Want a Positive School Culture? Give Teachers Voice and Choice.

Positive culture starts with treating teachers like the professionals that they are.

Hot Take: A School Leaders Now Opinion Piece

More than half of all American teachers have a master’s degree. All go through a minimum of four years of rigorous post-secondary education, including full-time student teaching. They must renew their teaching certificates on a regular schedule and, in the midst of their work in the classroom, obtain hundreds of hours of professional development. 

The American teacher is highly qualified.

And yet many teachers suffer from the same standardization as students do. As a matter of fact, the whole system of standardized curriculum was created to ensure that all teachers were doing their job. There is an inherent mistrust of teachers among the decision makers, so they emphasize evaluations and test scores to weed out the “bad” ones. The result of this is high turnover and teacher shortages. The ones left in the classroom often feel voiceless. In many ways, teaching has been de-professionalized. And many teachers are not being treated like the highly qualified individuals that they are.

The standardization of the teaching profession also means that teachers’ ideas aren’t being shared or heard. But teachers’ are experts who need to be taken seriously. Their ideas can help increase student learning and contribute to a positive school culture. Knowing that their perspective is being taken into account also invigorates and energizes them. Teachers need voice and choice. They need the safety and permission to contribute their voices to decisions that affect the school. Teachers also need the freedom to make choices based on their own knowledge and experience. Here are six suggestions to help you give your teachers voice and choice, and utilize the professionals you have in your building. 

1. Let teachers own their classroom spaces.

Give teachers control of the space where learning happens. Teachers can design their own room layouts. Allow them to bring in their own furniture, lights, and plants. This is where they spend the entire day; let them utilize it as they see fit. When there is money for building improvements, teachers should help lead the decision-making committees. If a teacher sees value in taking their classes outside to use natural spaces, allow it! Students deserve a variety of learning environments customized by creative teachers. Teachers deserve to work in a space where they feel comfortable.

2. Personalize professional development.

An important push in schools is differentiating learning according to students’ abilities and interests. We should be placing similar emphasis on teacher professional development by offering them different PD options. Don’t force teachers into PD groups based on subjects taught or by grade level. Sometimes this may be necessary, but why not rotate groups according to different purposes? Let teachers pick the PD path that focuses on areas that they feel they need to work on. As a result, individuals will improve in the areas where they are weakest. This also heightens engagement because teachers will get to choose what they want to learn.

3. Make staff evaluations a two-way conversation.

Evaluations stress out many teachers, and stress does not lead to growth. But you can lower anxiety and grow your teachers’ skill set by applying voice and choice with self-evaluations. Teachers can set goals for your classroom observations of them. Ask them what things they’d like you to look for and help them improve. For follow-up conversations, have teachers use a self-reflection protocol instead of responding to your observation comments.

More than anything, focus on coaching teachers rather than giving punitive judgements. Ask teachers what went well and what they would like to improve. Inquire how you can support teachers in those self-selected areas so that they improve and follow through with mentoring, conferences, or resources. Teachers also improve the most when they receive nonthreatening feedback from colleagues. Schedule classroom learning labs for your teachers to observe and provide feedback for each other. Honor your teacher-leaders by giving them opportunities to grow. 

4. Involve teachers in making decisions.

Teachers often feel like they have little voice about many big decisions. For example, curriculum, budgets, and district mandates are all beyond their control. Most schools operate from a top-down hierarchy. Be more democratic. Give your teachers some say in district decisions. Take regular surveys of your teachers to measure climate and attitudes. Include teachers on key committees and listen to their ideas. The most important part? Actually following teachers’ advice! What’s the point of listening to teachers if what they want never gets implemented? You can give voice and choice to teachers in the classroom, but be sure to include them at the school and district levels.

5. Value teachers’ expertise more than the curriculum.

Teachers, not curriculum, are the most important resources that schools have. District policies often squash teacher talent by overreaching. Free teachers from teaching every standard in the exact scope and sequence that everyone else does. For instance, allow teachers to use project-based learning or makerspaces to experiment in their classrooms. Calm their fears of standardized test scores. Support teachers who are taking risks and failing forward. It is not enough to state this once. Your leadership vision has to include a consistent message of encouraging creative experimentation. Even 30-year-veteran teachers are reenergized when they are given the opportunity to try new things!

6. Provide leadership opportunities for teachers.

Teachers who have no interest in becoming administrators have few opportunities for personal growth in leadership. Consider opportunities for the teacher-leaders in your building. Send them to present at conferences. Put them on leadership teams in the district. Have them lead PD in your building. Help them become a part-time coach and part-time teacher in the district. Be creative with roles. We need to be more creative in making opportunities for our best teachers, helping them grow as professional leaders without leaving the classroom.

Nothing on this list requires much effort from administration. What it does require, though, is listening, a mindset of support, and lots of saying “yes” to teacher ideas. The benefits are profound. Joy will spread throughout your building as teachers are motivated and excited about teaching their students! Ultimately a great school culture will form. And your building will become a place where people want to work and where students want to learn. Everyone wins when we truly treat teachers as professionals and give them voice and choice.

Join the great conversations going on about school leadership in our Facebook groups at Principal Life and High School Principal Life.

Plus, check out this other article about building school culture.

Posted by Mike Kaechele

Mike is a Project Based Learning Teacher Consultant and National Faculty for Buck Institute for Education, leading PBL workshops across the country. He believes that we don't need to prepare students for "someday," but that they should be doing meaningful work right now!

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