support (Hargreaves, 2004).  
Teachers’ level of understanding of these mandated initiatives is often low and training is not always sufficient. Teacher buy-in would understandably be at a minimum, and the programs would consequently be implemented half-heartedly and ineffectively. “The list is ongoing and the exhaustion occurs when there are so many separate initiatives happening at the same time that teachers don’t have the time to go deep in learning and implementation” (Perkins, 2011).  In Teacher Stress is Killing My Profession, Smol explains how the “…storm of new and increasingly unrealistic demands (causes) constant stress, overwork and, at times, emotional exhaustion” (2009).
Numerous surveys and studies have been performed regarding teacher overload and its effects on job satisfaction, stress, and teacher efficacy. The results are far from surprising. Teachers report the highest level of occupational stress in America, next to nurses, at 46%, as displayed by the 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index Survey. Stress is related to different work outcomes, such as workplace engagement, and job satisfaction. Stress affects one’s teaching efficacy, ability to respond appropriately and successfully perform their role. It also affects teachers’ relationships with colleagues, students and parents. (Flook et al., 2013; Yoon, 2002; Turkson, 2004).
So, what next?
Teachers rarely have a say in, or any control over which initiatives their school’s administration or Educational Department will choose to have implemented. Teachers are worried about speaking up (Siebecker, 2016) but they need to learn to voice their opinions and administrators should start listening and taking teachers’ concerns seriously. Teachers are feeling over-pressurized and often under-supported, and our schools and students are suffering. We are losing many of our best teachers due to overloaded workload and stress:
…those teachers whose energy levels have been sapped so much by all the new administrative demands that they have little left over to give directly to the students… it has been the most highly motivated and committed teachers who undergo the most stress and who break down simply because they truly care for their students and, against the odds, try to deliver (Smol, 2009).
So what can teachers do for their own well-being? There are many suggestions for ways teachers can relax, destress and unwind; basically, teachers can just do something they enjoy! Some of the most popular ideas to battle stress are: talking to a friend, taking a walk, meditation, paint or sing a song, write down positive highlights every day, take a bubble bath, eat chocolate, and most importantly, learn to politely say ‘no’!
The reality is that teachers are being overwhelmed by all of the numerous different directions they are asked to take in their teaching practice, often without knowing exactly why. Some initiatives just seem to be the latest educational buzzword that the principal heard at his last meeting. It makes you wonder if these mandates are handed down for the right reasons. Does administration just want their schools to look innovative? Or are they just trying to keep teachers busy? Is there a common thread among all of these initiatives, and are they effective at all? “It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” (Henry David Thoreau).


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