How Would Teachers Grade Their Workplaces? Part II

by Steve Crabtree, Contributing Editor

Close relationships make a difference

This article is the second in a series presenting the results of focus groups and in-depth interviews Gallup recently conducted with teachers to gain a better understanding of the workplace issues they face. These aren't random-sample survey results, so the attitudes expressed aren't necessarily generalizable to all teachers. But the comments do provide an inside look at how teachers view workplace conditions. The first article touched on teachers' low pay and the conflicting expectations they face. This part focuses on teachers' relationships at work.

Relationships are important in any workplace -- so important that 4 of the 12 items in Gallup's employee engagement survey address the quality of workplace relationships. Within schools, professional relationships pose a particular challenge because teachers are often isolated in their classrooms for most of the day, with limited opportunity to interact with colleagues. Some of the teachers Gallup spoke with craved more opportunities to interact on a professional level.

  • Sue, elementary school teacher: "I do like feedback. I don't want to be dictated to, because that takes away that professional aspect of who you are. But I want someone to come and listen, maybe two or three people, and say, 'Hmm, you know, that really was a little crazy, maybe you should have tried blah, blah, blah.' … I don't want to be by myself, I want to be part of that system."

Teachers and Administrators

Elementary school teachers we interviewed were more likely than secondary school teachers to agree with the statement, "My principal, or someone at my school, seems to care about me as a person." Teachers from elementary schools or smaller secondary schools tend to feel the principal has a huge influence on their jobs. Those in bigger schools more often see the principal as a figurehead, and interact more often with a vice principal or department head. But almost all the teachers we spoke with feel close relationships with administrators can make a dramatic difference in their lives at work.

  • Tammy, middle school teacher: "I came from a small school setting in Louisiana where there were less than a hundred teachers, and the principal every holiday handwrote us a letter saying how important we were and got gifts specific for us. She had control of the school, she knew the kids, she knew everything about the school. She just was amazing. I have friends that stay in the poorest parish in Louisiana and take the lowest pay just to stay with her."

  • Maxine, high school teacher: "My first year at [my current school], the principal actually came in and sat down and just observed what was going on, not taking notes or anything like that, not evaluating me, but just seeing me as a person and how I interacted with kids. As a result of that one visit, I received quite a few supplies that I used throughout the year. And I received a personal thank you at the end of the school year from that particular principal. Just caring for me as a human being."

Some teachers said that with all the stress on accountability, it's hard to avoid a sense of divisiveness between teachers and administrators. Particularly with rapid change to address state standards, close contact between the two groups is important.

  • Leonard, high school teacher: "It'd be great if you had more of these drop-ins. Just dropping in and going over to Johnny and seeing what he's reading. Nothing at stake, just coming in and seeing how things are going. I would also have a little bit more faith in my evaluation, that it's based upon something real rather than just the grapevine."

  • Carol, high school teacher: "We had a principal a few years ago who was a little bit like a carpetbagger, whenever he talked to students he said, "this is your school, what you make it, you, you, you." He never said this is our school or my school, he was not invested in the community or the school. I think it's important that you have the sense that the principal cares, that the principal is not just there as an executive."

One teacher noted that often, poor teachers leave the classroom to become administrators -- and end up as the bosses of their more effective peers.

  • Keith, high school teacher: "Education is the reverse of any business in the world, all the excellent teachers stay in the classroom; where the worst ones leave, get an administration degree, and come back as administrators. You do a job excellently for 20 years, you should become the boss, instead of you do a job excellently for 20 years, and someone who couldn't do it becomes your boss."

Teachers and Teachers

Participants were also asked about their relationships with other teachers. Most indicated a high level of trust and familiarity, at least with the other teachers in their department. Agreement with the item, "My coworkers are committed to doing quality work," is generally high. But the teachers we spoke with also said more opportunities for teachers to work together would benefit students.

  • Brenda, high school teacher: " This year, our schedule has been adjusted to include two time blocks of 30 minutes each every other week so that we can collaborate with teachers who teach the same subjects. This has been enormously beneficial to instruction. I love teaching here."

  • Debbie, high school teacher: "What we had in middle school was the team concept. And that really was, for me, a great engagement tool because you're working with four or five other teachers who are teaching the same small group of students, so you can compare notes …Where they can create schools within a school I think would probably help toward [teacher] engagement."

Next week's conclusion will focus on comments regarding teachers' sense of mission and their perceptions of the degree to which their opinions count in their schools.

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