Overwhelmed! Let’s listen.

The teachers in Nova Scotia have been telling us they are overwhelmed and they want change! Their union has been negotiating with our government to come to an agreement to improve working conditions. In the interim, students, parents and taxpayers are not feeling their needs are being met. When it comes to educating our children and future leaders, we all have strong beliefs about what is required. I am offering my perspective based on what I have been hearing:

Teachers are overwhelmed:

We all have beliefs about how things should be which are based in how we were raised and in what society tells us. From the Act for Education website, a few quotes tell us that teachers have interesting beliefs about what they should be able to accomplish:

“Teachers try to be everything to every student—nurturer, coach, referee, clinician. We’re everything wrapped into one.”

“My ideal classroom is where I have time for everybody, and students have everything they need to learn.”

If we are starting with the foundation that teachers should be able to accomplish this in our society, it is no wonder that teachers are overwhelmed. In addition, we have Nova Scotia’s Action Plan for Education which indicates commitment to:

  • Increased student achievement in math and literacy
  • Improved career readiness for students
  • Expanded programs and services for pre- schoolers
  • Reduced disruptive student behaviour
  • Enhanced inclusive education
  • Expanded focus on immigration and multiculturalism
  • Improved curriculum to better reflect Acadian, African Nova Scotian, Gaelic, and Mi’kmaq cultures and history
  • Increased support for teaching and learning

Teachers have to not only implement this, but they also have to measure this. And who is telling them they have to do this? Their employer, the government, who gets its direction from us, the public. We have demands of our government and they place demands on our teachers. We have keen teachers who want to do well for their students in the classroom, who are being directed to do things that divert their focus. This sounds amazingly similar to what I am experiencing in my organization and from what I read and hear, this is very similar to most organizations.

Recognize that society plays a significant role:

Think about why we feel overwhelmed. In speaking with friends, common themes come up. In most cases we feel pressure from society to be the best mom or dad, the best teacher, the best student, the best employee – and the list goes on. We receive lots of messages about what will happen if our children don’t receive the best education. Society tells us to support our kids. If I relate to my time chairing the Parent Teacher Committee at our local school, we set the goal that we wanted to enrich the learning experience of the students and build school spirit. We raised funds to bring in the Symphony, supplement teacher supplies and offer a free Christmas dinner. We recruited volunteers to wrap gifts for a gift exchange and build garden boxes. We were busy doing things we believed were important. We accepted what parents and teachers offered and people seemed engaged. Perhaps this added to the stress but everyone seemed aligned to the purpose. My most significant frustration on the PTC was dealing with a committee we formed to support the curriculum outcomes and provincial testing. I think at the time we had to focus on literacy over math. I didn’t understand the verbiage, the work didn’t engage students, teachers seemed to have a hard time interpreting the results, parents definitely didn’t care and the process did nothing to build a school community. I recall the only time I argued with our highly engaged principal was when we discussed how our committee could support teachers to find time to complete the paperwork. If principals want to be the best principals, they have to support the direction they are given. And he was asking me for support. My thought was why are we even doing this. Perhaps I should have escalated the issue at the time. Perhaps it is time that we, as the public, tell the government that we don’t need the formality of an Action Plan for Education. Hmmm. Perhaps it is time for us to tell the government that we are ok with just letting the teachers teach. But if we tell them that, we have to do our part to support them as a community.

Encourage and support our leaders to hold the group:

Politicians want to create change in their communities. They want to work for us and support their constituents. The reality is that if they don’t do what we ask, they won’t get reelected. So when do we go to our politicians? When we believe things are broken and we want them fixed. At this point, it tends to be highly charged and reactive energy. So the politicians try to keep us, the public, happy with action plans (as above) to show they are doing something about the situation. The implementation of these plans involves change, resulting in stress. Starting at the top and cascading down, each respective leader has to be able to communicate and engage their team or group (MLA’s, union representatives, principals, etc.) on purpose and direction. If the direction is too much (or wrong) and then rolled out, it becomes very difficult to hold the group. Leaders have to listen to all levels of the organization to understand dynamics and support accordingly.

Recognize our reactions are normal and it requires individual, personal work:

I get overwhelmed and it’s not pleasant for me nor for those around me. For me, I feel the reaction mainly in my chest and I can feel a pressure build. I tend to release it with an angry comment which is not always beneficial to the situation. I have learned to recognize the situations when this feeling occurs so I can become aware of what is truly driving that reaction. I have come to realize that different situations are triggered by different past experiences. We each have unique experiences which trigger us to react in current situations. Perhaps overreact. If we can recognize this, we can start to work on what is bothering us and let it go.

For anyone involved in contract negotiations, you will recognize that the reactive, acrimonious nature paralyzes organizations. It damages relationships and creates barriers that last long after the agreement is signed. It contributes to the feeling of being overwhelmed. I propose that we all have our individual work to do. This perspective is based on my lessons in Logosynthesis® with Dr. Willem Lammers and it has helped me immensely in coping with overwhelming change within my organization over the past few years. I haven’t been able to change the organization but I have been able to change the way I feel so that I can show up everyday with (somewhat of) a focus on doing what needs to be done. I don’t have it all mastered yet but I continue to work on my reactions. It is a very interesting journey. For further information, check out these videos and this book. It’s intriguing!

A call for action:

Based on my experience as a parent and an employee, we need to let go of the process to focus on work that matters by engaging the school community to support learning. To accomplish this, we require that our teachers have their resources available to engage. That is, they own their personal work to their reactions and we create a space where they can teach.  As I write this, I realize I am advocating for moving beyond the collective agreement (I guess at this point sign it and move on), letting go of the focus on the ‘Action Plan’ and allowing teachers the ability leverage their professional expertise to continue to enhance our school community.