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Teaching Opinion

What Kind of Workplace Would I Like to Teach in?

By Rick Hess — June 15, 2015 3 min read
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I spent last week at a pretty nifty gathering hosted by the Spencer Foundation. The second of their “disciplined dialogues,” the exercise brought about two dozen practitioners, academics, and others together to discuss what it would mean to create a “better teacher workplace.” This is a question that has long been seminal for me—back to when I left teaching to enter grad school.

What kind of school and school system would I like to teach in?

Would-be reformers (of all stripes) should ask themselves this question regularly, yet I rarely hear it asked. Now, there are two provisos when raising this question: 1] we’re going to disagree about the answer and 2] just because something makes for a better workplace doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. “Better” workplace conditions often entail costs, and those may not be good bets. (After all, a 25-hour work week might make for a swell workplace, but crimp performance. Big expense accounts and free top-shelf coffee may boost morale, but can soak up a lot of funds without improving results.)

Anyway, I left with four takeaways.

One, participants were generally disinclined to focus on the workplace question. There was a tendency to leap straight to asking how we “fix schools,” with the presumption that doing so will yield a good workplace. That’s not an unreasonable focus; after all, schools are there to educate kids. But in most professional environments I’ve encountered, there’s an understanding that good workplaces help attract talented people, make them want to stay, nurture morale and commitment, and help them grow. Whether or not these things boost short-term outcomes, there’s a presumption that this stuff is good. Now, it’s not like every organization does this well or takes it seriously—lots of law firms, universities, medical practices, accounting firms, and such do a mediocre-to-awful job at all this. But there is an understanding that professionals are real people and not just levers to be pulled. It seems to me that this insight has gotten trampled in much of the school improvement discussion—even (or especially) among those who focus mechanistically on “human capital.”

Two, I think all of us seeking to improve or reform schools always do well to ask ourselves, “Are my ideas creating the kind of workplace in which I’d like to work?” If you think you’re a reasonably bright and competent person, and you wouldn’t want to teach in the schools you’re creating, you’ve got to wonder who will. This mindset can provide a useful filter for thinking about various proposed policies, proposals, and programs. Seems to me that efforts like Public Impact’s “Opportunity Culture,” Joel Rose’s “New Classrooms,” or New York City’s “The Equity Project” charter school are all examples of reforms that consciously work to create a more dynamic, professional, and rewarding workplace. There are other initiatives and policies that don’t do this.

Three, discussing the kind of place in which we’d like to work can put some of our more abstract debates into context. For instance, I want a professional environment where I am listened to. Where I’m treated with respect. Where I have a reasonable amount of autonomy. Where I get to work collaboratively with colleagues and support staff. Where there are no slackers and where excellence and effort are rewarded. I don’t think I’m unusual in any of that. And, if that’s the case, and if we suspect that these kinds of workplaces are good for kids, then it can provide a useful way to discuss the practical impact of school choice or test-based teacher evaluation.

Four, one reason I’m such a proponent of school choice and “privatization” is that government tends to be awful at creating dynamic professional environments. This isn’t just schools. Go take a tour of federal office buildings. Government workplaces tend to be drab for a reason: we are uncomfortable with public agencies spending taxpayer funds on things that seem like frills, even if we feel much more positively about those frills in non-government environments. Now, plenty of for-profits and non-profits don’t do any better than government—but a lot of them show a relentless interest in how to attract and motivate professionals, and they have the freedom to do just that.

People will disagree about a lot of this. But it’s a discussion we ought to be having a heck of a lot more often.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.