If teachers are our number one resource, why do we treat them so poorly?
It goes without saying that teachers are under a tremendous amount of stress in today's educational landscape. The rhetoric of the day paints teachers as privileged, whiny, and entitled. Reports are put forth that place not only the future of our country's economy on the shoulders of educators but also our national security. We hear a lot of talk about how teachers' unions and tenure are to blame for the country's educational woes. We hear that, if teachers want to be treated like professionals, they need to act like and be held accountable like professionals. What we don't often hear, however, is how we need to support teachers. The question is, why?
We know that there is currently a deficit, not a surplus, of teachers. Districts across the country are continuously facing staffing shortages, even with the influx of teachers acquired through alternative licensure programs like Teach for America, The New Teacher Project and others. While there are some who believe that the continued infusion of "new blood" into the teaching profession is good, the rate of turnover in our schools is neither sustainable nor conducive for the learning environments our students need. Of course, there is no doubt that there are some teachers who are ineffective and perhaps should look for careers in fields that may better fit their talents. However, there is also no doubt that, due to the stress, strain, vitriol and "success-or-apocalypse" pressure placed on educators, many of them are leaving the profession within the five years it takes to fully hit their stride. Even those teachers who would have been the most effective and those teachers who dreamed of being teachers are leaving the profession. Why aren't we capturing this lost potential?
Well, in all the talk about using metrics to evaluate instruction, what we may not be talking about is what happens to a teacher on the road to ineffectiveness and/or retirement from the profession. In other words, what forces -- outside of teachers' control -- push them into positions of underperformance, burnout, or turnover? We rarely, if ever, ask: what are the predominant sources of teacher stress? What kinds of support are available, unavailable, beneficial, and unbeneficial to teachers? What inspires teachers to remain in teaching? And lastly, what do teachers feel prepared and unprepared for?
Every day, teachers interact with students, colleagues and community members, often serving as counselors, coaches or parental figures to their students. In a single morning, a teacher might resolve a student conflict, reassure an upset parent, and negotiate an administrator's demands. Despite the highly socially and emotionally demanding nature of the profession, critics and teacher training institutions focus heavily on pedagogy and subject matter mastery, but rarely on the vital personal dimensions of teaching. How can teachers possibly sustain themselves when their training does not fully match their task?
At FuelEd -- a recently launched education startup -- we believe that the human element of teaching and learning is one that can no longer be ignored. Which is exactly why we are working to transform how we think about education by cultivating and developing our most prized resource - teachers. FuelEd's mission is to strengthen teacher quality and teacher retention by equipping teachers with the social and emotional skills essential to building relationships in schools. FuelEd both educates and supports teachers. Our personal development approach to professional development is founded on the belief that in order to improve the craft of teaching, one must improve the instrument -- that is, the teacher, him or herself. FuelEd encourages a continuous pursuit of self-growth so that FuelEd teachers can provide high quality, holistic education founded on authentic relationships. Learning is a social phenomena so if we are to fully engage in the work of improving our nation's educational system, we must not only look to solve the achievement gap among students, but also social and emotional gaps among our teachers.
And its not just teacher-student relationships that matter but teachers relationships with parents, fellow teachers, and of course administrators. Considering the fact that human beings are social animals, and perhaps teachers are perhaps the most social of us all, it is no wonder that poor working relationships are frequently cited as the source of teacher burnout and turnover. Research indicates that when teachers give more than they get, they have higher levels of emotional exhaustion.
When teachers are not able be a part of school decision-making or when they do not receive recognition and appreciation, they are more likely to burn out. Teachers are tired of having policies directed at them and not having policies constructed with them. What teachers truly need are environments that place a premium on community, relationships, and collaboration. These are exactly the types of school cultures that FuelEd works to create: schools fueled by the power of human relationships.
According to Wikipedia, a "scorched earth policy" is a military strategy whereby "all of the assets that are used or can be used by the enemy are targeted, such as food sources, transportation, communications, industrial resources, and even the people in the area." I chose Scorched Earth as a title of this piece because in the urge to reform, and boost test scores, we have taken away teachers ability to teach, taken away time to collaborate, in some states we taken away their ability to unionize. We have been eager to launch policy at them, but we have not been eager to collaborate with or support them.
In other words, we have taken away all of the assets that are or can be used in order for teachers to succeed. Which begs the question: do we view our teachers as the enemy? Must educational improvement be carried out as a war? There is no doubt that there's much work to be done, but in order to truly transform American education, we need to transform how we think about teachers: far from being our enemies, teachers are our secret weapons. We can no longer afford to view teachers as pawns to be played but rather, we must view them as prized resources and partners to invest in, with the knowledge that the investment will yield results and strengthen our nation. Our question to you is: do we want to improve outcomes enough to make the critical investment in teachers that our schools and students need?