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New Perspective: Improving the K-12 Teacher Experience

New Perspective: Improving the K-12 Teacher Experience

by Emily Lorenz and Janet Gibbon

While K-12 teaching is, for many in the profession, inherently purposeful, some leaders in education mistakenly believe that the mission-rich nature of educators’ work alone is sufficient to keep K-12 teachers in the classroom.

Shifts in America’s K-12 education landscape have led to a significant decline in key elements of educators’ engagement, including knowing what’s expected of them, having the ability to use their strengths every day, and having a sense of purpose in their work.

K-12 teachers also face unique challenges due to the nature of their role. On average, they are less likely to have the materials and equipment they need to do their work right, less likely to be treated with respect at work, and more likely to experience frequent burnout compared with workers in other occupations.

In Their Own Words

To better understand recent K-12 teacher turnover, Gallup conducted in-depth interviews with 10 former educators. These individuals, who have an average of 14 years of teaching experience, chose to leave K-12 teaching within the past five years to pursue another occupation.

The long-held assumption that K-12 teachers will remain in their role because they love working with kids is no longer valid. It’s time to rethink the day-to-day experiences of K-12 educators at work.

The former educators shared many stories about the connections they created with students:

“I just really could connect with those kids and give them the love that they need.”

“You felt like you were a big part of their lives, because we knew that in a lot of cases school was the happiest part of their life …”

But they also recounted feeling burned out and underappreciated.

“I’d go home, and I’d just collapse on the couch, and then I wasn’t energetic to interact with my family or do chores and stuff.”

“Just hearing that you’re doing a good job feels good, and I don’t know if I was hearing that enough to feel like all of the hard work that I was doing was being seen.”

Several of the former educators also described the ways in which administrators and parents can affect their role.

“When you have an administrator who creates toxic work environments, like, it’s just not fun to be there, as much as you love kids, as much as you love your job.”

“[There is] much less support from parents today than what there had been in the past. I think there’s less engagement from parents, less recognition of just, ‘thank you for everything you do.’”

The interviews demonstrated a complicated dynamic between loving one’s role and struggling with how their role was affecting other areas of their lives negatively because of the way their workplace experiences were managed.

The interviews demonstrated a complicated dynamic between loving one’s role and struggling with how their role was affecting other areas of their lives negatively because of the way their workplace experiences were managed.

How to Fix the K-12 Teacher Experience

Fostering an engaging K-12 teacher experience should be a foundational expectation in every education leader’s role, but leaders often lack the right training and resources. Deciding where to start can feel like an insurmountable task.

Driven by the complex reasons educators leave the profession, Gallup researchers revisited data from nationally representative surveys and identified six key elements of the K-12 workplace that leaders can focus on to differentiate their school or district from the rest:

Address Burnout
K-12 employees are among the most highly burned out workers. In 2023, 39% of K-12 teachers felt burned out always or very often, compared with 26% of workers in other occupations. When burnout is proactively addressed at the source through clear expectations, adequate training and resources, and realistic performance expectations, K-12 teachers are significantly more likely to be engaged in their job and less likely to look for a different one.

Focus on Wellbeing
K-12 teachers, on average, report higher life satisfaction compared with other workers. They are more likely to have thriving wellbeing, overall. However, they also experience the highest rate of disrespect at work across all industries. In a 2023 survey, 42% of employees in the K-12 industry said they had been treated disrespectfully at work in the past month. Just 21% of K-12 educators strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count. Taking time to authentically listen to educators’ experiences and find ways to provide support will go a long way in bolstering educators’ respect and wellbeing.

Discover Strengths
The percentage of K-12 teachers who strongly agreed that their work allows them to do what they do best every day has decreased by 17% over the past three years. When a new project, task or time commitment arises, instead of defaulting to asking, “Who is available to do this?” instead ask, “Who is best equipped to do this?” This simple mindset shift can make a difference: Employees who say they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day are 57% less likely to experience frequent burnout.

Give Frequent Meaningful Feedback
Most K-12 teachers lack frequent meaningful feedback from their manager or administrator. While administrators are tasked with their own difficult workloads, finding time to prioritize quick connects with educators reap a multitude of benefits. Educators who receive frequent meaningful feedback are two times as likely to strongly agree their manager removes barriers to performance and 2.1 times as likely to strongly agree their manager invests in their development.

Appreciate Contributions
Twenty-four percent of K-12 teachers strongly agree they have received recognition or praise for doing good work in the last seven days. Recognition that is authentic, personal and meaningful is most effective. Education leaders may not have time to observe and recognize every great thing an educator does, but they do have the ability to establish recognition as an important part of culture at their school. If leaders are not sure how to recognize educators, they can remove the guesswork by asking. Only 10% of employees have been asked how they like to be recognized at work.

Reimagine Career Growth
For many K-12 educators, traditional career advancement means becoming an administrator or department head. But not all teachers want to take that path. Classroom teachers can still achieve career growth through strategic professional development, frequent conversations about progress toward professional goals and growth in their current role -- without piling on tasks that will burn them out. K-12 teachers who strongly agree their manager invests in their development are 8.7 times as likely to strongly agree there is a well-defined plan for career growth at their school or district, compared with K-12 teachers who do not strongly agree.


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