Teaching Profession Q&A

Empowering Teachers

March 12, 2008 11 min read
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There have been countless studies—not to mention legislative initiatives—on how to improve the teaching profession. But what do educators themselves think? What do they say they need to excel in their jobs? And what obstacles do they commonly face?

Eric Hirsch, director of special projects with The New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wants to know. Since 2004, he has been conducting statewide surveys of teachers and principals on how they view the working conditions in their schools. Hirsch is now working with eight states to assess, as he puts it, what teachers “want and need,” and how their perceptions of various aspects of their jobs correlate with student achievement and teacher retention. His aim is to help schools create “environments where teachers can thrive.“


From your research, what would you say are the danger signs of a school where there are poor working conditions—where teachers may not feel like they are thriving?

When I do presentations, I always say that if there’s one question on the survey that I look at to gauge a school’s situation, it’s the one that asks whether teachers believe there’s an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in the school. That is the one question on the survey that really correlates well with both student achievement and teacher retention. Teachers want to work in schools where they can thrive, and they’re not going to thrive and extend themselves if they don’t feel comfortable with their colleagues and the school leadership.

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Empowering Teachers

It comes down to leaders creating a clear and compelling vision around learning and really going to bat for teachers. They have to create a safe environment for teachers—an environment where teachers feel they can make decisions that matter in both their classrooms and their schools.

Can you give examples of ways leaders create trust among teachers?

Sure. For example, I’ve seen principals who have been willing to cover classes to ensure that teachers have time to collaborate and plan. I’ve seen principals who have been willing to go in and meet with parents and support teachers in their decisions.

More broadly, effective leaders create structures in which it’s clear that teachers have a certain authority. In some states, according to our surveys, we have only a third of teachers agreeing that they are centrally involved in school decision-making. What they want from leaders is to have processes where they can really understand their role in learning and can really respond to situations and engage in ways that make sense to them.

Why do you think many school leaders are resistant to empowering teachers and giving them more say in school decisions?

The pressures on principals today are overwhelming. Principals must deal with federal and state accountability systems, assessments, parents and community, and in the end, they are ultimately accountable for performance. It is difficult to let go and empower others when you know it is your neck on the line for results. But of course, in the end, it is that team effort and drawing the best from staff that will generate improved performance. That’s just a tough leap.

And it’s even tougher for principals if they don’t have supportive environments, either. Many were not prepared to serve as the visionary, instructional leaders we now expect. They receive little induction and professional development of their own, and are often not empowered to make decisions at their school that they believe are necessary due to local, state, and federal policy. This is why we have started to ask principals specific questions about their support and work environment on the survey. To better understand how to empower teachers we need to understand how to empower and support strong school leaders.

Are there things that teachers themselves can do to improve their career satisfaction?

That’s a great question, and it’s something we’ve had to think about a lot. I mean, can you have teacher empowerment when the school leadership isn’t necessarily willing to create safe structures and engage teachers as partners? I think the answer is yes, but it’s not easy. I think teachers in that situation need to find other outlets to be advocates for themselves, for their profession, and for their students. Between opportunities at the state and district levels, and working with parents and other community members, I think there are ways teachers can be engaged in their work and take on more active roles even when not encouraged internally to do so.

The other thing we’ve seen is teachers working with colleagues on their own to start creating the kind of environments they want in their schools. They create professional learning communities, finding time to collaborate. They seek out their own professional development opportunities and advocate for themselves to be able to go and learn, so they can bring that knowledge back to their colleagues. But again, this takes a lot of care and commitment—and time. It’s hard for teachers to sustain over the long haul if they aren’t given support from leadership.

According to your results, what role does professional development play in teacher satisfaction?

It’s very interesting. When you ask teachers what conditions matter most in terms of their future career plans and student learning, professional development has come in last on every survey we’ve done. The question for me is why that is, because I don’t take it to mean that teachers don’t believe they need to build their knowledge and skills in order to be effective and grow in the profession. What teachers have told me is that this response is an indictment of the way professional development is delivered much of the time. So often, to save costs, it’s a one-size-fits-all approach, and teachers don’t think it will be any different in other schools or districts they may ultimately want to work in.

We also find that teachers in a lot of schools are not engaged in selecting professional development. In most states, about half the teachers say they play no role or only a small role in choosing what professional development opportunities are available to them. And because they’re not getting to have a say, what we’ve found is a mismatch between what teachers say they need in professional development and what they’re actually getting.

So, do you have a sense of what sort of professional development teachers want?

On the surveys, we don’t ask teachers how they would like their professional development to be delivered or structured, because we found out early on that the in-service, workshop method was so predominant that most teachers haven’t had much experience with other methods. But I can tell you that, in terms of content, what teachers tell us they really want are opportunities to help them differentiate instruction to meet diverse learning needs. We see this consistently across states.

