Reflecting on Teacher Working Conditions

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting opportunity to speak to a group of aspiring principals about the role that quality teacher working conditions can play in school improvement—something North Carolina has been studying for years

Considering my "just a teacher" status, I figured that I'd be fighting an uphill battle to convince these future leaders that teacher working conditions were worth embracing, but the evening was such a success that the professor asked me to answer a few general follow-up questions so that he could use my responses in future work with students.   

Here are his questions and my replies.  I hope that you'll find them useful in your work to draw attention to the important role that teacher working conditions can play in improving our schools:

What does it mean to say that "teacher working conditions are student learning conditions?"  Is this true?

I've always loved this slogan–coined by North Carolina Governor Mike Easley—because it's one of the best bits of public relations that you can find in the Ed Policy world, don't you think?  After all, who really cares about teacher working conditions if  they're not connected to student learning!  Building support for improved teacher working conditions requires direct public connections to student learning.

And the good news is that years of study have proven clear links between quality teacher working conditions and successful students as measured by Annual Yearly Progress and ABC—a North Carolina measure of effectiveness—scores.  To simplify the findings of working conditions surveys conducted in 8 different states over the past eight years into one statement, students in schools with quality working conditions regularly outperform students in schools with poor working conditions.

I'd argue that these findings shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. 

After all, schools with quailty working conditions are ALWAYS going to recruit and retain the best teachers.  Focusing on providing teachers with the time, tools and resources—including quality leadership, professional development, and flexibility—that they need in order to be successful ensures that schools will have the human capital necessary to reach every child. 

Should teacher working conditions data be tied to a principal's performance evaluation?  Why or why not?

 In conversations around North Carolina's Teacher Working Conditions Survey, this has always been the hardest question for me to answer.  You see, the biggest misconception about teacher working conditions is that they are the sole responsibility of the building principal—that he or she is the cause of positive or negative results.

In reality, there are specific steps—outlined in great detail in the Teacher Working Conditions Toolkit—that every educational stakeholder from parents to policymakers can take to improve teacher working conditions.  In that sense, tying teacher working conditions to principal evaluations—-something that we've done here in North Carolina—-seems to me to reinforce the notion that the only person responsible for taking action when working conditions are poor are school leaders.

That being said, principals are critical to driving change in their buildings because they can coordinate the action of every stakeholder, so if principals choose not to act around teacher working conditions issues, change is unlikely to ever occur. . .and it has been my experience that the principals most likely to willingly adopt the Teacher Working Conditions Survey as a tool for change here in North Carolina are those who are highly accomplished already. 

This tendency for theTeacher Working Conditions Survey to be set aside in buildings with poor working conditions has happened for many reasons—principals are already overwhelmed by data, there has been little formalized training in how to use data to drive change at the school level—but the most important reason has been that many principals don't see a need for change.

Take some time to explore the principal responses to the Teacher Working Conditions Survey in any state where it has been implemented compared to the teacher responses.  What you'll find are gaps of 20-40 percentage points on key questions like "teachers have ample noninstructional time build into the school day," and "there is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in our building."

If principals don't see a need for change—which is what the disparity between principal and teacher responses on formal working conditions surveys seem to suggest—schools are unlikely to ever address poor working conditions in their buildings.  So maybe tying indicators of teacher working conditions to principal evaluation will be the lever that's needed to make the true nature of a building's working conditions transparent to leaders. 

I'm just not sure yet that the positives of placing pressure on principals outweighs the negatives of sending the message to everyone else in a school community that they can sit and watch their leader sweat rather than roll up their sleeves and start working to improve the conditions in their schools. 

In what ways do teachers and administrators view working conditions differently?  What impact does this disparity have on schools?

I touched on this question a bit in my last comment—In general, principals are far more positive about working conditions than teachers are.  When I first learned of these discrepancies years ago, my first reaction was that their existence proved that principals just didn't care about teacher working conditions and that school leaders were actively covering up their tendency towards heavy-handed leadership.

Nice, huh?

Now, I realize that principals rate teacher working conditions in a much more positive light because they do care—and they are working in the best ways that they know how to create good schools.  From that lens, why wouldn't they rate the working conditions in their building in a more positive way than teachers?

The problem is that the perception gap between teachers and principals is very real, and if principals don't recognize–and then act on—this gap, school morale and trust between principals and teachers will suffer. 

This is an issue of transparency, isn't it?  Principals don't recognize the challenges that teachers face each day and teachers don't realize that administrators are doing their best with the tools and resources at their disposal to drive change. 

The greatest challenge, then, to improving teacher working conditions is bridging this transparency gap and beginning to work together to improve our schools.

What advice would you give to a principal as she prepares to evaluate the working conditions in her building?

