Today’s school leaders are faced with a tricky challenge: innovate without burnout.
As a school leader, you’re facing two competing priorities.
- to continuously improve your school, and
- to make the most of limited resources.
With around 80% of our budget dedicated to staff, that typically means a laser-focus on getting the most out of our people.
In the abstract, ongoing improvement of our staffing strategies and systems makes sense. But in practice, our staff often ends up feel like they’re forever being asked to do one more thing.
Achieving Results without Burn-Out
Initiative fatigue is real, it’s valid, and it’s a serious concern for any school leader.
So how do we simultaneously:
- Get that continuous improvement we need;
- Build buy-in from a skeptical staff; and
- Avoid burn-out along the way?
Let’s take a look at the causes of initiative fatigue and the four essential components of sustainable continuous improvement.
Why So Tired?
As a school leader, your job is to improve the school for the kids. In many cases, that means “get end-of-year standardized testing scores up.” Or perhaps you’re in a higher performing school and the pressure is to provide that dream school that the super-engaged parents have been demanding. You want the best for the kids and you’re determined to provide it. You have a vision, now it’s time to make it a reality.
Your vision may include something you heard about that seems like it would be a good fit for your school. Maybe you had a lot of success in a prior position and want to implement things you know can work. If you could get your staff to open up to your Great New Idea!
Now let’s look at the situation from the teacher’s perspective. A typical lineup of core staff responsibilities, includes:
- Unit planning, lesson planning, assessment, instruction, and classroom management
- Department responsibilities, including regular curriculum reviews
- Inter-departmental committees and cross-disciplinary projects
- District-led professional development requirements
- Graduate courses to maintain and add licenses
Each one of these requires time and energy. And that’s just to keep things on track. Every time a new initiative comes into play, it’s like you’re being asked to keep the plates spinning while changing the rods they’re spinning on. The average teacher has spent 9 years working in their school. By comparison, the typical principal holds their post for 3 years. To a seasoned teacher, your Great New Idea probably sounds a lot like another round of rod-changing by yet another new administrator.
As a school administrator, I faced a lot of “Great New Idea” pushback. Excuses for dismissing initiatives included:
- We tried that 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and 5 years ago. Why should we try it again?
- I’ve been here 15 years and gone through 8 different instructional models. I know what I’m doing in the classroom, so please just let me teach.
- We *just* started using this textbook series. I’m not interested in talking about the curriculum again.
I discovered that to create the space for continuous improvement, I had to avoid falling into the “Great New Idea” trap.
Staff Buy-In: Is It Necessary?
There are administrators who don’t believe staff have to like an idea, they just have to do it. They see staff buy-in as a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. They believe if we tell teachers how to do their jobs better, they will get better results and that will override the negative feelings they had about the Great New Idea. The old guard who can’t change will leave, the new ones will improve and love us for it. Unfortunately, domination is not a strategy that often leads to great schools.
Research shows that the organizational culture is responsible for up to 50% of teacher
performance. Furthermore, positive relationships between managers and employees are essential for the creative thinking that’s a hallmark of good teaching. When we tell principals they have to get results “or else” we’re setting the stage for the very kind of educational environment we were trying to change. Teachers under pressure to get higher test scores will dedicate time to low-value, drill-the-skill activities: Mad Minute math worksheets, basic reading comprehension activities, and excessive time face down in workbooks. Recess gets cut, disciplinary infractions go up. Pressure doesn’t work.
Besides the obvious fallacy of “teach harder and they’ll learn more,” the idea of the Great New Idea ignores several important factors in change management. Ideas must be implemented in context. The educational community tosses around the term “best practices” quite a bit, but we also know that what is best practice for one school will not work at all for another. In addition to context, implementation is important. The best idea won’t amount to anything if it isn’t implemented well, and our teachers are the ones who will be implementing.
If we want excited, engaged kids, we have to build excited, engaged staff. That means taking the time to build buy-in, to be honest about the pressures we can’t eliminate, and strip away whatever pressures we can.
I taught a course to my own staff on constructivist methodologies. I quickly learned that the teachers had great ideas about instruction and engaging students, but they felt an acute sense of pressure to “complete the curriculum” so that the kids would be ready for the state exams. I told them “As the curriculum director, I am officially telling you that I don’t care if you cover the whole curriculum. Covering only 80% of the curriculum but getting kids to learn 80% of what you teach is way better than covering 100% of the curriculum but getting kids to learn only 50% of what you teach.” I even printed out a permission slip for them to keep in their plan books in case the principals gave them a hard time. A few brave teachers decided to take me at my word. They started going deeper into material, taking the time to confirm kids understood. The results were happier staff, more engaged kids, and higher test scores.
If you don’t trust your staff, they won’t trust you. Doors and minds will close, and any gains will be short-lived. But when you treat the staff like professionals, they’ll meet you more than half way and you’ll get the results you’re looking for.
Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement
Now that we’ve explored why buy-in is important, and why it’s so hard to get, let’s explore how to lay the groundwork for continuous improvement.
Great Questions Beat Great Ideas
The first mistake many administrators make is to assume they have to know what to do. You don’t. In today’s culture, humility is sadly underappreciated, but it can be your greatest resource. Instead of being the Sage on the Stage, take a seat on the floor and assume the role of student.
In my first principalship, my superintendent came in one November morning and announced we were switching to block scheduling. He had attended a conference and decided it was the way to go. As of Monday, we were expected to restructure the school day to reflect his Great New Idea. He offered no guidance on dealing with the obvious issues we might face, and he refused to work with us on an implementation plan.
Of course, this threw the whole system into chaos and left us all scrambling. But the worst part was that what could have been good for the school was forever tarred as a symbol of an authoritarian regime. Block scheduling does have benefits, and it might have worked well for our school. We would never find out. His prideful approach undermined his own goal to better serve the kids.
Several years later I was the one in the position of leadership, and saw how powerful humility could be in driving positive change. New to my position, one day I found myself looking into the tearful eyes of a passel of reading interventionists. I had just convened the team to talk about their program. They were *sure* I was going to have a Great New Idea for them. They loved their (very expensive) program and were petrified I was going to insist they get rid of it.
At the very beginning of the meeting, their most senior member said, “here we go again. Another administrator who’s going to tell us why we can’t afford to keep our favorite program.” Instead, I asked them “why do you love this program?”
This lead to a six-month exploration of their system, during which I just asked guiding questions. We collectively decided what we wanted out of a program, established benchmarks, monitored them together, and wrote up our discoveries. At the end of the review process, they decided they didn’t need the program anymore. We saved tens of thousands of dollars and no tears were shed. They even thanked me for listening to them and following their priorities.
The lesson of this experience was the importance of allowing the team to engage in the exploration, so they could own the outcome. All along the way I asked questions to drive the process deeper.
- What do you want out of the program?
- How are you gauging your success?
- What would make it more successful?
- What limitations on your success would you like to address?
My responsibility was to ensure the exploration was rigorous and data informed. Their responsibility was to participate in the process in good faith. When your staff is invited to explore the challenges together, you get better ideas, you ID your own blind spots, and you build buy-in on the front end.
Spiral Staircase, not Roller Coasters
A Great New Idea is often introduced like a roller coaster. We coax everyone on board by promising “it’s going to be great!” We pour energy and resources in, getting everyone excited about what lies ahead. Then we sit back and wait for the amazing results to come to us.
Unfortunately, that’s not how continuous improvement works. I’ve seen SO MANY plans fail because of this mentality. We invest huge resources into imagining what we’re going to see happen, but we never get around to the part where we lay out what happens after we hit “Go!”
My first K-12 curricular rewrite was in mathematics. I was a new district math coordinator, and I had been tasked with aligning the curriculum to the new math standards. I had been through several curricular rewrites before, and I knew that the standard operating procedure was to:
- pay teachers to work for a few weeks over the summer,
- they would create a stunning, well-aligned document,
- everyone would get a copy,
- which would forever live in the back of every teacher’s file cabinet until the next curricular rewrite.
Having had this experience, and knowing that this was what my colleagues expected, I was determined to have a different process and a different result.
I started from a brand new place. Instead of talking about the new state standards and the need for alignment, I asked the teachers, “is our curriculum working?” This led to some great discussions about what people liked about the curriculum and what they didn’t, which led to my next question, “how do we know our curriculum is or isn’t working?” This question was the most important, because it got us focused on data.
Several teacher’s brought up their in-class assessments and how wonderfully students had done on those. This enabled us to compare in-class grades on assessments to comparable results on state exams. We were able to put up a Venn Diagram showing the degree to which our students’ grades on local assessments reflected the statewide standards. No teacher thought the overlap should be 100%, but all were shocked when it turned out to be only 25%.
By this time, all were in agreement that we needed to do a better job of aligning our curriculum to the state standards. We weren’t going to completely rewrite it, but we were going to make sure that the state standards were embedded in everything we do. Perhaps more importantly, we also developed an agreement that we would repeat this process yearly to ensure that the curriculum overhaul really did result in changes in our coverage.
By recognizing that the improvements need to be made in a continuous cycle and by planning how and why we were going to get to where we were going, we were able to make profound changes, and very few copies of the curriculum ended up in the back of file cabinets.
Create Structure, Not Mandates
Not long ago, I was working in a school district that was making a complete shift of its curriculum and instructional models. I was the leader of a team of administrators and teachers that spent a year articulating both a set of goals and a change process. By the time we were done, we had a five year plan of what we wanted the curriculum and classroom practice to look like in each year of the process.
