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September 7, 2022
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How De-Implementation Can Curb Educator Burnout

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Reducing or replacing “low-value” practices gives educators more time to spend on what matters.

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How De-Implementation Can Curb Educator Burnout
Credit: jiunn / shuttterstock
In her wildly popular book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo shows us that clutter gets in the way of living our best and most authentic lives. However, what we all need to understand is that it’s not just our personal lives where organizing, and decluttering are important. Our professional lives need to be sorted out as well.  
Whether we are talking about reducing the number of assessments our students take or the amount of homework given in the classroom, identifying content and strategies that will be more impactful, or replacing initiatives at the school and district level that are harmful to student learning (like zero-tolerance policies), there is no better time than now to focus on the process of de-implementation. For too long, teachers and leaders have experienced outsized workloads, and the related anxiety and stress is taking its toll. 
In a 2020 study of school principals, for example, working conditions—including an untenable workload—were cited as one of the biggest contributing factors to leadership turnover (Levin et al., 2020). COVID-19 only compounded the already high levels of burnout experienced among teachers, social workers, school psychologists, and building and district leaders. In an Education Week article (Will, 2021), 78 percent of teachers reported being more stressed in the fall of 2021 than they had been in the fall of 2020, before vaccines were made available. Study after study, in country after country, finds that stress, anxiety, and unmanageable workloads are growing issues in schools—and they’re leading to a mass exodus. Much of this increased workload may be contributed to new programs and initiatives schools take on from year to year, but we often contribute to our increased workload by engaging in actions that just don’t work.  
One way to alleviate, or at least minimize educators’ workload, is to evaluate which activities and initiatives are impactful and reduce or replace the ones that no longer serve us or our students well. This process is referred to as de-implementation, and teachers, leaders, policymakers, and all education stakeholders need to engage in de-implementation conversations.  

Abandoning Low-Value Practices

Bodegom-Vos et al. (2017) define de-implementation as the process of “abandoning existing low-value practices.” In my experience, people sometimes mistake the word “abandoning” as merely getting rid of something, but abandoning may also mean replacing ineffective practices with practices that can be much more impactful.  
De-implementation research originated in the medical field, where healthcare initiatives that wasted resources or delivered no benefit to patients were replaced. De-implementation research then expanded to the field of school psychology where researchers looked at practices that also wasted resources or were even harmful to students. McKay et al. (2018) define de-implementation in an education context as “the discontinuation of interventions that should no longer be provided.”  
But what is a “low-value practice” and which interventions should “no longer be provided?” Farmer et al. (2018) suggest that low-value practices are those practices that: 
  1. have not been shown to be effective and impactful,  
  2. are less effective or impactful than another available practice,  
  3. cause harm, or  
  4. are no longer necessary. 
One of the key areas in school psychology that Farmer and his team have suggested de-implementing, or in this case partially reducing, is the discrepancy model, which is used in some schools to determine if a student qualifies for special education services.  
Abandoning low-value practices means having robust conversations where teachers and leaders develop a common understanding around words such as effective and impactful. For example, if you’re a principal who requires teachers to hand in their lesson plan books every three weeks out of compliance (or habit), but you often don’t have time to look at them all, perhaps the requirement needs to go away.   
These conversations can help elevate the voices of teachers, which often increases their motivation and sense of agency. Although the de-implementation process may require heavy lifting in the beginning, it can help contribute to a positive school culture in the long-term.  

1. What Can You Partially Reduce? 

A partial reduction is exactly what it sounds like—eliminating the fluff—and it can be extremely beneficial. When I work with instructional leadership teams, they typically seek out efficiencies in two areas: checking email and attending meetings. Email sounds like such an anticlimactic place to begin a partial reduction, but the reality is that so many of us are tied to our phones and feel like we have to check our email every hour on the hour. This can take us away from more impactful work at school like co-planning with others or taking time to reflect on a lesson as a teacher or formal observation as a school leader. Plus, when we engage in this constant checking of email at home, we’re being robbed of quality time with our family and friends.  
One of the easiest actions educators can take when it comes to email is to set up an automated response. For example, this response might notify others that you will check email once in the morning, once around noon, and once in the late afternoon before you go home to disconnect and spend time with your family. In my work, I have met countless teachers and leaders who are beginning to engage in this practice.  
A second area of partial reduction is meetings, which have been a thorn in the side of teams I work with all around the world. Leaders and educators confide that they meet several times a week, but many times those meetings don’t amount to new learning. They also take staff away from more impactful work like lesson planning and engaging in walkthroughs or learning walks. I have had directors at the district office level confess that they feel the pressure to add agenda items to K-12 administration meetings because they feel they need to say more.  
If people are going to make the effort to meet, then they need to feel that the meeting is worthwhile. Questions to ask before a meeting are: 
  • What are our success criteria for the meeting? Meaning, what will we be learning together during the meeting, and what tangible goals are being met by meeting?  
  • How will this meeting lead to a deeper understanding of a challenge we are facing or a goal we are trying to achieve?  
  • Does this meeting inspire dialogue among the participants, or is this meeting merely a convening in which one person does all of the talking, and everyone else has to sit and listen?  
If most meetings are not a venue where people can answer the above questions in a positive way, then perhaps it’s a time to partially reduce the number of meetings being held.  
These two examples—email and meetings—are what I refer to as informal de-implementation methods because they do not require a formal process to enact. Other examples of things teachers and leaders are partially reducing is that of making students take weekly assessments that do not inform teaching practices or decreasing the amount of time they spend afterschool.  The second option for schools, to replace something altogether, is an example of what I refer to as a formal method of de-implementation, because it will take some planning. 