For years, principals have been telling me to wrestle with data that reflects on my practice.  My test scores are published for the world to see.  My numbers—good or bad—-are constantly being reviewed by other teachers, principals or parents, and I'm supposed to be okay with that because we're supposed to be a data driven profession.

That's always been hard for me, though, because no one outside of teachers working in tested subjects is put under the same scrutiny. 

Principals who publically embrace results that are reflective of their work send a powerful message about data to their faculties.  If you sincerely want to see teachers open to looking at numbers that describe their performance, you've got to do the same by using some kind of indicator describing your own performance.

In states giving a formal Teacher Working Conditions Survey, you've got all the numbers that you need to model effectively, but if you're working in a state that doesn't administer a working conditions survey, that doesn't mean you can't create one yourself.  Start by looking at this administrative survey that my colleague Parry Graham and I are including in our upcoming book on Professional Learning Communities for Solution Tree:

Download PLC_Survey_Administration  

I think the key is DO something concrete to show teachers that you care about the conditions that they are working in AND that you're not afraid of numbers that reflect on your work.  We're more likely to believe that schools are teams and data is valuable when we seem the same kinds of actions modeled by our leaders.

What advice would you give to teachers interested in seeing the working conditions in their own buildings improve?

This is an easy question to answer:  teachers need to know that the presence or absence of quality working conditions is NOT just a reflection of the work of a building principal.  Instead, it is a reflection of the work of their entire school community—-and that there are independent actions that everyone, including teachers, can take to improve the working conditions in their communities. 

All too often, teachers grumble about how poor their working conditions are and how incompetent or unwilling their principals are to drive change.  "If only our principal was willing to take action," the thinking goes, "our building would be a better place to work and learn."

That's a pretty disempowering lens to look through, don't you think?  It operates from the assumption that teachers are nothing more than mindless blue collar robots taking orders from above!

In reality, teachers can innovate together and drive change in their hallways and grade levels if they are willing to take action.  Don't wait for school leaders to take action.  Instead, start demonstrating leadership by working within your own spheres of influence to improve your schools.  Create time by sharing students.  Improve professional development by studying together.  Embrace empowerment by documenting accomplished practice together.

I'm always puzzled by teachers who refuse to embrace the change agent mentality.  If you want change, start changing!

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on Teacher Working Conditions

  1. Matt Johnston

    Bill, this is good stuff.
    I would like to address on bit though. In closing out your response to this question: “Should teacher working conditions data be tied to a principal’s performance evaluation? Why or why not?,” you wrote: “I’m just not sure yet that the positives of placing pressure on principals outweighs the negatives of sending the message to everyone else in a school community that they can sit and watch their leader sweat rather than roll up their sleeves and start working to improve the conditions in their schools.”
    Among other ideas, I think the environment a principal creates in a school is something that must be measured and evaluated by the principal’s superiors-so it must be part of the principal’s job performance and I see the matter as one of necessity.
    If the premise that good working conditions breeds a good learning environment as fundamental to a quality school, then both the principal and the teachers must take an active role in that effort. Yes, some factors are beyond the control of the principal, i.e. union contract provisions regarding lunch, planning time, extra duties, etc. However, those factors are not unique to one principal, but apply to all principals in a school district, thus, it is a neutral point. Truly quality principals learn how to work with (and yes around) such factors beyond their control to develop a working environment that is conducive to good teaching and thus good learning.
    But working conditions are not a matter of top-down guidance, but are reflective of teachers’ efforts as well. Thus, working (and learning) conditions are a total unit effort. You wondered about the negative incentive of making a principal solely responsible for teacher working conditions and the fact that teachers might sit and watch a principal fail rather than making an effort themselves.
    This is a valid point, but there are two countervailing forces that must be considered. First, if teachers routinely sit on the sidelines and either actively contribute to a principal’s failure or passively allow the failure, the result is rapid turnover in school leadership–which is never a good thing. No teacher will like having a different principal every year. Similarly, over time, principals and potential principals will learn that a school with high leadership turnover is not particularly conducive to career advancement and will begin to shun the school. The result, a leaderless, rudderless school that is almost doomed to failure. It would seem that truly professional teachers would seek stability and would seek to work with a principal. But that is just me.
    Second, teachers who don’t work with a principal to improve conditions in a school get a bad reputation quickly. And obstructionist teachers won’t find themselves welcome at new schools and will soon find their professional horizons restricted in a school district. I am sure you can name teachers you have worked with that you would, professionally, prefer never to see again. It happens in all professions.
    Of course, one way to discourage this kind of negative incentive is to make the evaluation of a teachers efforts to improve working conditions in a school a part of their performance evaluation, if even only a small party.

Comments are closed.