How to Keep Teachers Happy

A recent Atlantic article by Liz Riggs really nailed it in terms of what drives teacher job satisfaction and retention.

In the article, Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania (and former algebra and social studies teacher), says his research has shown that [how] administration deals with both students and teachers has a “huge effect” on teacher satisfaction…[and] “buildings in which teachers have more say – their voice counts – have distinctly better teacher retention.”

YES. A MILLION TIMES YES.

Specifically, he names how administrators deal with student behavioral issues, and regular, supportive communication with teachers as integral to keeping good teachers.

Ask a teacher, and she can probably tell you about a time she felt “thrown under the bus” by an administrator more worried about keeping parents and kids happy – and avoiding lawsuits – than student learning.

Ask a teacher, and she can probably tell you about a time she felt bullied by a parent, student or administrator – or all of the above.

blameteachers

But what can administrators do, realistically, to make teachers feel they’re valued members of a school community? What could keep teachers eager to participate in school life, and supportive of inevitable changes within a school?

It’s true that threats from parents, preserving a school’s reputation and policies like Common Core and SGOs must be addressed. New initiatives are often beyond the control of administrators as well.

But there are incredibly important things that principals and department chairs can do to win the hearts and minds of faculty, mitigate teacher turnover and thus improve the quality of education students receive.

Here are some of them:

1. Try to understand problems with students from the teacher’s perspective. In many cases, teachers want to uphold a department- or school-wide policy — on lateness, attendance or plagiarism, let’s say — but face accusations and exception-making instead of support. Instead of thinking, Why is this teacher causing a problem for me? consider: How is this situation affecting the teacher’s ability to do his job? What can I do to help?

2. Pick your battles. Is it more important to uphold a no-jeans policy, or for teachers to move around comfortably in the classroom? What would really happen if lesson plans weren’t submitted on time?

3. Follow best teaching practices. For faculty meetings, show that you also understand what makes for an effective activity or presentation, including thoughtful planning, engaging questions and knowing your audience. A poorly delivered PowerPoint or boring video will feel like a slap in the face to teachers who spend hours perfecting their lessons for the classroom. Just like the students they teach, teachers will really listen if you make the effort to engage them.

4. Do what you can to let teachers teach, and try to acknowledge when something is making this harder. As I said before, sometimes administrators have to deliver directives for teachers to follow, even if they don’t agree with them, either. Other times, it is within the administration’s power to change, or at least acknowledge, new tasks that are time-wasting or contradictory. Changing the tone of an announcement from admonishing to sympathetic, for example, could make a significant difference in teacher buy-in.

5. Talk to them. Teachers really appreciate administrators who make a concerted effort to get to know them beyond mass e-mails or “hellos” in the hallway. Something as simple as, “How is your day going?” will mean a lot to first-year teachers and veteran teachers alike – and could help you understand what’s really going in the classroom.

Teachers, which of these actions would make (or has made) the most difference to you?

If I failed to mention something, please add your thoughts to the comments. Thanks!

Related
Why Half of the Nation’s New Teachers Can’t Leave the Classroom Fast Enough. (ConversationED)

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Dicker-Brandeis, Redux / Badass Teachers, Past and Present

One

Last week, I wrote about Freidl Dicker-Brandeis as the first subject in a new series on great teachers in history.

But then I realized, Dicker-Brandeis wasn’t just “great.” She was a badass. Here’s why:

1. She helped hundreds of children cope with the soul-crushing conditions of living in a ghetto during the Holocaust, forced to live separately from their parents and facing down their own deaths.

2. Before being sent to Auschwitz, Dicker-Brandeis had the foresight to hide two suitcases full of her students’ art so they wouldn’t be destroyed by the Nazis. If she hadn’t done so, we would have lost 4,500 testaments to the power of art to create hope and humanity in the worst of circumstances.

3. To prepare for teaching in the Terezin ghetto, she brought largely art supplies with her, instead of personal belongings and other survival items.

4. She was an accomplished artist in her own right — a student of the Bauhaus movement who studied under famous figures like Paul Klee. Here are two of her paintings.

5. Some of her students went on to become respected artists themselves. Georg Eisler and Edith Kramer are two now-famous students she taught while still living in Prague.

Two

I’m hereby renaming the series Badass Teachers in History. This is also a conscious choice to draw an alliance between history and the present — namely, efforts by groups like the Badass Teachers Association to fight education “reforms” that destroy individuality, creativity, and teacher morale in public schools.

And thanks to the Twitterers (Tweeters?) over at the Zinn Education Project, I have a whole bunch more Badass Teachers in History to write about.

Life After Teaching, Part Two: Four Reasons Why I Miss Teaching

Since the last post about Rose’s Life After Teaching,  Ellie Rubinstein’s video resignation from teaching went viral. In the video, Rubinstein is visibly distraught to leave what she loves.

 It hasn’t been a clean break for Rose, either. Though her current office job is much more stable than her past life as a high school biology teacher, she considers what’s lost by leaving education in today’s post.

Why I miss teaching:

1. I miss crafting lessons.

Everywhere I went — the supermarket, vacation, an art museum, you name it — I was always on the lookout for “treasure” – things I could use to make learning biology more exciting for my students.

While visiting the Clearwater Aquarium in Florida, for example, I was so inspired by the aquarium’s work with Winter, the injured dolphin later featured in the movie, Dolphin Tale, that I spent an hour talking with representatives there about the importance and impact of educational materials (which they didn’t have). And, even though I was on vacation, I loved thinking about all the lessons I could generate from this experience.

Winter the dolphin

Winter the dolphin

In addition to planning for my students, I also miss sharing my lessons with colleagues. I miss talking to people who are as passionate about teaching science as I am. I miss working with them to improve my lessons, to improve our school, and to improve the education system.

2. I miss the students (most of them).

I miss talking with the students, getting to know them, and helping them learn a subject that I love. As cheesy as it may sound, students’ “aha” moments are like shooting stars. If you aren’t looking at the right time, at the right student, you might miss them. And if you catch one, it’s like nothing else.

I miss the good, unexpected moments, too — like when the class shares a joke, students thank you for your help, or say that your teaching inspired them.

I even miss the (seemingly) off-topic discussions.

One time, we were studying types of muscles and a student, very sheepishly, asked what muscles cause “nipple-itis”.   After we all laughed, I used that comment as a springboard to discuss involuntary muscles with the class.

involuntary muscles

3. I miss the “nobility” of teaching.

Even though society has mixed feelings about teachers (having tenure, pensions, and so on), most people can accept that a teacher’s life is devoted to a noble purpose.

At the end of forty years in the work force, teachers can reflect on all the students they educated.  They were “in the trenches” helping to improve society.

super_teacher

With my cubicle job, in an abstract, roundabout kind of way, I help society too, but will I be proud of my life’s work in forty years?

Kind of…but I’m not sure “kind of” is enough.  It will be a challenge to find another profession that will give me the sense of purpose that teaching did.

4. Guilt, judgment and second thoughts

I sometimes feel guilty for leaving teaching. I feel like I gave up on the future students I will never have. I gave up on the “good fight” of improving America’s education system.

When people find out that I’m a former teacher, some understand why I left. Others judge me like I’m a monster, saying, “How could you give up a life devoted to teaching children?”

Or, they just think I’m stupid for giving up all those “great benefits”.

I wonder if, one day, teaching will be a great job for me again. What if the American education system is reformed? What if society thinks that those who educate children should be treated like educated professionals and be paid a living salary? What if I have children and want to spend summers and holidays with them? What if…?

Like I said before, teaching was like a bad boyfriend: I loved it, but too many times it made me cry. After I took the stress of teaching out of my life, my physical and mental health vastly improved.

When I reflect on it, my brain tells me I made the right decision, but my heart still hurts a little. Maybe it always will.

Related

Life After Teaching, Part One: Four Reasons Why I’m Better Off

Life After Teaching, Part Three: Yup, I Joined the Club.

Life After Teaching, Part Four: Five Little Things I Look Forward to at My Desk Job

Life After Teaching, Part Five: Why I Don’t Need Summers Off Anymore

Life After Teaching, Part Six: Five Things I Learned in Year Two

Life After Teaching, Part Seven: Five (More) Things I Learned in Year Two

Life After Teaching, Part One: Four Reasons Why I’m Better Off

Last month, essays like Randy Turner’s “A Warning to Young People,” and Christine McCartney’s Letter of Resolution, gave voice to teachers who have decided to quit the profession, and those who’ve committed to stay despite their shared frustrations, including standardized testing, merit pay, and Common Core Standards.

After four years as a high school biology teacher, Rose left her job, and the education field, in 2011. In today’s post, she reflects on the joys (yes, the joys) of leaving teaching.

Starting a new job is like starting a new relationship.  In the beginning, you’re just getting to know each other, and as time goes on, you decide if you’ll go long term. Sometimes, you realize you love your partner, but the relationship just isn’t healthy.

This is what happened to me with teaching: though our relationship had wonderful moments, I became increasingly unhappy, and decided to end it.

