Little Room for Growth

Little Room for Growth

Twice in the past few weeks, NPR’s Education page has featured articles examining the reasons that some teachers leave or stay in the teaching profession. Many “go-to” responses to this question of why teachers stay or leave have to do with teacher burnout, teacher pay, teacher preparedness, long hours, or the move to national standards and standardized tests. All of these may impact a teacher’s decision to stay or go, but there is a stronger force at work here, a force that Owen Phillips and Candice Norwood have elucidated for us over the past few weeks.

In their March 21, 2015 article, Phillips and Norwood reference a Gates Foundation survey that indicates only 34% of the 10,000+ teachers surveyed mention higher pay as an important factor in retaining good teachers. 68% of respondents stated that “supportive leadership” was “absolutely essential” to retaining good teachers. So the culture of a school, and the way in which leadership engages its teachers, is more important than pay.

Phillips and Norwood talked with Richard Ingersoll about this teacher retention topic, with Phillips publishing an interview on March 30, 2015. Phillips begins his interview recap by implying that teacher education programs and public school districts do not do much to prepare new teachers for the realities of their new jobs or offer any worthwhile advice other than “good luck.” Phillips repeats the idea that teacher voice and leadership is more important in dictating whether a teacher stays or goes. In the interview, Ingersoll notes that a major reason teachers quit or switch schools is that they feel they have “no say in decisions that ultimately affect their teaching.” A teacher’s notion that s/he has a voice in the overall direction of the school and his/her own classroom is imperative to that teacher staying committed to that school, or the profession.

This is important to note for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to help dispel the old canard that teachers are lazy employees clamoring for undeserved raises without accountability. As has been seen over and over in surveys of teachers around the country, and here in Hawaii, teachers generally do not argue with the need for teacher observations and evaluations, nor do they outright oppose national standards and assessments. More accurately, teachers want to feel as though they have an important, active, vital role in the direction and leadership of a school, or even a district. Too often, teachers who raise their voices are either ignored or placated, leaving many teachers to feel that they have no real control over their profession.

As I enter my tenth year as a public high school teacher, I can personally attest to the frustration many motivated teachers feel as they search around for ways to be leaders in their profession. Frequently, if their voices are not ignored, those teachers searching for leadership roles get offered department chair or team leader positions which come with little real leadership power to go with the extra paperwork. Or if not that, these teachers are pushed into traditional administrative roles. These traditional routes for teachers to become leaders, and to feel like they have a voice, only serve to further engrain the status quo in terms of school structure and culture, with admin and teachers frequently feeling like they are not on the same team or pushing towards the same goal.

We need an avenue for teachers to be part of leadership and for leaders to be teachers, educators. Instead of pushing motivated teachers into department or team chair positions, or into traditional administration, let’s make space for real hybrid roles. Let’s allow teachers to guide and shape policy before that policy gets set in stone by people outside the class. Let’s allow time and space for policy to be tried out and adjusted before districts and states make multi-year, multi-million dollar commitments. A profession that requires its teachers to monitor and adjust teaching based on real time classroom results should follow the same model of real time adjustments.

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