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Why don’t teachers complain to bosses about infuriating policies?

Some fear ill will and reduced support. Getting others behind them might help.

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Many teachers have complained to me about what they consider the harm done by new policies called standards-based grading. These are designed to reduce stress for struggling students. The reforms include prohibiting any grade below 50 percent and banning deadlines for homework.

Those same teachers also tell me that they often don’t share with superiors what they see as the bad effect on student motivation. The reforms raise graduation rates, which district superintendents and school boards like. But many teachers say students are learning less.

I asked an unhappy educator why she kept these feelings to herself. I promised I wouldn’t identify her. She told me this:

“I don’t complain to supervisors because I’m concerned about retribution. There is the overall sense among a lot of teachers, myself included, that if you don’t play ball, then your administrators will not support you and have your back when it comes to things like troublesome parents or disagreements with colleagues. I’ve actually seen teachers who don’t conform be scrutinized and targeted to the point where they leave the school.”

“I’ve also learned that complaining doesn’t do any good and nothing ever changes,” she said. She said the faculty advisory committee created at her public school to respond to teacher questions and concerns usually concludes that whatever the teacher wants won’t work.

She said her request for help with a disruptive autistic student was rejected because of lack of staff equipped for such problems. It also took three weeks to get heat for her room. So, she said, when students express frustration with some new policy, she suggests they get their parents instead of her to complain to administrators.

I have never given much attention to teacher reluctance to challenge their bosses. Perhaps I have absorbed their feeling of hopelessness. The evident harm from the new grading rules led me to ask teachers around the country what they thought of this teacher’s opinion, since they are experts on what, if anything, could be done about such problems.

Some teachers push back against 50 percent minimum grading policy

Michael Garbus, recently retired from a D.C. high school, said he, too, has urged students to complain to their parents if they want administrators to fix something. He said recommendations by his school’s faculty advisory committee were regularly ignored by management.

During his 23 years in his district, he has seen a big change in administrative behavior. “When I started, it was as if they didn’t care about what teachers did in the classrooms,” he said. “As time went on, it shifted to a very tight central control with decisions made without regard to what principals and teachers wanted.”

As an English teacher in San Diego four decades ago, Mary Catherine Swanson found the only way to get support for her innovative approach to tutoring and improving study habits was to leave her big district and work in a separate system of county-run schools whose leader liked her ideas. She created the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) organization. It now has more than 2 million students in 8,000 schools, the largest college preparatory program in the country.

The only hope for frustrated teachers, she said, is to organize themselves into groups that push for change. “That is the cornerstone of the work we do with schools,” she said.

It is what happened at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif., my alma mater. That ordinary suburban campus transformed itself when imaginative teachers and administrators started working together for change.

Greg Jouriles, a former teacher union representative who is still active in the Hillsdale group, said the teacher who told me why she didn’t complain described accurately the power dynamics involved. “The administration has the authority, is centralized and is not spending most of its time teaching kids,” he said. “Teachers tend not to be fighters by personality. We are often obedient and conforming, accepting authority, nurturing and caring, and, frankly, lacking some self-regard or the awareness that we truly can assert ourselves and have more of a say.”

Working with administrators who encouraged collaboration and creativity, the teachers at Hillsdale developed a system where their opinions counted, where they worked together to align their methods and where big projects — like an annual re-creation of a 1915 World War I battle — excited students, parents and teachers and encouraged even more cooperation for schoolwide changes.

“Hillsdale has established a long tradition of teacher empowerment and shared decision-making,” Jouriles said, “though it remains an ongoing challenge to maintain that tradition successfully.”

Mark Ingerson, a teacher in Virginia, said his first thought about the teacher who complained to me was that she should find another school. Faculty views at his school are respected, he said, although there was a rough time just before and during the pandemic when the district administration stumbled. Fights, damage to school bathrooms and students wandering the halls became common. This turned around, he said, when a new superintendent and assistant superintendent did a listening tour and made changes based on what they heard.

How clueless principals and superintendents ruin great schools

Shannon Hughes has long taught in an Indiana public charter school, Signature, with one of the country’s highest participation rates in college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and tests. That tradition of hard work by both teachers and students, she said, eliminates “time for empty power plays.” She said “a curriculum and school culture driven by high quality external assessment that can end in meaningful credentials ensure that students, teachers and administrators are all on the same side.”

Two teachers in the Montgomery County, Md., school system said they understood the frustrations teachers encounter but think their immediate supervisors are doing the best they can in difficult situations. Karen Sultan said her middle school has an elected faculty representative who brings teacher complaints to administrators. “This does not always result in change,” she said, “but sometimes it does.”

The other Montgomery County teacher, who asked not to be named to avoid debates at work, said that if the unhappy teacher feels no one will listen to her she should find another school. “One thing she needs to realize is many times the principals’ hands are tied, and we don’t even know it,” she said.

I sense the clash over grading reforms will not be resolved until teachers who dislike easy grading and no homework deadlines join together in persuading their districts to reject what doesn’t work. A letter written by teachers at Wakefield High School in Arlington County, Va., expressing concern about proposed grading changes apparently led district administrators at least to delay the change.

Teachers can sometimes make improvements if they join together to show administrators a problem that is affecting their work. The teacher who wrote me feared she would be punished for speaking out, but if similarly frustrated colleagues signed on to her complaint, some of the best teachers I know say that could make a difference.

If they also brought parents into the discussion, as some teachers advised unhappy students to do, that might be an even more powerful cure for the isolation they feel.

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