by Becky Sipos
Teachers matter. Decades of research and studies have found that, what to me, seems obvious--the quality of teachers has a bigger influence on student achievement than school facilities or curriculum. But what the studies have not clearly defined is what we mean by student achievement. Nor have they figured out what to do about ensuring teacher quality. (See the latest issue of Education Next for a range of articles and commentary on this issue as they explore 50 years since the Coleman Report.)
Those who think student achievement is best measured by test scores are among those who wanted to tie teacher evaluation to student outcomes. Taking it a step further, many wanted to use those tests to eliminate the low performing teachers. That led to hotly contested policy debates on teacher evaluations and protests on time spent on testing. Not to mention that the lowest performing teachers were often those at high poverty schools, and there was not a long line highly effective teachers waiting to take those challenging positions. Those debates may have dissipated a bit with the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act that reduces the role of the federal government in requiring test score accountability in teacher evaluations. How the states will move forward remains to be seen.
But those of us in character education look at student achievement much more broadly than just test scores. We want students to become ethical and engaged citizens, critical thinkers, and peaceful problem solvers who care about others.
We know that one of the keys to achieving the character development of students is creating a caring school culture (Principle 4). So if teachers have the biggest influence over student achievement, we need to ensure that we create a caring school culture for faculty members as well (Principle 4.4). After all, don’t we want to transform our schools into learning institutions where all staff gets better at teaching? There is certainly plenty of evidence that changing the climate of the school to encourage engagement raises the quality of all the staff and produces performance gains.
Coldwater Elementary School (one of our 2015 National Schools of Character) recently submitted a blog for us that began with this quote: “A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected.” That concept is certainly a big part of creating a caring community for teachers.
Over my eight years of evaluating schools for National Schools of Character accreditation and my 32 years teaching, I have seen a variety of creative things that schools do in creating a caring culture for faculty. Here are just a few ideas divided into four general categories.
Team building: Most schools do this reasonably well with staff picnics before school, team bonding activities during the first few days of school, and various social gatherings throughout the year. But one activity I remember from recent site visits had a different focus, but a faculty benefit. The “What’s Your Spark?” campaign that I saw at Blades Elementary School (St. Louis) was probably designed for student bonding, but because everyone, faculty and students alike, posted their “spark,” or their hobbies and interests on bulletin boards throughout the school, everyone learned about common interests among people they might not otherwise know about. It led to new and surprising friendships.
Meeting teachers’ personal needs: One school stands out to me in truly meeting teacher needs: Premier Charter School. Faced with a young faculty, many of whom were pregnant or had young children, the school created a day care on school grounds. Not all schools are able to do that, but creative supports for other teacher needs are possible.
One very simple strategy is to support teachers by Focusing on the positive: At Anderson Middle School (Omaha), where I once taught, the principal and the two assistant principals tried to visit every classroom once a week. These visits were separate from scheduled evaluations and at first, they seemed scary to me, a new teacher at the school. But after every visit, I received a positive note. It may have been as simple as noticing a bulletin board display, or commenting on an interesting discussion, or noting engaged students or even empathizing with a challenging situation and offering support. I began to look forward to and to grow from their visits.
One young teacher agreed with me that support from administrators make the most difference in teacher morale, and she contrasted with how the administrator’s approach at her previous school drove teachers away from the school.. After four years at the school, she became one of the most senior teachers in the building and served on 17 different committees. She said she had to deal with a mass exodus of 17 of their 31 teachers. “It was a very difficult building for most teachers,” she said. “The attitude was consistently negative with a ‘what new thing do I have to do this week added on top of what I was doing previously?’” She said instead of supporting teachers, the administrators criticized.
Helping teachers to improve instruction: This is a perhaps a surprising category for creating a caring culture for teachers, but all of us want to do well and increasing student achievement is a prime goal of all teachers. For a success story on instruction, see a recent blog from Bayless Junior High.
Teachers, particularly new teachers, also need help with classroom management. A Feb. 26 article in the New York Times The Myth of the Hero Teacher described this well. The author said his teacher training did not prepare him for the skills he needed in managing a classroom in an urban school. The author wrote: “Often, the least experienced teachers get assigned to the most difficult classrooms. Then they quit, leaving vulnerable students with a parade of rookies, falling further behind each year.” He wished we had a residency program for new teachers that went way beyond a semester of student teaching.
The article quotes Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education research and policy group. “There’s a mind-set that it’s O.K. to make your mistakes on the job,” he said. “Nobody says to an air traffic controller, ‘Everyone crashes a plane their first year; you’ll get better.’ It’s not acceptable that that’s part of the profession.”
So why do we allow it in teaching? If the main way that schools affect student outcomes is through the quality of their teachers, we need to do everything we can to support teachers.
We need to support administrators, too, as their jobs keep getting more and more complex with increased accountability requirements, but that is fodder for another column.