Opinion: It's the culture, not the cash, that matters most to teachers

I am at a conference in Orlando sponsored by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that develops engineering, computer science and biomedical curricula for schools and helps them improve and enhance k-12 science education. I was chatting with some young science teachers today about what would make them and their peers stay in the classroom.

Money, while on the list, was not the top driver. (Several teachers I met are engineers and could increase their salaries instantly in the private sector.)

Rather, teachers talked about school cultures and how important it was for them to work in a building where there was a shared purpose, collaboration and school-wide commitment to improvement and to excellence. They wanted smart principals who not only listened to teachers but regarded them as partners and who created a safe and welcoming environment for students.

In essence, they wanted to work in good places with good people doing good things.

That brings me to this guest column by Etienne R. LeGrand, who writes about education and researches organizational culture as a leadership responsibility. An Atlanta writer, LeGrand has written for the blog before including this piece.

LeGrand was responding in part to a blog I wrote about how big bonuses were not enough to draw top teachers to under performing schools.

By Etienne R. LeGrand

Money solves a lot of problems, but can it motivate top teaching talent to teach in low-performing schools?  Based on a number of initiatives that offer teachers as much as $25,000 to take on teaching assignments in such schools, including those in Georgia and Florida, the answer seems to be no.

Do we fully understand the barriers to teachers working in the schools where they’re most needed?

Etienne R. LeGrand

The knee-jerk answers of racism and classism remain distinct possibilities.  Until America’s aspirations of equality and justice have been met, we can’t rule these out completely. But what else may be going on inside of school districts around which more can be done?

According to research conducted by Education Trust, a Washington-based education policy nonprofit, teachers’ unwillingness to work in low-performing schools has less to do with the kids, the neighborhoods or the commute and more to do with the workplace culture.

Though it’s loosely used and little understood term, culture is the habits and behaviors of individuals and teams in a school district - - the way people in a school district interact with one another as they perform their jobs.

Teachers don’t want to work in schools that are poorly led, where expectations are unclear, where coaching and feedback are in short supply, where contributions go unappreciated, where little concern is demonstrated for them as people, where they have little opportunity to learn and grow and where colleagues aren’t expected to work as a team or do their best.  In essence they don’t want to work in a dysfunctional organization.

Can we really blame them?

If schools located in a low status neighborhood and attended by poor and minority children who are not yet actualizing their potential were led by leaders who were adept at coaching and developing their teachers and employees, who expected all to perform at their best and to work together as a team, who expressed appreciation to individuals and teams for their contributions, who genuinely cared for employees, and provided them with opportunities to learn and grow, could these be schools that teachers might want to work in?  Could such schools actually produce better results for more kids?

I think the answer is yes. The opportunity to attract teachers to teach in low-performing schools lies less in offering financial incentives, even though compensation has a role to play in attracting talent and recognizing employee contributions, and more in the ability of educational leaders who can shape a high functioning, high performing district culture that emphasizes high performance behaviors, such as teamwork and mutual support, coaching and “a can do attitude” to name a few.

The idea of creating school districts as great places to work gets short shrift.  It’s the key ingredient to creating great places to learn. We need more educational leaders who are adept at addressing the human issues or organizational culture that is weighing the performance of too many school districts down much as a rip tide causes a swimmer to struggle to reach the shore.

Money may buy love and it’s definitely necessary to pay a mortgage and other living expenses, but creating higher functioning schools and districts that teachers are excited and proud to work in is a stronger inducement than money alone can buy.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.