Ask the Teacher

By Steven Saint — April 20, 2007 3 min read

In 2004, a group of teachers at Salem Middle School in Apex, North Carolina, approached then-principal Matthew Wight with a plan to overhaul the school’s grading system. They wanted a measurement that would reflect students’ progress on multiple specific skills.

Bill Ferriter, who teaches 6th graders at Salem, didn’t expect Wight to approve the plan. “We knew he’d be the one who would have to defend it to angry parents,” Ferriter says. Much to his surprise, Wight listened, decided the idea would benefit students, and put it into effect. “That was a defining moment in our school,” says Ferriter, who describes Salem as “a place where teachers are empowered to make critical decisions.”

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Ferriter’s satisfaction is shared by other instructors at Salem, which is why the school was recognized this year as a model in North Carolina’s campaign to improve teachers’ working conditions.

Officials in North Carolina began surveying teachers in 2001 to determine the causes of high turnover; they asked about empowerment, leadership, time, facilities and resources, and professional development. The data revealed a trend that really got policymakers’ attention: In schools where teachers were most content, student achievement was also high.

North Carolina teachers have now been surveyed three times, says Eric Hirsch, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Teaching Quality, which the state hired to analyze the survey results. (Ferriter is also a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, a project of CTQ and a partner of Teacher Magazine.) Other states and districts have followed North Carolina’s lead: CTQ has conducted similar surveys in Arizona, Kansas, Ohio, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Clark County, Nevada.

Across these areas, one of the biggest differences between low- and high-performing schools is in the number of teachers who reported that “an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect” exists. “That’s the common denominator,” Hirsch says. School safety, planning time, and teachers’ ability to make decisions about instructional materials and techniques are other important factors.

The data also show that principals’ perceptions of conditions at their schools tend to be much rosier than teachers’. In North Carolina, for example, nearly all principals reported that teachers are central to educational decisions, while only half of teachers felt this to be true.

Meanwhile, teachers were more likely to stay at their schools if they believed principals were trying to improve conditions.

The survey results have just started to spur real change. North Carolina has formed a Teacher Working Conditions Advisory Board to lead the charge for transforming school environments. The state also recently ordered school improvement teams to develop plans to provide duty-free lunch periods and at least five hours of instructional planning per week for every teacher. Clark County, Nevada, has formed a Teaching and Learning Conditions Team of four highly trained teachers who work full time helping schools, and Virginia set aside funds to recruit teachers and improve conditions in hard-to-staff schools.

CTQ is documenting best practices in schools where principals and teachers are working together on reforms. At Salem, Ferriter knows firsthand how important working conditions are for teacher retention. He credits his freedom to make classroom-level decisions and the say he has on professional development and school policies with keeping him in the classroom after 14 years. “It makes the job far more professionally satisfying,” he says. “We probably have the best teaching conditions in the state, and we’re a magnet for accomplished teachers.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Ask the Teacher