How to help public school teachers love their profession again

Date Published: 
December 31, 2018
Author: 
PAUL DIPERNA
The 2018 election was marked in many corners as the “Year of the Teacher.” Record numbers of educators ran for—and some were elected to—local, state and national office.
 
Teachers also stormed statehouses from Arizona to West Virginia to demand better pay in what was known as the “Red for Ed” movement.
 
Why were so many teachers motivated to leave the classroom and get political on a scale never before seen?
 
According to EdChoice’s recent Schooling in America survey, a large proportion of public school educators around the country would not recommend their profession—specifically, teaching in public schools—to other colleagues or friends. 
 
We polled 777 current public school teachers and asked whether they were favorable to the profession based on a Net Promoter Score (NPS)  question. The results were stunning: Nearly three-fourths of teachers in our survey would not promote or recommend teaching in public schools based on the NPS rubric.
 
In fact, only 26 percent clearly would be “promoters,” with 32 percent considered “passives” and 42 percent considered as “detractors” of the profession. In previous surveys, we have reported significantly higher percentages of promoters among active-duty military servicemembers and state legislators. Furthermore, teachers with 10 or more years of experience were more likely to be detractors than teachers with three or fewer years under their belt. Based on results, professional morale appears to go down the longer someone teaches.
 
Teachers are our most important educational resource. They shoulder the brunt of expectations and mandates placed on them by federal, state and local governments; by superintendents, school boards and principals; and, perhaps most frustratingly, by parents. Balancing these different forces—from testing requirements to government standards, from principals to parents—places a tremendous challenge for teachers, competing for time and attention when we would much rather they be focused on students’ needs.
 
This clearly has led to some trust issues for teachers with some of the groups imposing these policies, rules, and expectations. In our survey, majorities of teachers say they trust their students (52 percent) and principals (57 percent) most, but less than half say they trust their teachers’ union leadership (46 percent), superintendent (41 percent), or even their students’ parents (36 percent). Teachers place even less trust in elected officials and government agencies, such as the school board (35 percent), state department of education (28 percent), or the federal department of education (25 percent).
 
Proximity to stakeholders appears to matter, and teachers start by looking locally when they want to address the issues making them dissatisfied with their profession.
 
That may be why public school teachers in the survey also said that they hold their local school districts most responsible for the recent spate of strikes and walkouts earlier this year. Dissatisfied with pay or other working conditions, they first look to who is signing their paychecks. In the most recent EdNext poll, we see plenty of increased support among teachers, parents, and the general public for increasing teacher pay.  It should be an imperative for local education leaders to play a more prominent role in addressing teachers’ concerns and frustrations.
 
The Schooling in America survey also shows that public school teachers appear to agree with parents and the public in that they want to keep matters as local as possible when it comes to accountability. Rather than imposition from the federal government, the local level, or even the state level, are better at providing proper oversight.
 
As a corollary—and far from surprising—more than half of teachers think too much time is spent on standardized testing.
 
When we launched this survey at an event in Washington, panelist George Parker, a 30-year D.C. public school teacher and a former president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said he wasn’t surprised that public school teachers were feeling put-upon. He said teachers aren’t feeling empowered, decisions are being made for them, and they feel like they are being used as a scapegoat for the failures of school systems.
 
Parker is right. Teachers are in an intensive profession that requires significant emotional investment, content knowledge, classroom management, among other attributes – all in the hopes of educating our children. Public district school teachers alone are responsible for more than 80 percent of all school-age children in the United States. We should do all that we can to focus their energy in the classroom and boost their morale for the profession, which at its best is a vocation. Boosting their pay, reducing administrative rules and burdens and localizing accountability are all ways to begin addressing their concerns.