Why We Should All Care About Teacher Working Conditions

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There’s a term in yoga for a focused gaze you use when trying to balance: drishti. In a room full of people and distractions, when you are faced with a challenging situation, a strong strategy for keeping your balance is to focus on the drishti. It helps everything else stay solid, keeping you grounded when things might be feeling shaky.

I think many of our American school districts have lost their drishtis. In particular, my former professional home of Hillsborough County, Fla., serves as a case study in educational change to which other districts, leaders, policy makers, and teachers should pay attention.

Several years ago, my former district, like many other districts across the country, implemented a new evaluation and pay system. This new pay system moved away from the traditional step scale, where pay is determined by the degrees earned by teachers and the number of years they have spent in the district. With this new system, there would be pay increases based on evaluations, with pay raises earned by teachers after effective teacher evaluations. In many places, new teachers were ushered into this pay system; veteran teachers could opt in to the new or stay with the old.

And many opted to trust district leadership, moving over to the new pay system.

But this year, when those teachers who hopped into the waves of educational change were eligible for their raises, the district supervisors in Hillsborough County said they had no money. And I wonder if this is happening elsewhere as well.

"As adults, we should be role models for the human beings in our school buildings that we are helping to raise."

It seems like the district has lost sight of what matters in a school district—its drishti, or the people who make student learning happen.

What happens when you lose sight of what’s important in a school district—the people? And why should a school district’s issue with pay matter to any of us, other than those whose wallets are directly affected?

Here’s why we should pay attention to this kind of policy change:

1. It can affect teacher retention, and therefore student outcomes. Research has found that there is a link between teacher pay, retention, and student outcomes. This study published by the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that increasing per-pupil spending—and increasing teacher pay—can affect students greatly. We’re talking improved education completion, increased future wages, and decreased poverty rates. Boom. This seems like a no-brainer, but according to some researchers, teacher pay is a missing piece in many educational reforms. It is something that many leaders overlook—the importance of how we treat the people in our schools, and how that treatment impacts whether they stay or go. Lack of follow-through on promises and low teacher pay can decrease teacher morale, leading teachers to look outside of their school walls and across district lines for other opportunities. Working conditions, such as the relationship between leadership and teacher pay, play an important role in retaining teachers.

2. It can affect teacher recruitment. I’m proud to say that my sister is starting her first teaching job in January in Florida. But she looked only in Polk County, a neighbor of Hillsborough County. Why would she want to work in Hillsborough after all the news coverage of problems between the district leadership and the teachers? When I worked in Hillsborough, there were many hard-to-fill positions at our low-income and high-needs schools, especially in certain subjects like special education. I’ve worked at schools that had open positions all year long. I think there is a correlation between treatment of teachers and teacher recruitment that must be addressed.

3. It can affect teacher input, and support, on future change. So many teachers took a chance on the new evaluation and pay system in Hillsborough. Many of my colleagues are now feeling betrayed, unhappy, and a little bit conned—especially those teachers who hopped on the change bandwagon early. As one of those teachers, I can say there was a lot of disagreement between those who supported this shift and those who were against it. Despite this, we did our best to help our colleagues see why this change was necessary. Although the change was hard, in the end many teachers helped support it. Those teachers are the ones leading the rallies now in front of our district school building. They feel like their district leadership broke a promise to them.

Research has shown that teacher input is such a vital element of educational changes; what will happen the next time the district has a new idea? A new direction? I wonder how this affects teachers' perceptions—in the district and beyond—about education reform. I wonder if teachers and districts across the country are looking at what is happening in Florida as they consider future educational change.

4. It decreases morale and trust. The last MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (2012), the largest survey that has its fingers on the pulse of our nation’s educators, reported a decline in job satisfaction from 59 percent to 39 percent in three years. This was coupled with an increase of teachers who say they want to leave their jobs in the next five years, jumping from 17 to 29 percent. When trust is broken between a district and its teachers, what happens to morale? To job satisfaction? It affects recruitment and retention. And I wonder—what does it do to students when teacher morale is down?

5. It can affect long-term economic growth. In Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan’s book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, the authors make the case that investing in people—professional capital—will lead to rewards of economic growth, productivity, and social well-being. They point to countries such as Canada, Finland, and Singapore that have developed the teaching profession as an investment in the future. Taking care of the people who lead learning in a district is not just a short-term win, but will also have long-term economic impact. Let’s put people first—not only because it’s the right thing, but also because it will lead to societal growth.

6. We need to model the same behavior we ask of our students. I’m leaving this one short, because it shouldn’t need any explanation. As adults, we should be role models for the human beings in our school buildings that we are helping to raise. We should keep promises. Period.

I had the pleasure of hearing Richard Ingersoll, a prominent researcher on teacher retention, speak at our national teacher leadership conference with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) a few years ago. He spoke about the nuances of the teacher retention issue. As a nation, we have high pre-retirement turnover due to job dissatisfaction, which is why about 48 percent of teachers are leaving the profession (as of 2015, reported by Ingersoll and David Perda). (It’s worth noting that teachers were allowed to select multiple reasons for leaving, which might be why dissatisfaction was so high.)

What drives this job dissatisfaction? It’s not just salary, as we might guess. That’s not the biggest cause.

The bigger reason? Lack of voice. And not being treated as professionals.

If that’s the case, the Hillsborough County school district and others need to refocus on what’s important—their drishti, or the people who work hard every day to ensure all students succeed.

It’s time to refocus on the people, folks.

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