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Overwhelm is the fact or feeling of not being able to cope or deal with something.

Collins Dictionary

The headline in a paper this week, quotes a new report from MFAT that says the ‘Future looks grim“. The report details what MFAT believes Kiwis should know about risks to NZ’s security, and that conflict in our region ‘could occur’. According to the report the globe is experiencing “heightened strategic tensions and considerable levels of disruption and risk“, with New Zealand just as affected as others due to its interconnectedness, the changing nature of the Pacific and the evolution of new threats. Grim reading indeed!

All of this on top of the disruptions we have faced through pandemics, weather events, political unrest and the impact of rising interest rates and housing (un)affordability! It really is a bit overwhelming.

As if that’s not enough, in education there’s yet another avalanche of disruption and change being experienced as a result of declining achievement in key areas, the introduction of a new curriculum, changes in assessment practices, changes in PLD allocations plus ongoing issues with truancy and low levels of learner engagement – just to name a few.

No wonder educators are feeling overwhelmed and looking to other career options. According to NZ’s Newshub teachers are leaving in droves currently. And not just in New Zealand. The USA Today reports that the number of teachers quitting has hit a new high, with one teacher quoted as saying ‘I just found myself struggling to keep up’.

Understanding the perceptions teachers have about all of this was the focus of a recent FutureMakers report titled Roadblocks and Drivers, which provides an analysis of the responses received through submissions to an online survey posted on the FutureMakers website in early 2023. The analysis reveals a comprehensive list of perceived drivers and roadblocks in our system, highlighting a range of complex and interconnected issues. The most prevalent challenges reported include:

  • initiative overload leading to fatigue and lack of follow-through
  • inadequate resources in terms of staffing and funding,
  • resistance to change driven by a focus on tradition, and
  • difficulties related to leadership, such as vision deficits and poor communication.

One word that sums up the feeling across all of the responses received is overwhelm. While it’s true to say that the notion of overwhelm has been impacting many for a number. of years now, the evidence in the survey analysis reinforces the view of may others that the level of change and disruption being faced in our profession (and society) is escalating rapidly, and is also becoming increasing diverse – impacting us on many fronts.

The survey responses paint a picture of teachers who are facing an increasingly challenging and overwhelming environment in schools. They are bombarded with a multitude of new initiatives and requirements, not giving them time to reflect or renew their energies. They are also overwhelmed by the constantly changing demands from parents and communities, and the evolving behaviours and learning needs of their students. This overwhelming situation can lead to a sense of paralysis within the education system.

This sense of overwhelm is captured in the following from one respondent:

“It’s just too busy. There never seems to be enough time to do the day to day job as well as learn new and better ways. When under pressure, we often revert to old ways. Teachers don’t fully adopt new ways because they don’t really understand the why and how….and they don’t get a chance to spend time on these. Usually they do want to do things better, but get caught up in their day to day work and have no capacity for more.”

Some respondents referred to the notion of ‘burden’ – the sense that everything is being added to what they are already doing, and that there really needs to be a ’letting go’ of things that they are already doing in order to create space and have the freedom to change. Others raised concerns over change initiatives occurring on multiple fronts of activity, often overlapping or causing conflict.

Addressing this level of ‘overwhelm’ must surely have to be a key focus of our system leaders you would think. But what we see at present appears to be even more layers of disruption and change being imposed – most of it appearing as a re-hash of previously tried (and failed) approaches. As Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!” My concern is that Continuing to do what we’ve always done and expecting better results is not only a sign of insanity, it is depriving our young people of their future!

Continuing to do what we’ve always done and expecting better results is not only a sign of insanity, it is depriving our young people of their future.

