What teachers really want

(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)
(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

One of the striking things about modern school reform is that the people who you would think would be a big part of the discussion — teachers — have largely been ignored. So what do teachers want? Francie Alexander, chief academic officer for Scholastic Inc., writes about a nationally representative poll of teachers that answers the question. Alexander has taught at all levels and worked as a district reading consultant for Pre-K through high school. She has authored numerous professional articles for educators and dozens of books for children.

 

By Francie Alexander

If you’re reading this column, you probably know that America’s teachers are facing countless challenges in and out of the classroom. A new survey by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on Teaching in an Era of Change, confirms this, reporting that 82 percent of teachers see “constantly changing demands” as a significant challenge. A host of changes—in leadership, policies, curriculum and more—are placing a strain on already limited time and resources.

Primary Sources lays bare the realities of a profession whose practitioners are rarely given a voice in the national conversation. While 69 percent of teachers say that their voices are heard in decision-making at the school level, very few report the same when it comes to district, state and national decisions—decisions that directly affect teachers and their students.

Knowing such feelings of isolation from my own days in the classroom, I’m grateful that we’re finally hearing teachers’ voices loud and clear. What are they saying? First and foremost, that they are professionals who deserve our respect. They know better than anyone how to spark a love of learning in their students, and those students are their No. 1 priority.

Primary Sources is based on a blind online survey of more than 20,000 Pre-K through grade 12 public school teachers from all 50 states. It was conducted in July 2013 by the highly regarded Harrison Group, a YouGov Company, with respondents proportional to each state’s population, making the survey a representative sampling of America’s teachers.

By listening to teachers, we can learn how best to support them as they help to shape America’s future, one child at a time, often in overcrowded classrooms where children have a wide range of needs. Ninety-nine percent of teachers report having students with social, emotional or behavioral challenges. Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) have seven different student populations in one classroom, including those with special needs, those who are gifted and those who are working two or more grades below grade level.

Imagine 27 patients arriving at a doctor’s office at the same time. Picture a lawyer with 20 clients waiting to see her, or a judge who is asked to rule on 30 cases simultaneously.

To reach each student in the classroom, a teacher must wear many hats and cultivate a variety of strategies. The report enumerates the skills that today’s professionals consider “extremely important” to being a great teacher, including:

  • creating an environment where students feel safe making mistakes (83 percent);
  • managing the classroom effectively (82 percent);
  • delivering content clearly to students (80 percent);
  • and maintaining high academic expectations for all students (79 percent).

Further, 99 percent of teachers agree that their role goes beyond academics. It also involves “reinforcing good citizenship, resilience and social skills.” Everyone would agree that such work is critical. But if we’re not listening to teachers, how can we properly support them?

Overwhelmingly, teachers are asking for more time and resources to do their jobs effectively. Seventy-one percent, for example, say that they need additional professional development to implement the Common Core State Standards successfully.

Teachers also need quality instructional materials. And while we know that they value collaboration, half of teachers (51 percent) cite a lack of time working with colleagues as a significant challenge. This has adverse implications, not only for teachers’ ability to do their jobs, but also for the quality of instruction their students receive.

Still, our nation’s teachers remain dedicated to their students. Eighty-nine percent say that they are satisfied or very satisfied in their profession, and an almost equal percentage (88 percent) agree that the rewards of their work outweigh the challenges. As one middle school teacher said, “When you get those mini victories, and you see that a child is learning and something positive is happening as a result of your time in the classroom, that’s a big deal.”

It is up to us to make more such moments possible. Teachers are telling us that in order to succeed in the classroom, their voices must be heard outside of it. We would do well to listen. In fact, our future depends on it.

Start listening by reading the Primary Sources report. It includes teachers’ views on a range of topics, including the rewards and challenges of teaching, the Common Core, teacher evaluations, and collaboration with peers and parents. The full report is available for download at http://www.scholastic.com/primarysources.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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