Often, added workload comes in the form of additional school-wide expectations or district directives. While these duties and requirements are almost certainly well-intended, they may be misinformed. Nobody wants teachers to be overwhelmed, and that includes leadership. However, school and district leaders may be tasked with new initiatives that require the involvement of teachers and other system stakeholders. Many times, these undertakings cannot be avoided; however, it is also possible that insufficient communication among stakeholders can unnecessarily add to teacher stress and workload. There is no magic solution to these systemic stressors on workload. However, robust communication and collaborative problem-solving can often minimize unintentional and negative impacts. Here are a few strategies to consider as a school or system to help keep workload in check.
Rather than relying on a top-down approach to initiative planning, ask teachers and staff what they need. By asking this question, you increase the odds that new initiatives and staff efforts will be targeted to their needs. At times, there may be state and federal mandates that must be fulfilled. Even in these cases, it is helpful to ask staff what they need to meet these mandates. Much like we would do with students, we should assess where our staff is and give them only what they need. Providing training on skills teachers already possess is a waste of time. Once again, this comes down to consistent, honest, and open communication. Of course, if you ask for input, it’s important to honor that input and apply it to your implementation plan.
It’s just as important to build positive and healthy relationships and work culture with co-workers as it is with students. When we build relationships and learn to trust each other, we communicate more frequently and honestly. We also solve problems more effectively together, and stakeholders nearly always feel more included and empowered. A positive work culture goes a long way to preventing burnout. Part of this positive culture should include a sincere value for self-care. This should not simply be lip service. It should be reflected in practices that honor staff time and well-being.
Email can be easily overused and abused, but it’s also a great alternative to having a meeting. If agenda items are read-only, they can be sent out in an email. There is no need to bring people together just to have them sit and listen. One-way dissemination of information can happen electronically, allowing staff to review it when it best works into their schedules. This flexibility and professional respect are empowering and help reduce workload. Of course, this process comes with an implicit agreement by staff to faithfully read the communication. If a face-to-face meeting is called, it should necessitate people being together. In-person meetings are most beneficial for discussions, brainstorming, problem-solving, and community building. A good rule is to ask: What must be done in person, and what can be done through electronic communication?
This comes down to needs and systems. First, determine what record-keeping is needed. Then, choose the most efficient system for facilitating this record-keeping process. Can one program be used to meet multiple needs? If yes, this saves everyone time. Do you really need to collect that information? If not, eliminate it. Sometimes, we continue old practices because we’ve never taken the time to review why they were started in the first place. It’s possible that those needs are no longer relevant.
Can any of the data be collected automatically? If data can be pulled from existing systems without manual input, that can be a huge time-saver. Also, be aware of any information collection that is a duplication of efforts. For instance, don’t have parents provide the same contact information in multiple places when they enroll students in a school or program. Strive to streamline systems to be more efficient. Part of this process includes eliminating any unnecessary bureaucracy.
While we all need to continue growing in our profession, one-and-done professional learning sessions are generally ineffective. In these types of trainings, staff typically gathers for a morning, takes notes, has a few conversations, and then moves on with the task of teaching. In these situations, teachers often never think about that stand-alone presentation again.
To honor staff time and make professional learning more effective, it should be ongoing and job-embedded. This ensures that this time is not wasted, increases the likelihood that learning will be retained, and connects it to the practical aspects of our jobs by embedding it authentically into what we do. Having effective professional learning reduces workload by making new learning more efficient and meaningful to our jobs.
Have a conversation about the best use of email as a building or system. What should it be used for, and what uses should be avoided? Are there protocols for which topics are appropriately communicated through email? How frequently should email be used? Can messaging be consolidated into fewer messages? What subject labeling system can be used to help users quickly scan their inboxes for priority items? For instance, could bracketed tags be used in subject lines to call out certain types of information? Tags such as these can give context to a message before it’s read. Examples might include [due Friday], [support staff only], [optional opportunity], [urgent], [volunteer requested], [tech tip], and so on.
If everything is important, nothing is important. Less is more. We’ve probably all heard these statements before because there is truth in them. When our attention is divided among many tasks (especially when we don’t see their relevance), we are less effective. Rather than doing a fair to poor job on ten school-wide goals, it’s usually better to focus on two or three outcomes and do a quality job with each. This is a meaningful way to take something off the plate and increase staff effectiveness on a narrowed list of goals. Of course, it’s important that these focused goals are crucial and that stakeholders agree on their importance. Generally, quality communication is the best way to ensure this works effectively.