Teachers are an integral part of the education system. However, it seems that their needs as professionals often go unacknowledged. If students are to succeed, then we must support our teachers. Every year we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week. The Starbucks gift cards and cutsy mugs are nice, but they aren’t what’s needed to keep teachers in the classroom and truly encouraged at the core. Teaching is hard; it is emotionally and mentally draining. But there is so much that can be done to support teachers and ease the burden without even drastic change to the system.
Need 1: Autonomy
The definition of professional according to Merriam-Webster is “relating to a job that requires special education, training, or skill”. In order to be a classroom teacher in the United States, we need at least a Bachelor’s degree in teaching and most states now require a Master of Arts in Teaching. We also need a state-issued teaching license. Thus, a teacher is a professional. As such, administrative leadership at all levels and the general public need to recognize that teachers are fully capable of creating classroom learning that addresses Common Core or whatever standards they have been hired to teach. This is not a role that just anybody can fill, and in order to feel respected and valued, teachers need to know that their leadership hired them based on specific training and personal strengths. And leadership can demonstrate this by offering teachers autonomy. Autonomy does not mean “prefer to work alone and entirely without guidance.” Autonomy means “self-directing freedom and freedom from external control.” In a teacher’s world this simply means that the teacher is given deadlines and timelines and then trusted to fulfill them, rather than micromanaged until they are fulfilled. In an autonomous workplace, teachers have ownership of their classroom style and their opinions are heard. Increased autonomy for teachers will increase morale, decrease stress, and therefore benefit student learning.
Need 2: Time
A teacher spends 6.5-7 hours per day actively teaching and managing a classroom. This is highly focused, highly engaged time that cannot be spent on anything else. Thus, in a typical 8-hour workday, a teacher only has one more hour left after the students leave and the lessons end to plan lessons for the next day, grade papers that students turned in, and meet with colleagues, not to mention catch his or her breath and have a snack. This might be enough time for a math teacher (probably not, though), but it’s certainly not enough for an English, Social Studies, or Science teacher who must grade projects and papers that take longer than one-minute per assignment.
Teachers need time to prepare quality lessons in all subjects, whether it’s a PowerPoint lecture or small group learning activities or stations. Teachers need time to give quality feedback on assignments. Teachers need time to brainstorm with colleagues and time to meet with administration, parents, and students. Teachers deeply desire to fulfill all parts of their job well, but in order to maintain proper mental health and tend to personal and family needs, pieces of the job often fall by the wayside, and teachers are left feeling like they failed.
Need 3: Opportunities for authentic collaboration
The image I have in my head right now is of an open-concept workplace. Clearly this is not practical for actual classroom learning time, but elements of the open-concept design could definitely benefit school environment for teachers. In the middle and high schools I have observed though subbing, there is a serious dearth of both time and space for teachers to just hang out and have unimpeded conversation like there would be in a more corporate setting. Teachers have thirty minutes for lunch and an hour after school to do a bazillion tasks as discussed above. Teachers’ lounges are either nonexistent, tiny, industrial (and not in the chic way) or full of teachers zoning out. Teachers need a central meeting place big enough to accommodate large groups. This could happen in smaller spaces throughout the school according to department but ideally, there would be one big teacher lounge where all teachers could congregate. Creative insights could and should begin to happen between math and social studies teachers, as an example. And equally necessary, teachers need time during the work day to have these conversations without feeling stressed about all the other things they need to accomplish.
Need 4: Opportunities for authentic relationship building
While Need 3 addresses the more professional elements of school community, this addresses the idea that both teachers and students are human beings with emotional and relational needs. Teachers need space and time to connect with each other personally because, like a good marriage, when students know their teachers are friends with each other, or at least congenial, they feel more stable at school. Additionally, teachers need time and space to connect personally with their students. To goof around, laugh, create memories. This often happens in the course of a typical day, but what if schools built in regular time each semester for teachers and students to just bond? Would the world end? What would be the effect on mental health troubles in schools?
Need 5: Regular personal and professional support
The number of conversations I had with teacher friends and colleagues that could have been counseling sessions were regular and many. Although they’re pretty good at hiding it, teachers are overwhelmed with the combination of their professional and personal responsibilities. Most teachers give their heart and soul to their work.
Teachers need built-in time to meet with their administrators and colleagues one-on-one for professional guidance and personal encouragement. Teachers understand each other. Time to talk freely is extremely valuable.
Every school needs an instructional coach (or several!) to support teachers in various departments in various specific ways (organization, lesson development, integration, differentiation, literacy, etc).
Every school needs a dedicated parent or staff posse to work behind the scenes making photocopies and other minor tasks to support teachers who could spend that energy elsewhere like planning differentiated lessons and grading.
Need 6: Money
Can we please just compensate these professionals appropriately? Yes, teachers get summers off, but they work 80 hour weeks for ten months. Christmas break is a break from the daily lessons and active teaching, but especially at the high school level, teachers are catching up on grading before the end of a semester and gearing up for finals. Teachers may be a subcategory of government employees, but their job requires a higher degree, a license and regular professional development. Classrooms require maintenance and supplies. Teachers all over the United States are not only undercompensated personally, but they use that money to stock their classrooms so students have the supplies they need to succeed.
It’s disgraceful. We are a first-world country. Public K-12 education is the foundation of our economy, leadership, and national security. Our country literally cannot stand for the long-term without quality public education. And quality education begins with quality, connected, supported teachers.
Imagine a world where the daily life of a teacher consisted of teaching 4-5 classes, at least two hours to plan and grade, an hour for lunch to spend eating lesiurly, chatting, and brainstorming with colleagues across departments, and catching his or her breath (a lot of teachers are introverts–yes, really!–and need some downtime to recharge during the day).
Imagine a world where teachers not only gave the impression they had it all together, but they actually felt like they had it all together.
I think that world is called Finland. You can read more about that here. And here. This second article covers more than teachers’ needs, and I realize Finland is significantly smaller than the U.S., but it’s fascinating information.
The United States is facing the opposite problem of Finland. In Finland, prospective teachers are denied entry to their prestigious graduate schools. In the United States, prospective teachers are voluntarily choosing other professions (understandably!) and districts are facing real shortages. Government employees they may be, teachers are humans with professional, personal, and relational needs. According to Daniel Pink in Drive, workers thrive when they have opportunities for autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work. Let’s take some time to plan how we can support teachers in these three areas. We require higher education to be a teacher; let’s respect that by giving teachers ownership over their classroom and listening to their opinions about education.
Nobody has to become a teacher; it’s a choice. But the need for teachers is not. We will always need teachers. Let us commit to meet their needs before all teachers decide they do not need to sacrifice themselves a country who has rejected them.