Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Initiatives Should Be About People

Initiative Fatigue... What Is It?

Recently I was having a professional conversation with a colleague from another state about the impact of initiatives in education. We discussed the reality that educators often feel overwhelmed because of the increasing number of initiatives within their schools or districts. As depicted in the graphic above, which represents the work of Dr. Doug Reeves, we see that as we lay new initiatives over "old" initiatives (which may in fact have been new the month or year before) and that may be pushing educators closer to overload and potentially burnout. While I am not certain that initiative overload leads to burnout, my colleague and I did discuss that initiatives often lead educators to feeling stressed, crunched for time and pushed to "cover the curriculum" because they are dealing with initiative upon initiative. 

What Is The Problem With Initiatives?

I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners. Why are initiatives in education so problematic? Here are a few reasons based on my experiences as an educator...

1) Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set... whenever I think of the initiatives I have experienced as a teacher (and even as a principal), they generally revolve around a new "research based" program, resource or system. Whether rolling out a new math textbook or an online reading program, the initiative is almost always focused on the resource and not the people implementing the resource. We consistently devote professional development to unpacking a program/resource but rarely devote time to developing the skill set of the educators within our spaces. 

2) Initiatives are piled one on top of the other... I was a teacher in a district once that, over a 2 year period, rolled out four different literacy based initiatives - FOUR initiatives in less than 20 months, which comes to about one new initiative every 5 months! Three of the initiatives were reading based and one was writing based. Yes, as teachers we appreciated the access to all these "wonderful research-based" resources but we weren't quite sure what the priority was and how we were supposed to (if we were supposed to) fit them all in throughout the day. Talk about initiative overload! 

3) Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids... I cannot count how many times in the last 20 years I have been part of an initiative that was based on a decision influenced by what "most" other schools/districts were doing instead of being influenced by the what our students needed. For example, recently I was talking to a colleague about how her district made a decision about a new phonics program for their primary grades. So, the story goes that there was a hot new phonics program many districts were using a few years ago and because the leaders in those districts raved about its impact on their students (there was no data shared - just word of mouth), the leaders in my colleague's district adopted the program and it became the next new initiative. Although the program was piloted in some classrooms, no other program was piloted so it was clear from the start that the choice had been made before the pilot even launched!

4) We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it... even though some places keep piling initiative upon on initiative on school leaders and teachers, people are shocked when educators express feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by said initiatives. Many educational leaders would argue that the one full day of professional development devoted to unpacking a new resource should be enough and thus the resource should be successfully implemented within every classroom. Unfortunately, we know that is not usually the case - one day, or even several days, of professional development are not the key to a successful initiative implementation. Does it help? Sure. Does it equate to sustainable implementation? Not necessarily!

Yes - this list can go on and on but you get the idea... initiative overload is a reality in the world of education. Unfortunately, initiative overload is not making things better for our kids instead, it is leading many educators to feel overwhelmed and burned out and neither of those are good for our kids.

How Can We Eradicate Initiative Overload?

Although I would not profess to be an expert on successful initiative implementation (in fact, I have been guilty of doing everything I described above when I was a principal), I would offer the following ways we could possibly make initiatives more sustainable, well received and successful...

1) Make the initiative about developing educators' collective skill sets and not about a program... the time has come to make the focus of new initiatives about the developing skill sets of our educators - not about the new program they are implementing. For example, if a district is recommending a new math textbook series, don't make the initiative solely about that the series and its many resources; instead, devote a significant amount of time to professional development for our educators to be more effective math teachers. Or, if a district is embracing the Teacher's College Writing/Reading Workshop, don't make the professional development solely about unpacking and implementing the Units of Study; instead, make the professional development about understanding the "gradual release of responsibility for learning" instructional model because that is the foundation of the reading and writing workshops. Make it about the people and their skills; not about the program and the many resources!

2) If a new initiative is being recommended, then offer a suggestion for what we can let go of moving forward... we can no longer expect educators to add initiative after initiative within their classrooms with no guidance or discussion about where the new initiatives fit in and what old initiatives can come out. Every beautiful garden thrives when the weeds have been removed... let's spend time pulling the weeds in education and removing what we don't need and focusing on what we believe is best for our kids!

3) Make the new initiative about doing what is best for OUR kids instead of doing what is trendy... whenever we are recommending a new initiative, it should be rooted in our own, district-wide, action research that speaks to addressing the needs of our students. We should be looking at data, discussing our students' readiness levels and informing our instructional decisions based on various details. Yes, it is easier to just implement something other people are talking about but if it is not what is best for our kids, based on whatever data we have triangulated through our action research, then we shouldn't make it our new initiative! Let's face it, any new initiative recommended solely because of what other districts are doing will be destined to fail!

4) Listen to our educational leaders and teachers when it comes to how initiatives are going and work from there... we can no longer ignore the cries of educators when they are telling us that they are stressed and overwhelmed by a new initiative because they are the people who are going to determine the outcome of the initiative. We must listen to the issues and concerns, we must discuss the successes and challenges, and we must recognize that any new initiative is unsettling because it is pushing educators to do things differently. We must recognize that we are asking educators to embrace new approaches, mindsets and techniques and that takes time to happen... it takes years to happen. If we want to see a successful initiative, then we must allow the roots to grow deep and take hold by nurturing and watering them... not by ignoring them!

While I don't have research to support all four points I am suggesting above, I am speaking from my own experience as an educator for 20 years and specifically my time as a teacher and principal. We must begin shifting our expectations and practices when it comes to new initiatives and always keep the focus on the people, not the program or resource! 

What do you think? Is initiative overload a reality? How can we address initiative overload? 


  1. Tony, loved your post! A new initiative should develop our people, not a new program. We have started a new initiative last year with a small group of teachers and provided coaching on a monthly basis and allowed the teachers collaboration time. These teachers are moving our school FORWARD because we chose to invest in them as people and professionals. It is difficult to find this time but when we are able to, we all see the results.

  2. Thanks for a really great read. I think you nail it.
    I've written a post with some of the same frustrations - but I think that your arguments are more to the point and more concrete than mine.
    If you, however, is interested in somehow similar points and frustrations about school initiative/projects you find my post 'School Improvement with PLC' here:

  3. Great post! I agree with so much of what you've said! Another program will not impact our students, but a learner-centered skill set might change pedagogical practices. I've been guilty of many of the same things as a coach and administrator, but I work hard not to help leaders make initiatives personal to their school sites- staff and student needs.Thank you for sharing.

  4. OMG Tony this is SO timely for me right now. My district is on initiative overload and teachers (and principals) are feeling it. We have several huge initiatives (all good on their own) but a lack of focus. I'm wrestling with how to balance things right now, but this post helped me see what the issues are. Thanks for sharing!