by Brett Vaden
Public school teachers in Detroit have not been happy. In fact, about 800 of them called in sick on Wednesday, causing almost 90% of Detroit’s public schools to shut down. The reason they gave is that their current working conditions make it impossible to do their job: low pay, unmanageable class sizes, inadequate materials, and decrepit school buildings.
Private schools and charter schools might think themselves immune to such woes, but it is not so. Even teachers who have worked in the best schools will testify that their working conditions could be better.
If administrators could hear what their teachers are thinking (but not saying), they’d likely hear:
“I want better pay.”
Teachers might be afraid to ask for it, but like workers from any other profession, they want to be fairly rewarded for what they do. Granted, some teachers may not deserve it, but if that’s the case, then the problem isn’t pay, it’s quality control.
Before they hire anyone, administrators should first make it very clear to themselves and to prospective teachers the work that is expected and what it’s worth. This measure will prevent teachers from later feeling they’ve been hoodwinked or short-changed.
But that’s not all. It’s just as important to make clear what the teacher can expect from the administration. There is a psychological kind of “payment” that goes beyond money in the bank. If schools build up adequate emotional support, or morale, then even less than stellar pay may be tolerated. However, the best schools will pay teachers both in deserved dollars and deserved support.
“I want feedback.”
Teachers spend hours in their classrooms every day, usually with no one watching but themselves and their students. As a result, their only sense of how well or poorly they are doing is left up to their own subjective judgment. For an administrator to come in for a few minutes and simply see what’s happening is itself a form of support. To take it a step further, imagine an administrator spending 30 minutes or an hour and taking notes on what he or she sees. I’ve had this happen many times. Yes, there is a bit of anxiety for the teacher as he wonders what his boss is writing down, or what might be said afterwards. Yet, in my experience, feedback (good or bad) is better than silence, especially when I know my administrator has my back.
“I want to know you’re on my side.”
Another important aspect of emotional support consists of administrators giving teachers steady reminders that they have their backs. During my years as a teacher, there have been a few unfortunate instances when parents have bypassed me and brought up an issue with my superior. Admittedly, sometimes we as teachers need to admit we’ve made a mistake, and in most situations we can own some part of the problem, even if very small. However, I’ve always had the good fortune to be completely supported by those above me. It helps tremendously to know that, even if I make a mistake, my superiors aren’t going to throw me to the wolves, but are willing to back me, even if it means taking some heat themselves.
“I don’t want more frills or tech, but a simple classroom with essential materials.”
If you frequent this blog, you know that we are ‘open but cautious’ about technology in the classroom (see here and here). If schools invest in iPads, videos, or the latest software apps without a clear understanding of how they actually help students learn the curriculum, then they are useless at best, and a distraction at worst. The same can be said about other frills and teacher-store brick-a-brack that often festoon primary and elementary classrooms. What teachers really need (though they may not know it) is a clean, reliable, and simple classroom, fitted out with only those furnishings and materials that are essential for providing a safe, comfortable, and efficient work environment.
“I want a curriculum.”
A man was telling me about a meeting he had with his son’s Math teacher the other day, because of his son’s poor grades. He wanted to know if he could have an extra Math book, so that he could supplement the in-class learning with tutoring at home. The man had been a Math major in college, so even having a rough scope-and-sequence for the year would be adequate. Unfortunately, the teacher was at a loss and she had nothing to give the man: there was no Math book (all the lessons were on Ipads), and because her lesson plans were provided online every couple of weeks, she had no idea what they might be learning very far ahead, much less the whole year.
While this may be an extreme example, it illustrates the fact that teachers need a solid curriculum. Flying by the seat of one’s pants, ‘winging’ lessons, and relying on worksheets or other activities to fill time are all symptoms that usually stem not from teacher laziness but from curricular chaos.
Although frequent doses of spontaneity can enliven students’ interest and bring pleasure to the work of learning, it cannot take the place of a clear curriculum, which brings continuity and direction to a teacher’s work.
“I need to be reminded why I’m doing this job.”
Every school needs a mission, and every teacher needs to be part of fulfilling that mission. Good teachers don’t teach merely to get paid. They teach because they believe teaching is meaningful.
Inspiring teachers to live up to their calling is perhaps the hardest task administrators have. It requires them to constantly be doing two things: looking at the big picture (the mission) and communicating it in compelling ways. I’ve never been an administrator, and so I’ve not had to bear the weight of that task. However, I have seen how powerful it can be when done well: even the most downcast spirits will rise up when reminded of their value and calling.
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