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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Profession Opinion

What Do Teachers Need? Are Leaders Willing to Give It to Them?

By Peter DeWitt — September 08, 2019 3 min read
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This month ASCD published an excellent edition of Educational Leadership focusing on What New Teachers Need. It is such an important topic, because as we know, the studies around who enters the profession and when they leave has been a hot topic for years (check out my Ed Week colleague Madeline Will’s blog on the topic).

The obvious extension of what new teachers need is to focus on what all teachers need. I often find myself working with leaders who want teachers to build collective efficacy (through collaboration where they play nice) or they want teachers to create personal learning goals that will impact themselves and their students. However, one of the disconnections I have noticed is that we often talk about building agency among teachers, but our school cultures do not always help support all of that talk.

Principals and those in instructional-leadership positions want teachers to create goals, but often teachers will ask their leader what goal they want the teacher to work on rather than creating one themselves. Or, worse, teachers create two goals. One that will appease their leader and one they really care about.

Goal Setting, Motivation, Agency Oh My!

Goal setting is the first step to providing teachers with what they need, and when done correctly, it is highly impactful. In fact, Leithwood and Mascall (2008) highlighted a few studies around goal setting; especially when it came to motivating teachers and building agency (the level of voice a teacher feels and actually has in given situations). The researchers wrote:

Goal setting, as Mohrman and Lawler (1996) point out, ‘is a linchpin of organizational motivation’ (p. 121). Goals direct one’s attention and effort toward specific targets for performance; they provide a gauge by which to judge one’s success; and they encourage persistence in the tasks required for goal achievement (Rowan, 1996) (Leithwood, 2008).

But who is defining success? There is a lot to dissect in that area. Is it a co-constructed understanding of success or is it dictated by one person’s view of success? The answers to that will dictate how much agency a teacher actually feels. That impacts motivation, which is part of what Leithwood and Mascall were researching.

As the authors state, though, goal setting is just one piece of a much larger, and sometimes very complicated, puzzle. It goes back to what I mentioned earlier, which is whether teachers really feel that they can work on the goal that they want or whether they feel the pressure to work on a goal that will make their leader happy.

In fact, Leithwood and Mascall found,

Two sets of personal agency beliefs interact with teachers’ personal goals to help determine the strength of motivation to achieve such goals. The first set, capacity beliefs, includes such psychological states as self-efficacy, self-confidence, academic self-concept, and aspects of self-esteem. It is not enough that people have energizing goals in mind. They must also believe themselves to be capable of accomplishing these goals (p. 535).”

We often talk about self-efficacy in education circles. Efficacy is something we have to understand because it impacts us all, including our students. Efficacy is all about whether we have confidence in specific situations (Bandura). Tschannen-Moran and Gareis (2004) found that,“Self-efficacy beliefs are context-specific, however, people do not feel equally efficacious for all situations.”

Makes sense, right?

We do not feel confident in all aspects of our job. In fact, in a study focusing on leadership self-efficacy, Bandura (2000) found that leaders will double their efforts when they feel efficacious and slacken their efforts when they feel a lack of efficacy.

The School Environment

There is a much more complicated aspect to all of this talk about what teachers need, agency and efficacy, and it involves the second set of personal agency beliefs highlighted by Leithwood and Mascall. They write,

A second set of personal agency beliefs, context beliefs, are beliefs about how congenial one’s situation is for carrying out one’s work. These are beliefs about whether, for example, the working conditions in the school will support teachers’ efforts to instruct in the manner suggested by the school’s improvement initiatives (p. 536).

It’s important to talk about goal setting, and even more important to provide time for teachers and teacher teams to focus on achieving those goals. However, what is equally important in all of that is whether teachers feel that their leaders will support the goals that teachers create together.

In the End

Supporting new teachers is highly important, as is supporting those teachers who have stayed through changes in leadership, changing times, and the shiny new toys that ultimately may have never improved the learning conditions of students.

In order to help teachers, we all need to establish common language and common understanding. This is especially important when discussions around motivation and goal setting are present. Additionally, whether teachers are allowed to create a goal they actually care about, as opposed to creating one for themselves and one for their principal, will contribute to their agency.

  • Do the working conditions in your school support teachers?
  • Are teachers encouraged to create goals they care about or goals only their principals care about? If those goals are not aligned, perhaps it’s time to ask why.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Leithwood, Kenneth & Blair Mascall (2008). Collective Leadership Effects on Student Achievement. Educational Administration Quarterly. Vol. 44, No. 4 (October 2008) 529-561

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.