We should not squander teacher energy

I have worked in schools where teachers will stand up and leave an important meeting the minute the clock reaches the end-time specified in the contract, and I have worked in schools where teachers voluntarily invest their own time to make their schools better. What determines the attitude of teachers toward their schools? What conditions encourage teachers to feel personally invested in the success of their schools?

The educational establishment, and much of the media, would have us believe that pressure, shaming, and force are needed to get teachers to meet the needs of their students. The nation is in the process of adopting expensive, cumbersome, time-consuming evaluation procedures for teachers, standardized tests, and systems of merit pay. All of this is intended to thwart the supposed inclination of teachers to hide behind the protection offered by unions as they shirk hard work.

In my experience this approach to educational professionals completely misses the mark. We are wasting the public’s hard-earned tax dollars in the purchase of all these new systems. If we want teachers to work hard and feel invested in the success of their schools, we should instead support them by providing favorable conditions – adequate time to think, materials for their classrooms, and access to the professional development they need to reach their potential. Even more importantly, we should involve them in decisions that impact their work: solicit their ideas; listen to what they have learned through experience; recognize their expertise when it comes to what works with real children in classrooms.

If the culture wants the most it can possibly get from its teachers then our treatment of them needs to change. Teachers who work the hardest are almost always those who are given control over the implementation of curriculum, and treated with kindness and genuine interest by administrators. Top-down, punitive school cultures, on the other hand, drain teachers of the will to give. In these schools teacher energy is squandered in furious tirades against the establishment. These are the schools where teachers watch the clock – in these schools conditions  do not favor the careful development of curriculum, or of assessing student needs. Teachers in these schools focus instead on protecting their self-respect.

On the whole, teachers are an intensely devoted group who will go to great lengths to meet the needs of their students. They are human, however, and respond to how they are treated.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.