By nature, I am very optimistic and I spend time encouraging educators on a daily basis. I celebrate when student teachers get their first job, teachers get promoted to administrators, or administrators get moved to the central office. I hear wonderful stories where teachers love their profession and school. I also hear the reports of the difficulties and the challenges.
One of the issues that is often overlooked in the education profession is the school culture and climate. Teachers understand the salary issue is ongoing, and correctly believe that it is critical for them to be paid as the professionals that they are. However, salary is not usually the determining factor to make someone enter the education profession. For most educators, it is a calling of a noble profession. They teach to make a difference in the lives of their students and their communities.
Student discipline is spiraling out of control in many schools across the nation. We have all seen and heard stories on local news. Internally, in some schools, it may even be worse. In Hamilton County, for example, reports of teachers quitting strictly because of discipline issues are unfortunately becoming commonplace.
However, school culture and climate are beginning to become a major issue that needs to be addressed. If not addressed soon on the local level, it will certainly become a statewide policy issue to be addressed by policymakers.
Let’s examine a few issues:
Loss of Teacher Autonomy. Doris Santoro, author of the book “Demoralized,” describes systemic pressures, such as top-down initiatives or punitive evaluation systems, which have diminished teacher autonomy. State Department of Education and School Districts must do a better job of addressing the culture and climate in our schools to impact the morale of their teachers. Constant turnover in districts and schools really impacts teachers as much as students. In addition, there are ongoing and chronic conflicts between school boards, school leaders, and even educators. While change is always inevitable, staff and stakeholder participation is essential. Too often there is little attempt to align culture, strategy, and structure in public education. If educators feel listened to, and their knowledge and experience are respected, there is a greater chance of success.
Lack of Support. In the absence of monetary support, educators desperately need emotional and professional support from their administrators and colleagues. Support starts at the top with ongoing, collaborative teacher support. The working conditions in the schools become the learning conditions for the students. Administrators must be consistent when dealing with student discipline or parent situations. Teachers need to know their administration has their backs. Students who are sent to school administration for extreme misbehaviors cannot be sent right back to class, and education policies must be clear to all who are involved. If criticism is warranted, do it in private, not in front of parents or children. Every situation is unique, and how an administrator handles a situation depends on each situation. In addition, some administrators seemingly scold the entire staff for the faults of a few. A former educator and now author Jennifer Gonzalez wrote: “Behind every teacher story is an administrator who is interpreting policy, setting expectations, and establishing a tone that will determine the quality of their teachers’ work, and by extension, the education their students receive.”
Legal and Liability Challenges. We live in a litigious society. As an educator or school employee, teachers are acutely aware that professional liability insurance is critical because district coverage may not protect them individually. Due to their unique role, educators face exposure to liability much greater than does the average citizen and therefore must exercise a higher duty of care than most professionals. Nearly every day teachers must deal with diverse laws related to issues such as child abuse, student discipline, negligence, defamation, student records, and copyright infringement. One district in the state, Williamson County, appointed an attorney—who lacked classroom teaching or school level administrative experience—as its Director of Schools. The new director has additional attorneys on his staff. This has to be concerning to parents, taxpayers, and educators when a district is top-heavy with lawyers—especially when they lack classroom and administrative experience. Ultimately such a heavy legal presence will not serve the interests of classroom teachers when they experience conflict with the district. When a conflict of interest occurs, and they will occur, the interest of the district will likely prevail over the teacher or administrator. This will mean settlements will be reached, even when educators may not be at fault. The district, in order to save money or diminish the negative publicity, will place its interests above those of the teacher or administrator. Educators know it is dangerous and potentially career-threatening if you enter a public-school classroom or school without liability or legal protection. That is why professional education associations are needed more than ever.
Together, salary, student discipline, school culture, and climate are driving teachers out of their profession. These issues will impact the teacher labor market in ways in which it may not recover creating a shortage of highly qualified teachers in school districts across Tennessee. States and districts must track student discipline issues better. Research into why teachers leave teaching, including pressured or forced resignations, would be helpful for future retention issues. Novice and experienced teachers and administrators alike will deal with school leaders that are great, terrible, or somewhere in-between during their career. Those are the stories I most like to hear.
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee