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Education

Teachers’ Work Environment Not ‘Supportive,’ Poll Confirms

By Lynn Olson — November 06, 2019 6 min read

Washington

The majority of teachers have problems with the resources and working conditions in their schools and want more say in the decisions that affect them and their students, according to a nationwide survey released here last week.

“The Conditions and Resources of Teaching,” a survey of nearly 1,800 teachers who belong to the National Education Association, provides some of the first empirical data regarding the classroom conditions that prevent teachers from doing their jobs well, said Samuel B. Bacharach, director of the survey and a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University.

The 1,800 respondents represent a random sample of the approximately 1.5 million K-12 teachers who belong to the N.E.A.

The $100,000 study was conducted for the N.E.A. by Organizational Analysis and Practice Inc., a research and consulting firm in Ithaca, N.Y., for which Mr. Bacharach is a senior research associate. The survey, which asked teachers to assess their working conditions based on the principles of effective private-sector organizations, was conducted last spring.

Those principles include clear organizational goals and priorities; adequate resources to do the job; communication and cooperation among staff; and involvement of all employees in decisionmaking. All four conditions are sorely lacking in today’s schools, said Mr. Bacharach.

“If a supportive culture is important to a profession, and if you compare these data to those for other organizations, then schools are some of the least supportive organizations that I have ever seen in my life,” said Mr. Bacharach of the survey findings.

The majority of teachers responding to the survey said they have little chance to participate in the decisionmaking in their schools; that staff-development opportunities are inadequate; and that administrators seldom talk to them about important topics or clarify what is expected of them.

In addition, a substantial minority of teachers reported frequent or constant problems obtaining the material resources, space, and time that they need.

More than 30 percent said that, given the opportunity, they probably or certainly would not become teachers again.

“It is the conditions under which teachers work that are the prime demotivators in schools,” said Mr. Bacharach. “You can do everything in the world to improve accreditation, to improve the education of teachers, but if you don’t do something about the workplace, you’re not going to attract anyone into teaching to start with.”

The data gleaned from the survey point to the need for incremental, strategic change on the local level, he said, not for sweeping reform. Many of the key recommendations in the report are relatively simple, straightforward things that local districts can do “tomorrow morning,” according to Mr. Bacharach.

These include improving the communication structure in schools, educating administrators about the importance of shared decisionmaking, and ensuring that teachers have the material resources and time to do their jobs.

Decisionmaking

Few of the teachers surveyed said they have more than an occasional chance to participate in decisions or organizational policies that affect their schools.

For example, as many as 94 percent said they have little chance to participate in decisions regarding staff hiring; and 61 percent said they seldom or occasionally get the chance to influence student-discipline codes and grading policies.

In addition, 54 percent of teachers said they feel uninvolved in decisions about which school they are assigned to; 44 percent, in decisions about grade or subject-level assignments; 25 percent, in decisions about how to teach; and 38 percent, in decisions about what to teach.

The findings are in sharp contrast to what teachers say they want. More than 63 percent of those surveyed said they would like a greater chance to participate in organizational decisions about schools, such as funding priorities. Nearly 84 percent want more input into decisions about standardized-test policies.

Administrators

Teachers did not report that their building administrators were particularly helpful in this regard. About 36 percent of those surveyed said their administrators frequently asked for their suggestions or opinions, while 45 percent claimed they were seldom asked.

Although many teachers said their administrators had confidence in them and showed appreciation for their work, they reported that principals rarely initiated conversations with them. And most teachers seldom talked with their principals about such topics as job performance, resource needs, course or subject content, or instructional problems.

About 37 percent of those surveyed said their administrators seldom or occasionally explain things to them. More than half said their administrators seldom clarify what is expected of them, and nearly half said administrators seldom provide helpful suggestions or information.

About 7 percent of the teachers reported constant problems with the quantity and quality of advice and feedback from administrators.

Staff Development

Teachers also expressed dissatisfaction with the quantity and quality of staff-development opportunities available through their schools. More than half of those surveyed had “occasional” to “frequent” problems in this area.

One problem, according to the report, is that staff development for teachers may take inappropriate forms. When asked to rate the most effective sources of job-related knowledge and skills, 92 percent of those surveyed checked “experience as a teacher.”

Teachers also rated consultation with and observation of other teachers as definitely effective, followed by study and research pursued by teachers on their own, and courses and consultation in the teacher’s area of specialty.

Inservice training, which is now a “multimillion-dollar industry,” according to Mr. Bacharach, was rated “definitely effective” by only 13 percent of those surveyed.

Time and Resources

Teachers responding to the survey also reported problems with some of the most basic job-related needs--time, space, staff support, and material resources.

Approximately 59 percent said they constantly or often experience problems finding time for counseling; 48 percent, time for planning; and 30 percent, time for instruction.

Some 40 percent of those surveyed reported constant or frequent problems with the quantity of storage space available, and about 36 percent had constant or frequent problems finding space for special activities, such as one-to-one work with students.

Although the quantity and quality of equipment and supplies was a constant problem for fewer than 10 percent of those surveyed, about 15 percent said they had constant problems obtaining money for supplies, and another 20 percent often had this problem.

Approximately half of those surveyed also reported at least occasional problems with the quantity and quality of assistance from building-level administrators, staff specialists, and custodial staff, and more than 12 percent reported constant problems with the quantity of assistance from teacher aides.

According to Mr. Bacharach, the study found that all these management and work-related conditions influenced how satisfied teachers said they were with their jobs. Conflicting expectations, critical or unhelpful supervisors, inadequate resources, little input into decisionmaking, and ambiguity about work roles were strongly related to teachers’ job satisfaction and their commitment to teaching, he said.

“We just don’t have a culture in these organizations or a structure that allows teachers to be effective,” he concluded. “We’re putting committed young teachers into organizations that by definition will burn them out.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 1986 edition of Education Week

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