After writing about education in Georgia for more than 20 years, I realize that while policymakers extol the virtues of teaching, they ignore the voices of teachers.
Teachers are held up as integral to Georgia’s workforce development, but they’re not treated as experts in education. They are underrepresented, if represented at all, on state commissions considering education reform; they earn warm greetings when they speak to pending legislation, but their views seldom shape the final bill.
Yet, teachers and schools are regarded as the solutions to intractable societal problems, hence the current push to add social and emotional learning to their list of responsibilities.
That bit of a rant leads me to the Economic Policy Institute’s new report on how teachers view their work environment.
EPI Economist Emma García and research associate Elaine Weiss find that the challenging “school climate” many teachers experience affects their satisfaction, morale, and plans to stay in the profession.
The study found more than two-thirds of teachers report they don’t have “a great deal of influence” over what they teach in the classroom or what instructional materials they use, underscoring that their judgments aren’t valued in decion-making.
The report concludes:
The various components of a negative working environment—barriers to teaching, stress, physical threats, a lack of say in how to run the classroom, and low levels of satisfaction—interact with one another and make it harder for teachers to do their work, and affect students’ ability to learn.
And tough school climates definitely play a role in the teacher shortage: despite their substantial training and ability to deal with the challenges of their job, the negative aspects of the school climate can dissuade young people from becoming teachers and driving some teachers out of our classrooms.
Here is a summary of the findings from EPI:
Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Teacher and Principal Survey, the authors reveal that the relationships between teachers and their administrators are often negative.
Fully half of teachers reported not feeling a great deal of support or encouragement. Six out of 10 reported not feeling a lot of cooperative effort among staff members.
And 71.3 percent of teachers reported not having much control or influence on selecting the content, topics, and skills they will be teaching in their classrooms.
Over one in four teachers, 28.8 percent, also reported that poverty was a “serious problem” challenging their ability to teach and their students’ learning. In addition, 27.3 percent and 21.5 percent, respectively, reported that students’ unpreparedness to learn and parents’ struggles to be involved were serious problems.
Less common but very troubling, in the 2015–2016 school year, 21.8 percent of teachers had been threatened by students and one in eight (12.4 percent) had been physically attacked.
“It’s important to keep in mind that our findings are reflective of larger societal issues. Schools’ climates are shaped by rising poverty, ongoing racial and economic segregation of schools, and insufficient public investments,” said García. “Because these larger societal forces contribute to deteriorating working environments in schools, they can’t be blamed on students or parents. Rather, improving the funding and resources to counter them should be made a priority.”
The report also shows that a very hefty share of teachers—over 1 in 4—plan to quit teaching if a specific life event occurs or a more desirable job appears. This share increased from 24.0 percent to 27.4 percent in just the past four years.
“The teacher shortage is a growing national crisis that needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner,” said Weiss. “Obviously compensation is a major part of the issue, but improving teaching environments would go a long way toward helping teachers feel more supported.”
This is the fourth report in our series on the national teacher shortage. The first report established that current national estimates of the shortage likely understate the magnitude of the problem. When aspects such as teacher qualifications associated with excellence and the unequal distribution of highly credentialed teachers across high- and low-poverty schools are taken into consideration, the teacher shortages are much more severe than previously recognized. The second report found that U.S. schools struggle to staff themselves due to a combination of high rates of voluntary turnover and attrition and a decreasing interest in teaching careers. The third report found that teachers are severely underpaid across the board, with particular problems in high-poverty schools, and that a majority of teachers take on additional work to supplement their pay.