Initiative fatigue: How to keep your educators energized as COVID drags on

'Be careful saying 'yes' to anything new,' one leadership expert recommends
By: | November 5, 2021

Initiative fatigue was weighing on administrators and teachers years before COVID and, like most other challenges, that weariness has been amplified by the pandemic.

Complicating things further is that many educators had expected an easier school year when vaccinations became widely available and cases dropped earlier this summer, says Jonathan Eckert, a professor of educational leadership at the Baylor Center for School Leadership.

“The fall really wrong-footed a lot of leaders,” Eckert says. “They expected one thing and got something else. By the first week of school, they felt like they were already two to three months into the school year—that’s how tired they were.”

To counter that exhaustion and not exacerbate initiative fatigue, leaders should winnow down their priorities to academics and social-emotional learning. Schools will be more effective if self-disciplined administrators identify two or three things to stop doing, Eckert says.

“Be careful saying ‘yes’ to anything new, even if it’s something you would have said ‘yes’ to in a typical school year,” he says. “Stop adding and start eliminating—that is the ‘no’ in ‘innovate.’ ”

This school year, central office and building administrators have prioritized the well-being of students and staff to ensure classes can focus on achievement. Initiatives that don’t support those two concepts should be shelved, Eckert recommends.

The decision-making process will be easier and more productive if leaders collaborate with teachers and staff to develop a share—and limited—set of goals.

“The simple decisions of the past, like how to get buses to and from school, how to get extracurricular events up and running—all of those are taking decisional capital and coming with significant political fallout from parents and community members,” Eckert says. “It’s hard to take a step back to focus on what’s most important because you’re victim to the tyranny of the urgent.”

COVID is causing the most fatigue

Some administrators say many planned initiatives have taken a backseat to managing COVID outbreaks, quarantines and staff shortages. “We wouldn’t mind being able to work on some new initiatives,” says Mikkel Storaasli, superintendent of Grayslake Community High School District 127 north of Chicago. “COVID is really taking a lot of energy out of schools right now. It’s a daily struggle to keep schools open.”

Storaasli says the burden of masks has at least been taken off administrators’ shoulders by Illinois’ statewide mandate.

On a related note, politics is now disrupting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives schools have tried to implement amidst COVID’s ordeals. “What’s making it even more tricky right now is a number of the initiatives districts would like to move forward have to do with equity,” Storaasli says. “That’s becoming more politically charged and more and more difficult to do without having more people show up at board meetings yelling and screaming. I think that’s just going to get worse.”

Still, his district is placing a high priority on supporting the social-emotional learning of students having trouble readjusting after so much time spent in remote learning. Some students, after missing up to two years of in-person instruction, have had trouble readjusting.

“Some of them, their maturity is not where we would expect it to be, and behavior in the hallways and at events has been a challenge,” he says. “For many of our students and adults, the last year and a half has been trauma. We’re trying to manage that and figure out what they’re struggling with.”

Storaasli is also focused on staff well-being. For instance, he has encouraged his employees not to send out emails after-hours or over the weekends. “We need to give our people time to shut down or they will run themselves into the ground,” he says. “We know the non-negotiables that need to get done, and then we’re making sure teachers are spending time with their own kids and taking care of their health.”

Tallying up the initiatives

Administrators worried about overwhelming their systems can perform initiative audits, says Matt Townsley a former administrator and now an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa.

For instance, while ESSER is helping expand the scope of social-emotional learning, the funds haven’t created more time in the day, a problem that’s been exacerbated by the nationwide substitute shortage.

Also, schools in recent years have taken on a greater role in feeding students, building career pathways and integrating character development. “It’s the law of initiative fatigue: initiatives go up while time and resources stay the same or go down,” Townsley says.

In an initiative audit, district teams can list their expectations and ask focused questions about what initiatives should continue or start anew. “If that list is more than four to six things, it’s almost impossible to provide meaningful support to educators and to monitor it,” he says. “Now is a time when building and district leaders ought to give themselves permission to say, ‘That is a great idea, but not right now because of what our students and staff are experiencing.'”

Preventing initiative fatigue is all about trade-offs, says leadership consultant Peter Gorman. “For everything you add, find something you can consider dropping,” says Gorman, former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina.

When an administrator, teacher or other staff member proposes a new initiative, they should also have to show how it is aligned to a priority in the district’s strategic plan or school improvement plan. They also need to prove there’s money to pay for it, he says. “District should be using this moment as an opportunity to finally go back and ask what are we doing that’s not core,” he says. “In education, we’re terrible at shedding, and this can help us shed activities.”

That, however, also requires communicating clearly with parents. “It’s tough for a superintendent, principal or teacher to sit down with a parent and say, ‘Let me tell you what we’re not going to do for your children because we’re too busy’—no parents want to hear that,” Gorman says. “It requires a delicate balancing act that is both substance and style.”