On the survey most teachers say—and the principals concur—that they actually feel pretty comfortable with their subject-area content knowledge. What they say they need are strategies to help them tailor that knowledge to meet the needs of special education students, English-language learners, and other groups in order to work towards closing the achievement gap. And we’ve found this is one of the areas where they’ve had the least professional development opportunities. They’ve generally had the most in their content areas, and I’m not saying that’s bad. I think what teachers are saying is that they need that subject-area training but that they need it in ways that can really help them utilize it with different kinds of kids.

If you were a school principal, given what you’ve learned from your surveys, what would be your first steps for improving teacher satisfaction?

Well, first I would sit down with this survey data—or other similar data—and engage my faculty in a conversation about what they want and need. Every school is in a unique place with a unique teaching corps, so you need to have some ability to discuss and reflect on what is going on in this particular environment and what can be improved from the teachers’ perspective. Hopefully, what our survey—and others like it—has done is given teachers a way to get this information on the table in a neutral way. Principals need to take it to heart and listen to the teachers.

That said, the second thing I’d do is really reflect on how I can take the priorities identified and manage them effectively—in a way that promotes student learning. Certainly our analyses show trust, common vision, time, and the leadership and empowerment questions are the areas teachers are most concerned about. But leaders still need to develop contextually-based strategies. For example, if you have a lot of new teachers, you may want to use a more gradual approach in some of these areas.

It’s really about teachers and leaders working together and making informed decisions. It’s not about teachers vs. administrators. It’s about getting together and reflecting on what needs to be in place for everyone to be successful and making sure this gets done in a way that everyone is comfortable with.

Are certain groups or types of teachers more likely to be satisfied with their work or be more positive about the level of teacher empowerment in their school?

It’s interesting. We find that generally—though not by a huge margin—the newest and the most veteran are the most likely to be more positive about their working conditions, about there being an atmosphere of trust, and about teachers being involved in decision-making. In most places, we see this perception bottoming out for teachers around years 7 to ten and then rising again for more veteran teachers. This is obviously very important in terms of teacher retention, because that’s the time when teachers are really making their long-term career decisions and deciding whether to become vested in the system.

Why do you think mid-career teachers are less positive about their situations?

From my conversations with teachers, my sense is that, at that point, the rose-tinted glasses have come off. Of course new teachers are excited, they have their job, they have a love for learning. But these mid-career educators have been in the school for a while, and they’ve been exposed to its problems and limitations. At the same time, they may not have gotten settled in the school the way older veterans may have. They’ve been at the school long enough to know what they need and want but not as long as veterans, who perhaps have found a way to get what they’ve needed or shopped around to find a school in which they want to work. Longer-term veterans may also have more leadership opportunities than mid-career teachers, so they would have a greater sense of involvement and ownership in the school.

So helping these mid-career teachers would be something for schools to work on?

Certainly. As I work with school human resource directors and walk through our findings, that’s certainly a target group we talk about. You may want to target leadership opportunities at the school or district level to this particular group. They have solid experience and a record of evidence to assess what they can do with kids. How can you tap these folks for leadership roles to get the best out of them across the school and district?

It’s about being purposeful in really engaging these teachers in such a way that they feel ownership in what the school is doing. The more teachers are engaged in some of the decisions at the school and district level through leadership, I think the better they understand the big picture and those negative perceptions start to change.

What changes do you see in the teacher profession in the years ahead?

Schools and districts are already starting to look at recruitment and retention in very different ways. For a number of reasons, for a long time teaching has been viewed as a life-long career. We had this expectation that teachers would kind of come in on day one and have their classroom and then 30 years later they’d be doing the same thing. But now you have younger people—the Gen-X and Gen-Y folks—who are looking at different ways of engaging in teaching and serving schools. The perception among many elite students who are interested in teaching is that it’s less of a career and more of a short-term way to gain experience and engage in meaningful work. I think this is just reality, and schools are starting to acknowledge this and figure out how to leverage the staff diversity it creates—and this involves using teachers differently.

There are still going to be a lot of amazingly accomplished teachers who want to make education their lives. The important question is going to be, how can we design schools to give these teachers the flexibility and leadership capacity to mentor and get the best out of younger teachers who are maybe only planning on being in the profession for two or three years?

We need to draw upon our best teachers to ensure that these short-term educators are the best they can be and that they are really hitting on all cylinders while they are in the profession. We need to find new ways to identify these core, accomplished teachers and to give them new avenues to spread their expertise—through technology, for example. We need to create new career-advancement opportunities for them, give them greater decision-making authority and responsibility, and allow them to be successful in their work. So I think we’re going to see a greater diversification of roles for teachers.

Would you recommend paying these accomplished teachers more, too?

Sure. But I go back to our survey research. What most teachers tell us is that, while higher salaries are nice, they aren’t going to make them stay in a job they don’t like. So while I think salary—and looking at ways of paying teachers differently for doing different jobs—is important, I think the starting block is really reflecting upon the structure of schools and creating the kind of environments where teachers can thrive, grow professionally, and do their best with their colleagues and the kids.

If you do that, a lot of teachers who are looking at other professions are going to stay.

—Anthony Rebora

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2008 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Empowering Teachers


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