For those teachers who have been in the field of education for a while, we often feel that the pendulum in the larger world of education is swinging back and forth all the time. For a few years we will head in one direction, and then for the next few years we will head back in another direction.
Why do they feel this way? There are a number of reasons for it—some are simple, while others are more complex. Here are a few:
- Changes in administrators offer new initiatives. Many leaders want to make their mark, so they adopt a new or different program. But when the leaders move along, so does the program. At one school, I started a talent show. The idea was great—kids have multiple intelligences and talents that we need to celebrate and support, not just athletic accomplishments. After a few years, it was clear that the buy-in for the concept wasn’t there for teachers since it was just me, the building principal, doing most of the organizing. Even though the concept was great (in my opinion, at least!), I’m sure that when I left the position, the talent show left as well.
- People are making money from educational investments, and no change means no money. This is probably a sad reality, but it is also a real one. The educational industry, mainly textbooks and curriculum resources, needs there to be an ebb and flow to the world of education in order to keep afloat. This isn’t good for teachers or even students most of the time, but it can be good for the bottom line of these companies.
- Politicians can move our cheese in an instant with a vote for a new program or initiative. I think most educators felt this nationwide with No Child Left Behind in 2003. But on the state level, the same thing happens frequently. “Accountability measures” will be added, and all of a sudden our focus has to shift to a test or outcome that wasn’t there before. Eventually, new politicians are elected and those change or go away, so the pendulum swings back in the other direction.
- Some of the ideas don’t work. The best example of this is probably the “whole language” movement from the late 70s and 80s. We have realized since then that the research doesn’t support that philosophy—at least in an isolated sense. The pro-phonics teachers watch the pendulum swing away from phonics instruction and then back toward it.
There are multiple reasons beyond these, but I feel it is clear that this is a substantial issue in education. This change fatigue can lead to burnout and other issues for teachers. Here are some of the downfalls to the swinging pendulum:
- Teachers feel that any change that is coming can be outlasted, which makes leading change pretty hard. As a school leader, this is the hardest part about the “educational pendulum.” Any type of change, even change for the positive, has a tinge of skepticism because of the change fatigue that they have been through. This attitude will permeate through staff as the veteran teachers tell the newer teachers that “this too shall pass.”
- Teachers feel burnt out by the amount of work it takes to make some of these changes. This can really be exhausting for teachers. When the pendulum swings one way, they work hard to invest in materials and resources that align and support this. If (and when) this changes, it can feel like the rug was pulled out from under them and their investment was for nothing.
- Many of the beliefs teachers hold come from experience, so when something changes and is “new,” it may not align with their experience. This is one of the hardest experiences for teachers. They know something isn’t the best for their students, and are being pushed to do something contrary because someone “above them” thinks it is better. Those “above them” could be government officials or administrators. These situations can add to the feeling of bring burnt out.
So, what can teachers or principals do to fight this effect and feel more in control? For some of these situations, they may be out of your control. Focus on the areas where change is possible. Voting and advocating in a professional organization can be appropriate tools to combat this. In the other situations, teachers need to embrace teacher leadership opportunities in their schools. Become part of the “above them” group! The teachers should be the leaders of change and the advocates for curriculum—even more so than district-level leaders. This can make for a much more stable pendulum and productive educational setting.
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