Need opinions to count
This article is the last in a series presenting the results of focus groups and in-depth interviews Gallup recently conducted with teachers. 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 part touched on teachers' low pay and the conflicting expectations they face, while the second focused on their relationships at work. This installment examines teachers' feelings of relevance within their schools.
When Gallup asked teachers to rate their level of agreement with each of the 12 questions in Gallup's employee engagement survey, scores were lowest for the item: "At my school, my opinions seem to count." Second-lowest was: "In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for good work." Third-lowest: "The mission or purpose of my school makes me feel my job is important."
The negativity these scores suggest is unsettling. Teachers feel a strong sense of mission about their work, but many of those we interviewed feel their dedication is wasted by a system that doesn't appreciate their contributions enough to allow them adequate autonomy. The result, they say, is that their enthusiasm for the job drops sharply -- an effect their students inevitably feel. As a 17-year-old Gallup Youth Survey respondent said in 2004, "When teachers want to teach, I want to learn. When they don't want to be there, they give off a bad vibe that I will not respond to in a positive way."
Teachers Feel Under Fire From Parents
In discussing their responses to these items, teachers raised a number of issues, including the perception that they tend to be scapegoats for everyone from opinion leaders critical of the education system's performance, to parents concerned about their children's performance. Last February, TIME magazine devoted a cover article to the friction between teachers and parents, and teacher comments reflect that tension:
- Leonard, high school teacher: "I think for the past at least 15 years there's been a concerted effort by interest groups in this country to take teachers down a number of pegs … If there's a problem with your child's performance in the class, the first thing that comes to your mind is that there's a problem with the teacher. Not, 'Is that student showing up for class on time or prepared?' or 'Are they doing their homework or are they just up in their room browsing the Internet?'"
- Apryl, elementary school teacher: "I can't tell you how many times I've heard parents say well if, you know, he doesn't do well on this, doesn't do well on the SOLs, he won't possibly get his top-secret clearance or won't possibly get into whatever school and I'm like, 'The kid's in third grade.'"
- Maxine, high school teacher: "I'm sure parents in America value education to a certain extent, but not to the extent that maybe they do in foreign countries."
Teaching to the Test
Even as they are dealing with critical parents, several teachers note, their capacity to improve their students' educational experience is hampered by increasing restrictions on the way they teach. Those restrictions may come from curricular standards mandated by the state or district, or from the principal and other administrators; between the two, some teachers feel their own opinions about how to do their jobs are being squeezed out.
- Amber, elementary school instructional assistant: "Our job now is teaching the test. Here's what you teach, this is the information. If you have a chance to elaborate more on that, try to -- but don't burden yourself with anything extra that you might think is relevant with the topic."
- Tammy, middle school teacher: "I got offered a job at a different middle school and I decided not to go there because the principal was psycho about lesson plans and turning them in to her and she marked them up with red pens and told you how you had to do your lessons … I talked to other teachers there and they were just flat-out miserable teaching at that school. They thought she was a control freak."
What can be done to improve teachers' attitudes on these issues? Obviously, the more input teachers have on major decisions affecting their schools' administrative policies and curricular requirements, the more likely they are to feel their opinions count. Developmental opportunities in which teachers can collaborate and help address specific challenges faced by the school can help teachers stay engaged with the school's overall mission.
Diane, a veteran elementary school teacher who oversees a research program for others at her school, told this story:
- "There was a young teacher who had been teaching for seven years and was about ready to quit. In the course of conversation, she said she was really worried about her ESL students not being able to read independently, and asked, 'How can I address that?' And I said, 'Well, that would be a good question for the teacher research team.' So she joined the team and worked collaboratively with the ESL teacher. That's key No. 1 -- she found a friend. And this friend had a common interest: What can we do to help ESL students with reading? Key No. 2 is the fact that this friend and she were supported by another community of friends who showed an interest in what they were doing.
"At the end of the year she came to me and she said 'I feel so grown up.' I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'For the first time in my seven years, I feel that what I was doing was validated, that other people were interested in what I was doing and what I was doing actually helped, contributed to a problem that we all have with students.' All of those factors helped energize her and renew her interest in teaching."
The Q12 items are protected by copyright of The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ, 1992-1999. All rights reserved.