It’s been two school years since I’ve had the pleasure (and sometimes pain) of teaching teenagers. I now work in a cubicle pushing papers and have a much more stable relationship with my job.

Why I’m glad I left teaching:

1.  The simple pleasures of a desk job.

In the morning, the office and my cubicle are quiet and calm. I can ease into my day by enjoying a cup of tea while I go through emails. I use the bathroom whenever I want. I slowly eat my lunch. Full adult conversations are the norm!  This goes for thoughts as well. I can think through a problem and be confident about the decision without being interrupted fifteen times by students, colleagues, or P.A. announcements.

Several health problems went away, like indigestion (from scarfing my lunch before giving a make-up test during my lunch break), foot pain (Goodbye, Dr. Scholls!), and headaches (Yes, I had chronic tension headaches). I’ve also had fewer colds and flus (I come in contact with 30 office workers in a day instead of over 100 students and faculty). I call these simple pleasures because, while they are not earth-shattering changes, they still make my day easier.

Imagine going to the bathroom when you need to...

2. I got myself back.

Teaching takes a lot of physical and mental energy. I was drained when I got home. I didn’t have time for hobbies, friends, or anything else except grading at night.  Now, at 5 o’clock, my workday ends when I leave my cubicle…truly. I don’t think about it until the next morning when I get to work. After work, I read a book, cook dinner, and spend time with my family. I even have time and energy to exercise and take an art class!

Pottery class after work, anyone?

3. A weight was lifted from my shoulders.

I can be myself in public, in private, and at work.

As a teacher, I felt like I had to project this “perfect teacher” persona. I had to be the epitome of calm, conservative moral behavior. I felt like I could not go out to a restaurant, have an alcoholic beverage or sneak a kiss from my partner without worrying if a student or parent saw me.  Society puts this tremendous pressure on teachers as if their every decision, act, and word can inspire or devastate students.  If a student failed, it was the teacher’s fault. If the student succeeded, then it was the achievement of the student alone. Teachers shoulder all the responsibility, but get little recognition for their students’ achievement. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with this pressure anymore.

No more Ms. Perfect

No more Ms. Perfect…

4. My frustration with the American education system dissipated.

I entered teaching as a typical new teacher: bright-eyed, idealistic, and ready to inspire tomorrow’s leaders. And then the reality of teaching slowly, but surely, squeezed the passion out of me. When I tried to shield my students from the problems that plague the system, it seemed useless. It became hard to face the students, parents, administrators, colleagues, and myself knowing all the problems with the education system and feeling not only powerless to solve them, but forced to contribute to them (I’m looking at you, standardized testing).

I felt like a teenager who just got a summer job at her favorite fast food restaurant.  Instead of eating what I loved every day, I never ate it again after I saw how it was prepared.   So when I left teaching, I stopped struggling with the gap between what I wanted teaching to be, and what it actually was. My anger towards the system has dissipated, but a small bit of frustration will always be there because I still care about students.

The calm after leaving teaching

Former teachers, what have you gained from resigning or retiring from the classroom? How did leaving help you reflect?

What would make teaching a sustainable job for more people?

FOLLOW-UP: Read my one-year reflection on this post.

Related

Life After Teaching, Part Two: Four Reasons Why I Miss Teaching

Life After Teaching, Part Three: Yup, I Joined the Club.

Life After Teaching, Part Four: Five Little Things I Look Forward to at My Desk Job

Life After Teaching, Part Five: Why I Don’t Need Summers Off Anymore

Life After Teaching, Part Six: Five Things I Learned in Year Two

Life After Teaching, Part Seven: Five (More) Things I Learned in Year Two

The College Board can’t touch this.

Last year, I began teaching AP Literature, an experience that’s been both rewarding and stressful. It’s a privilege to work with smart, highly motivated students, and I’ve loved rediscovering stories like Hamlet and Great Expectations through class discussion and student writing.

I’m more ambivalent about The TestHow much time should I spend on practice exams? What do students’ scores really mean, and how much should I care? If they score poorly, does that mean I’ve failed as a teacher?

Two notes I received last week from this year’s AP Literature students reminded me of what being a good (AP) teacher really means:

I’ve been harping on concision all year (“It’s fluff! Get rid of it!”), and The Color Purple was a summer reading novel that many students had not initially enjoyed, so to hear two students make positive connections to this work was energizing.

The College Board, which administers the AP exams, and Race to the Top, which ties teacher evaluation to test scores, are incapable of measuring many of the positive changes we make.

Teachers, please help me broaden the definitions of successful teaching and learning.