While the team was ready to start implementing that fall, I put the brakes on. I insisted that we meet with a council of teachers from each school to get their feedback and to see what supports they needed to make sure that the initiative was successful. I asked them:
- Do we all have the same understanding of what this means on a daily basis in each classroom?
- What supports will you need in order to make this happen in your classroom?
- What are your concerns about this initiative and its process?
- How will we all know that it is going well or not going well?
The results of that conversation led to a few new aspects of the initiative that would not have happened if we had not held these meetings. Teachers told us that to be successful, they needed:
- more collaborative time,
- specific training in areas where they felt weakest, and
- guarantees that they wouldn’t be held accountable for mastering skills they were just learning.
By listening to them, we had the information we needed to ensure their success. We made changes in the PD model to emphasize skill-building in the areas they requested, carved out collaboration time, and created a walk-through evaluation system that focused on new skills feedback and was outside of their formal evaluations. If we had not met with them prior to roll-out, we would not have known what they wanted and they would not have felt supported. Bringing the staff into the process before we launched lay the groundwork for buy-in and increased our likelihood of success.
The structures we build to help people learn and change are at least as important as the plans. At a fundamental level, most school reforms require teachers to implement them. We must support them in their transitions to new ideas, just as we support students. Setting up the structures that support success will get us there.
Go Back to Preschool
Adults are terribly afraid of failure. We have an unfortunate faith in linearity and seem to believe that progress requires constant demonstration of improvement. If you spend time with small children (the younger the better), you’ll see that they’re constantly trying, failing, and trying again. It’s in that process that real growth and learning happens. If we’re going to improve schools, we have to embrace experimentation, and flops, as a part of that process.
Tiger Woods is an impressive example of an adult who embraces this philosophy. By any measure, he is a world-class athlete. But throughout his career he has regularly reinvented his swing. While most pro golfers are passionate about maintaining what works, Woods has methodically dissected his swing four times in order to find opportunities for improvement. Taking apart a system that works well is always risky, and he has had some ugly rounds in the process. But his fearless commitment to experimentation as a path to improvement has kept him in the upper echelon of his sport for more than 20 years.
Freedom to flop is essential if you want your team to improve. The exhaustion your team feels may be a symptom of perceived pressure to be perfect for everyone: parents, students, and bosses. This is your opportunity to become their safe haven for honest imperfection. The next time you’re talking with a staff member, work in a story about something you tried that flopped – and what you learned from it. When they talk about trying something new ask what they learned, not what the outcome was. Create a Board of Experiments where they can share:
- What I tried
- Why I tried it
- What I hoped would happen
- What did happen
- What I learned
- What I’d do again AND what I’d do differently
And if it helps, head for the pre-K room – literally. Playing with manipulables like Legos, clay, and blocks will help rejuvenate your team and get their creative juices flowing.
Set yourself up for success.
Once you’ve identified the improvement area you want to address:
Talk with staff about the challenge, not about the solution.
Even if you think you know what’s needed, this is your opportunity to model good teaching behavior. Craft your questions carefully, stay open minded to wherever the team goes, and focus the team’s attention on finding evidence to support their ideas throughout the process.
Focus on benchmarks, not end states.
Building staff-friendly monitoring plans into the solution will allow you to regularly revisit and build in opportunities to improve.
If you’re midway through a new initiative and don’t have benchmarks set, take a time out right now from pushing forward to do a team check in and build those benchmarks. This also gives you a chance to start talking about that next incremental improvement now.
Make your job about ensuring their success, not mandating their workflow.
Instead of telling your staff “here’s what you’re going to do” ask them “how can I make it possible to for you to manifest our vision in your classroom?” This shifts the conversation from “I can’t do that” to “here’s what I need in order to do that.” Even if you get impossible requests, the door is opened to talk about what resources you could bring to bear to support your team.
Emphasize learning, not just results
Not every experiment will be a success. But there will be no improvement without experimentation. Model fearlessness by talking about things you’ve tried that didn’t work and what you learned. Talk about a new effort you are making and share the results along the way. If an experiment works, celebrate! If it doesn’t, dissect it and try to find out why, so you can make the most of every stumble.
“I can’t do one more thing!” feels like the end of the conversation. Instead, consider it the beginning. This is your opportunity to take a step back and look closely at your system. Are you building agreement on the challenges you face and the solutions to addressing them? Does your team agree on what success looks like and how you’ll know when you’ve achieved it? Does the team see you as a resource or a judge? Instead of Great New Ideas, give your staff what they really need: a sustainable culture of continuous change that they can really buy into.
 Estimated expenditure on staff salaries and benefits. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmb.asp
 Mulholland, et al, 2017
 US Bureau of Labor Statistics
 Scallon, 2016