Fortunately the survey responses weren’t all negative. There were some useful suggestions provided in the responses, offering some ways to address the issue of ‘overwhelm’ including:

  1. Streamline initiatives and requirements: Rather than overwhelming teachers with a constant influx of changes, focus on implementing a few well-thought-out initiatives that have a proven track record of effectiveness.
  2. Provide targeted professional development and support: This may include mentoring, coaching and wellbeing programmes to provide guidance and help teachers cope with the demands they face.
  3. Foster more collaboration: This reduces the burden on individual teachers and allows them to leverage collective knowledge and support.
  4. Prioritise well-being and work-life balance: Provide resources and support for managing stress and burnout. Encourage schools to adopt policies that promote reasonable workloads and create opportunities for self-care and rejuvenation.
  5. Engage stakeholders in decision-making: When stakeholders feel heard and valued, it can reduce the sense of overwhelm and foster a sense of ownership and collective responsibility.
  6. Research and evidence-based practices: Ensure that initiatives, requirements, and interventions are based on sound research and evidence. Avoid adopting trends or fads without a solid foundation.
  7. Advocate for systemic change: We must recognise that the sense of ‘overwhelm’ experienced by teachers may be indicative of broader systemic issues within the education system.

None of the things on this list will come as a surprise. In fact, I’d recognise most as being the things I observe in the practice of some of our more effective school leaders as they provide leadership for their staff and communities through these times of change.

In times of crisis and overwhelm one would look to the leadership at a system level and in our schools for a strong and robust response, but it would seem that this sort of practice is not uniformly experienced. This may have something to do with the quality and experience (or lack of) of our current school leadership.

A recent ERO report has found that a third of principals in our schools have less than five years of experience. It also notes the difficulty in recruiting and retaining quality leadership at principal level. How can we expect great leadership in times of disruption where the depth of experience simply isn’t there? This is yet another indicator that we have an education leadership crisis in our country.

Sure, there’s always the exception to the rule, the outstanding individual who has been well mentored and understands intuitively what to do when faced with complex issues or a crisis event, but they are a small minority. Good leadership becomes great on the basis of experience – in the same way a good athlete becomes great through putting in the ‘hard yards’ of training in all circumstances.

One thing is for certain – there is no returning to the (imagined) stable state of what we experienced in the past. Research suggests that this is a sign of an inexperienced leader – that when the chips are down they resort to using strategies they remember having experienced, and not the sorts of things that evidence is suggesting need to be employed in a VUCA world. We see evidence of this on a daily basis it seems, particularly right at the moment as the political parties are putting forth their ‘solutions’ for what they see as a failing system. These are yet more examples of what I wrote about in a previous post listing signs of system and organisational distress.

What can leaders do?

Two thoughts as suggestions occur to me. There’s no silver bullet here, but we can take responsibility for the things that fall within our locus of control, so here they are:

  1. Start by acknowledging that the sense of ‘overwhelm’ that your staff and community may be feeling is a natural response to the pressures they may be feeling from the continual barrage of change initiatives and demands that come with that. It isn’t their fault or a sign of weakness. But it can be addressed.
  2. Next, make time for your own personal reflection and become self-aware as a leader. The minute you find yourself falling back into the ‘old ways’ or defending actions that are indefensible, stop! Seek support, seek guidance and seek the assistance from those who can help you work through what you need to do with a fresh set of eyes.
  3. Then, determine to do something to address this. The list of actions above provide a pretty useful starting point. Read each carefully and consider how you could take some positive steps to make this a reality in your context. Don’t waste valuable time trying to create a comprehensive plan that has everything covered before you start – just do it, reflect often and change as required. If you can’t think of anything, don’t give up – seek the counsel of a wise colleague, listen to what they have to say. And make time for some professional reading as a way of understanding what successful leaders are doing in other contexts.
  4. Finally, understand that the pace of change that we’re currently experiencing isn’t likely to ease, and that our traditional ways of managing change are simply not fast enough or effective enough to keep up, let alone get ahead of the situation. We have to do things differently – starting with letting go of some of our sacred cows of management (e.g. complex bureaucracies, top-down management, positional authority, organisational silos, KPI-driven performance etc.) and be prepared to embrace experimentation, risk taking and learn from failures. Look to release staff to pursue short-cycle experiments that empower them to discover new ways of working where the old ones aren’t. But make sure as you’re doing this, you have a clear eye on the horizon, and are mission-led in your leadership style, and not tangled down in the weeds.

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