Keep Students and Parents (and Teachers) Initiative Fatigue Free
Last week I entered a meeting feeling pretty good about my teaching life. I was sticking with my goals for the year, trying some new things outside my comfort zone, and achieving some success doing them, but soon my head was fixed on all of the things I wasn't doing. All I could think about were the things other people were doing or telling me I should be doing that I wasn't. I was feeling inadequate and I just couldn't shake it. I was, as ASCD CEO and Executive Director Dr. Gene R. Carter recently phrased it on a panel discussing developing teacher leaders, experiencing "initiative fatigue." There was too much, too fast, and with too little time for me to evaluate or prioritize the ideas coming at me, let alone do anything with them. I was overwhelmed and anxious. I was lost.
Assuming that I was not the only teacher in the room feeling that way (and I doubt I was), what was the collective effect of those feelings having on the atmosphere of our school? Were all of these well-intentioned ideas empowering teachers or disenfranchising them?
Returning home with my two-and-a-half year old son Mason, I grabbed the mail and the cover of a parenting magazine caught my eye and added to my self-doubt. Splashed across the cover were blurbs for articles such as "Are You Raising a Happy Child?," "Screen Time: How Much is Too Much?," and "Manage Your Toddler's Tantrums." Once again, I began questioning myself: Was I doing all of these things? Was I doing them well enough?
As a result of my questioning I realized that parents too were susceptible to their own sort of initiative fatigue. In addition to media sources, I wondered if parents were overwhelmed with messages from schools such as "Ensure your child reads every night," "Teach your child respect," and "Help your child track their learning goals." Do these messages have unintentional consequences that negatively affect school culture? Are these messages empowering parents or disenfranchising them?
In an attempt to clear my mind and refocus, I took Mason for a walk in the park near our house. While we were crossing the outfield of the ball field I drifted back to my self-doubts. Suddenly Mason's voice called me back to the present. Greeting me as I turned and saw him running next to me was his ear-to-ear smile shouting, "Run, Daddy!! Run, Daddy!" We smiled, we laughed, and we ran. We were free. Mason didn't seem to realize that I had felt overwhelmed and inadequate as a teacher and parent. None of that mattered to him. We were together, running and loving it.
Reflecting on my thoughts and Mason's reaction, I realized that in spite of all the stress and teachers' feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, maintaining a positive school culture for students and parents is paramount. So, how can teachers manage initiative fatigue without passing it down and negatively impacting the school atmosphere for students or their parents?
Here are a few ways teachers can navigate their way through the current changes with their heads up and students and parents by their side.
Give Permission to Be Realistic
The enormity of the ongoing changes in education and the sheer number of initiatives that have resulted from them are staggering. It is improbable that a teacher could do all of them well. Therefore, teachers must give themselves permission to take on one or two things at a time and do them well. In doing so, they will make significant, steady progress and feel good doing it rather than feeling unfulfilled by doing multiple things half-heartedly.
Teachers can adopt the same philosophy with students' parents. Assigning one or two feasible at-home tasks for parents might actually be more productive than asking them to do more. In doing so, teachers would be empowering parents and working to create a true partnership.
Leave Negativity in the Hallway
Just as Mason didn't know or care that I was momentarily overwhelmed with parenting issues, students don't know that teachers are overwhelmed with education policy and mandates. Teachers need to honor their students' innocence and support what they really want—positive connections, a safe environment, and a rewarding learning experience. Allowing teacher negativity to enter the classroom is unfair and counterproductive.
Look at the Rest of the Child
Many of the initiatives that are currently adding stress to teachers' lives focus on the subjects of reading and math. Dwelling on just those areas can be exhausting for teachers, as well as students. Teachers can put the innumerable initiatives into perspective by focusing on the primary one: the whole child.
Teachers can begin to demonstrate that other areas of a child's growth are also important by observing (or, better yet, participating in) music class, art class, physical education, and recess. By doing so, teachers will lighten the mood, feel rejuvenated, and maintain school as a positive experience for their students.
Teachers can manage the effects of initiative fatigue without negatively impacting school culture; and they must. Students (and parents) should not have to suffer the consequences, however unintentional they may be, from the multitude of initiatives directed at teachers. Instead, students should thrive in a positive school climate and run free together with their parents and teachers.
Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master's degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr.