During the great Southern Snowpocalypse of 2014 I was holed up in my little garage apartment with my books and my thoughts. I had recently learned about the Minimalists and downloaded their book Everything that Remains: A Memoir which reminded me that our things are not what's most important in life. With this reminder and a little time on my hands I managed to fill several trashbags full of possessions I didn't need any more. Once the snow and ice melted, my items went to consignment, to good will, and into the trash. I had more space, more clarity, and more peace of mind.
The minimalist movement hasn't gone away, and years later The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo can be found on bedside tables everywhere of those individuals who have gone through the exercise of discovering which of their possessions spark joy in their life. I have put the KonMari method to the test in my own home with incredible results. Between the Minimalists, Marie Kondo, an countless other messages that we should be simplifying our lives, could some of this apply to our work in education?
Schools and districts have a way of adding on without ever taking away. In our houses, if we did this we would end up on Hoarders. I've worked in several school settings and this one seems to be a constant, and happens at every level of the institution. I'd love to hear from readers if they've also witnessed this phenomenon.
At the level of the classroom, a teacher may learn something new each year and continually layer that on top of the curriculum, without getting rid of older content and activities. This is how we get accused of curriculum that is a "mile wide and an inch deep". It is important as educators to continually evolve with students. If something isn't working, ditch it and find something new. Some of this is not the choice of the teacher, and they are required to add on to their existing practice through school or district policies. As professionals, educators have to sift through it all and decide what is best for the students sitting in class each day.
If you are a good employee who is ready and willing to take on any challenge-watch out. You may be asked to take on many activities that go above and beyond your call of duty. On the one hand, this can provide teachers with leadership opportunities and experiences, but on the other hand, it can lead to burnout. The best way to deal with this as an administrator is to make sure that as you are adding on to a teacher's plate, there may be something you can take away. Or at the very least you can provide assistance or support. We should constantly be scanning our schools to say, "Is this really the best use of students' and teachers' time?". If the answer is no, get rid of it.
School districts are in the unfortunate position of deciding what's best for ALL of their schools, employees, students, and families. The larger the district, the harder this becomes. Each school has its own unique personality, demographics, and likely different needs, but for financial and organizational reasons districts tend to apply the same interventions across the board. If we add on leadership and teacher turnover into the equation it can become a constant churn of layering where new initiatives are being introduced all the time. The layers continue to pile up on teachers and students.
Sometimes, the district decides on its own to try a new sweeping reform, but sometimes the state or legislature decides for all schools what is best. Districts then have to follow these policies and communicate them to all stakeholders, often with little time for explanation or buy-in.
And sometimes even the state has no control of a national policy. No Child Left Behind is the most appropriate example from my career; a national policy that shaped what we taught, how we taught it, and how it was assessed for nearly a decade.
So as we look at all of these different entities and how they apply pressure down the system for new and improved curriculum, assessment, and school reform it is no wonder that so many feel helpless to change the system. We are layering and layering new ideas, strategies, policies, experiments, assessments, curriculum, technology, textbooks, frameworks, programs, all without stopping to figure out if there are some things in our closet that we might be able to get rid of. If at every level we pause every now and then to think of what these things are, bag them up, and put them out on the curb, I think we would find ourselves working in healthier systems with a little more breathing room. When we do this, the most important, most effective, and most joyful elements of education could rise to the highest priority. Perhaps instead of looking at what we should add, we should begin looking at what we could take away.
Education careers are tough. These entries are dedicated to making the lives of educators easier and empowering those who have chosen this path to reach their potential in work and life.