A message to principals, administrators, district leaders and politicians
Teaching morale is at an all time low. Just look at the #redfored demonstrations taking part across the nation. And contrary to media reports, teachers are not asking for more pay (even though in real terms a teacher in 1992 had a slightly higher salary than in 2016). They are asking for more support, more funding for their students, and smaller class sizes.
In a 2014 federal survey, only 12.5 percent of teachers that had left the profession said recognition and support from administrators was better in teaching than their new job, a steady drop from Education Department surveys carried out last decade.
(US Dept of Education: Teacher Attrition and Mobility)
There is little that can be done about funding, class sizes and pay at the site level or even district level. But there are some small changes that can be made on a local level that can have enormous impact on the retention and morale of teachers.
The most basic and easiest accomplishment. When teachers ask for help, listen. When teachers tell you they don’t know what to do, listen. When they tell you there is no heat, listen. When teachers tell you they are anxious about an upcoming parent conference, listen. Is there a solution for every problem? No. But making time to listen when your teachers have concerns shows that you value them. We have all worked in schools where if you try to talk to someone about an issue, it is brushed off. Don’t tell teachers they are worrying about nothing. Tell them that you hear them, that you will work with them and that you will check on them.
I once had a child who had behaviors that stretched my sanity. The principal told me to call the office whenever I needed to catch my breath for 5 minutes and someone would come down and watch my class. I never called, but I was so grateful to hear that. Someone understood. You can’t always offer solutions, but you can be the sounding board teachers sometimes need. Just knowing that I had a principal whose door was always open, even when I didn’t need it, felt like I worked in a caring environment and I was truly part of a team.
Small Gestures Make a Big Difference
I have worked in schools where the principal came to say hello to me and my class every day, and I have worked in schools where I never saw the principal except at meetings. Guess which one I liked best?
I have had principals who cared about our mental well-being, who came down to hug me after a protracted absence following my mom’s death. A principal who checked on me when my ex-boyfriend was nasty, and again told me to call the office if I needed anything. Principals that I have made connections with as fellow human beings, people I would hug if I saw them out and about.
I have had principals that made me sick on my stomach the moment they entered the classroom. Principals that never smiled. Principals that only talked about data. Principals who made you feel like you were walking on eggshells. Principals that made me think it was a you-and-me scenario and I was in this on my own. Principals who believed that scores were the most important measure of a person.
At a former school fellow teachers told me about a previous principal that they all remembered with love. On payday every month, he would put a little treat in their mailbox, along with their payslip. A 100 grand candy bar and a little note. They all loved that guy, and it was the candy bars they all told me about! That small personal gesture meant so much to the teachers.
Respect Teacher Work Hours
Bureaucracy is a killer. Paperwork, assessments, tests, report cards, planning. I know that when I have filled out pages worth of plans for someone else I never looked at them in the lesson. That didn’t make me a terrible teacher! I had my own planning book, an objective and content. I knew what it meant. Not sticking to the original plan (in lots of lessons) was because I needed to slow down or pep up the learning. Things happen, things break, someone throws up. I kept teaching to adapt for the circumstances. My kids learned. I wasn’t a better teacher for losing the weekend to write plans that I didn’t look at and I am pretty sure the two people I had to email them to didn’t look at them either. Teachers are professionals. They know what they are doing. They plan in their books and in their heads. It is too difficult to teach without a plan. Trust that they are planning. When curriculum leaders argue that teachers need these overly detailed plans, argue back. The first time a chef creates a recipe, she follows the recipe teaspoon by teaspoon. After she has made it once, she tweaks it, corrects it and revises it to meet her needs so that it will be better next time. Teachers do that with lessons. Stop making them reinvent the wheel.
And just a note about meetings. If you are going to show a PowerPoint slide that people can read, send it in an email. In my district teachers were at work at 7am. School finished at 2:35. Then there would be a meeting until (if we were lucky) 4pm. That’s nine hours with no lunch break or time away from students, apart from a planning slot when we were still working. That’s a long day and it wasn’t over because then I needed to go back to my room and finish grading papers and setting up for the next day. On a good day I would leave by 5:30 pm. I am not saying that faculty meetings are not important, but that they should have an objective, a beginning and middle and an end, and they should start and finish on time with pace and rigor. (See what I did there?) Maybe we should introduce “I can” statements into our faculty meetings?
Teachers in elementary schools are told what to teach, how to teach, when to teach, how long to teach it for, expected to give formative and summative assessments on pretty much everything, and have recently been given scripted lessons. One principal told his teachers that a second grader told him that he didn’t like school. And the principal told his teachers they were not making school fun enough for students. I have a solution. Let teachers take back control of how and when learning happens. Standards are necessary but let teachers decide how to teach those standards based on the knowledge they have of their students. Not based on an arbitrary spreadsheet timetable devised by someone who does not know the students, their previous learning, the class dynamics and their learning styles. Just as we need to differentiate our teaching, we need to be able to differentiate timetables and how we teach lesson content to the educational needs of students.
When I first started teaching back in the 90’s I had a mentor and a check in with the headteacher informally. It was great. This of course pre-dates standardized testing, national curriculum (I am from the UK), common core standards and NCLB. Even when I started teaching in the USA 13 years later, our principal trusted my first grade team to use state standards to plan lessons for our children.
In 2016 the majority of public school employees were not teachers. (NCES: Staff employed in public elementary and secondary school systems 2017) Since 1950, the number of students in public education has doubled. Yet the number of school staff employed has increased more than seven times the increase in students. And the majority of school staff are not in the classroom. Teachers get frustrated with messages from downtown, statisticians churning numbers, data handlers, office managers, curriculum administrators and anyone else not in the classroom and not knowing their students telling them how to do their jobs.
And a side-note to anyone carrying out observations. Observations should be meaningful, insightful and helpful. You should give immediate feedback if they are to be most effective. Using observations as a scare tactic to check if your teachers are doing what you told them they should be doing, when you told them they should be doing it and how long you told them they should be doing if for, is baloney. It undermines the profession, the respect teachers have for you, and the morale of your staff. Put the clip board or iPad down, get in the classroom and help out with a lesson if you really want to learn about what is happening in your schools.
Trust that your teachers are there because they care about the students. Trust that they work hard. Trust that they make a difference. Trust that they know what they are doing. Trust that when you leave the site for a meeting the school will carry on as normal. And ask yourself, is the school is a happier, more relaxed environment with or without you?
Mandy Bledsoe is a former elementary teacher and deputy headteacher both in the UK and the USA