One of the easiest actions educators can take when it comes to email is to set up an automated response.

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2. What Can You Replace? 

Replacing ineffective practices often seems to send a mixed message to educators when it comes to de-implementation. People often believe de-implementation is about getting rid of stuff, but the reality is that de-implementation is about no longer engaging in actions that aren’t impactful. After all, Farmer provides criteria that suggests we need not engage in actions that may cause harm, but in certain cases those actions that cause harm do need to be replaced with something more effective.  
Consider these two examples. The first is a school district that is transitioning from traditional grading to standards-based grading. Grading, as we all know, is a complicated and heated topic of discussion in schools. Over the years, more and more schools have been transitioning to standards-based grading to create more consistent and equitable grading practices. 
The second example is discipline, which is being looked at in a whole new way in many schools. More and more schools are replacing zero-tolerance policies with more equitable and responsive discipline approaches such as restorative justice, because zero-tolerance policies often cause students harm. 
In most cases, standards-based grading and restorative justice are implemented to replace practices that have not been shown to be effective or impactful. In the short term, this is where de-implementation will take some formal work, but the long-term payoff is that teachers and leaders will then engage in practices that are less harmful to students and will create a more inclusive climate with a deeper focus on learning. Plus, there are some immediate efficiencies: When teachers give fewer assessments, for example, less time is spent on testing and grading, which means more time can go to collaborative student work. Similarly, if students are no longer sent out of the classroom for minor offenses (e.g., I have seen students sent down to the office for talking in class or not having their homework completed), they won’t miss out on important content and learning, which means less documentation and makeup work. 
Through this formal de-implementation process, teachers and leaders engage in discussions that will create a common language and a common understanding around the true meaning of discipline, assessment, and grading, and there is no downside to that.  
In both aforementioned cases, a formal de-implementation process is necessary, because grading and discipline have an impact on every child in the school community, and changes in these areas often require a committee to work on because both grading and discipline are so embedded in the culture of the school.  
To engage in a formal de-implementation process, PLC’s, instructional leadership teams, and district leadership teams may want to use one or more of the following tools: 
  • Program logic model: Logic models can help teams do their best thinking when it comes to planning out a theory of action around grading or discipline: gather research, plan activities, commit to a timetable, and define the ultimate impact their replacement action would have on students.  
  • De-implementation checklist: This checklist allows teacher or leadership teams to do their best thinking around whether the de-implementation is warranted, whether a partial reduction or replacement is needed (based on evidence gathered), and what the team’s next steps should be (e.g., engaging in empathy interviews with students to understand how an initiative has impacted them in the past). In the case of formal de-implementation, the checklist can act as an important conversation tool. (See my book for a full de-implementation checklist). 
  • Pacing chart: Pacing charts help teams understand how long the de-implementation may take, but they also help staff meet important milestones in the replacement of ineffective practices. When we think of an example like standards-based grading, we might begin the de-implementation process by engaging in backwards planning by developing our ultimate goal with grading, and plan backwards from there.  
These tools in the de-implementation process are meant to help develop clarity around the process, and more clarity usually leads to a better understanding and less anxiety.  

It’s Your Turn

We know that levels of burnout and anxiety in schools are high, and morale is low. Much of this is out of our hands, but we have to set aside time to vet the actions and programs that we can change. De-implementation is about allowing teachers and leaders to take back some control in their classrooms and schools—to feel heard—and to define together what is truly worth their time. When we declutter our practices, abandon those that don’t serve us or our students well, and focus on what works, we begin to remember why we entered into education in the first place—to impact student learning.   
References

Bodegom-Vos, L. V., Davidoff, F., & Marang-van de Mheen, P. J. (2017). Implementation and de- implementation: Two sides of the same coin? BMJ quality & safety, 26(6), pp. 495-501.  

DeWitt, P. (2021). Collective leader efficacy: Strengthening instructional leadership teams. Corwin Press/Learning Forward. 

Farmer, R. L., Zaheer, I., Duhon, G. J., & Ghazal, S. (2021). Reducing low-value practices a functional-contextual consideration to aid in de-implementation efforts. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 36(2):153-165. 

Levin, S., Scott, C., Yang, M., Leung, M., Leung-Gagné, M., & Bradley, K. (2020). Supporting a strong, stable principal workforce: What matters and what can be done. NASSP and the Learning Policy Institute.  

McKay, V. R., Morshed, A. B., Brownson, R.C., Proctor, E. K., & Prusaczyk, B. (2018, September). Letting go: Conceptualizing intervention de-implementation in public health and social service settings. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62(1-2), pp. 189-202.   

Will, M. (2021, June 15). Teachers are more likely to experience depression symptoms than other adults. Education Week. 

Peter DeWitt is a former K-5 teacher and principal. He is a school leadership coach and author of many education books, including his latest De-implementation: Creating Space to Focus on What Works (Corwin, 2022). He writes the Finding Common Ground blog and moderates the webshow “A Seat at the Table” for Education Week.  




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