This year, UVEI’s institutional learning focus has been to explore the challenges involved with recruiting, developing, and sustaining educators, and what schools are doing to address these challenges. In January and February, we convened three focus group conversations with educators across from the region to better understand this focus. In all, educators from 20 schools joined these conversations, with participation split between teachers and principals. Our intention in this blog post is to share what we learned from these conversations. In preparing for the conversations, faculty selected Hiring Practices, Support for Student Behavioral Needs, Teacher Leadership, and Collaboration/Time to Meet as topics to discuss, and we will organize our learning using these topics.
Consistent with research, we learned that the educators in our groups value and understand the need to have “information rich” hiring processes and practices, such as developing and drawing on networks for applicants, creating personal connections with applicants, and observing candidates teach. These practices allow the school and applicant to get to know one another and promote a better fit. Educators in our focus groups also mentioned the value in having student-guided school tours for applicants, forming hiring committees that represent the school and broader community, and posting for anticipated openings rather than waiting. In terms of challenges, educators identified the large number of openings as a significant challenge that leads to more demands on teachers to join hiring teams and hiring processes, and that in turn the processes are less thorough than desirable. The timing of contracts and hiring decisions is a perennial challenge, especially for schools where teachers are frequently seeking positions in other districts.
Supports for Student Behavioral Needs
In Where Teachers Thrive, Susan Moore Johnson (2019) states that teachers appreciate schools that have “an explicit and deliberate approach for addressing students’ conduct and needs as well as the relationships they fostered and maintained with parents” (p. 157). Our participants reinforced this point, stating that they valued a collective commitment to an approach to student behavior that combined clear consequences with care and restorative practices, although they do see conflict between approaches to reinforcing and punishing behavior on the one hand, and restorative approaches on the other. In addition, the educators viewed partnering with families as an important factor in fostering positive student behavior. Not surprisingly, major challenges have been a lack of resources–including support for mental health, support for teachers’ learning knowledge and skills to understand and respond to trauma, and support for social emotional learning in school. A promising practice called “Advisory,” a period of the day in which a teacher and small groups of students meet regularly to foster positive social interactions, is both exciting to teachers, and also exhausting due to the responsibility and learning that facilitating effective advisories entails.
Our focus group educators expressed the importance of both formal and informal opportunities for teacher leadership as factors that can sustain educators. In terms of formal roles for teacher leadership, they appreciate selection processes that are clear and fair, stipends for these valued roles, and leadership skills training. In terms of more informal ways to engage in leadership, they valued being involved in identifying problems and making decisions that impacted them. Furthermore, they felt respected when administration took part in broader leadership discussions and gave space for others to generate and question ideas. When these practices were not in place, they saw challenges to developing and sustaining educators; specifically, when the selection process for formal leaders is opaque and when teachers are not involved in decision making that impacts them. Furthermore, they found it challenging when teachers’ actionable space to make decisions was not clearly established and communicated, or even worse undermined. Lastly, they mentioned the difficulty when teacher leadership opportunities occurred outside of contracted school day hours, which limited those opportunities for many teachers with child care or other after school needs.
Teacher Time and Collaboration
It is no surprise that the educators in our focus group said time to meet with one another is valuable, and that there is not enough; it’s a limited resource in the contracted day. At the same time, they expressed the point that there should be purpose and intention to meeting time, with clear reasons why teachers gather. This could be open and unstructured, or tightly planned and organized–the key is clear purpose. In fact, the teachers in our group appreciated a balance between highly structured and open meeting time. A nuanced point they made is that in designing (non-instructional) teacher time, leaders need to think deeply about both what teachers need individual time for (e.g., writing reports, communicating with families) and what they need their colleagues for (e.g., examining practice, planning). According to our participants, challenges to effective teacher time and collaboration included a lack of purposeful approaches to teacher time, day-to-day demands that encroach on deliberation with colleagues, and turnover in leadership, which slows the growth of collaborative cultures.
We convened these focus group conversations to understand how local schools are experiencing challenges to recruiting, developing, and sustaining educators, and what they are doing to address these challenges. We learned that their experiences with and perceptions of hiring practices, support for student behavior, opportunities for teacher leadership, and structures for teacher time and collaboration–all factors in sustaining educators–are largely consistent with research. Over the next several months, we expect to take these findings, and, combined with our school visit learnings, develop guidance for regional school and district leaders. Stay tuned!
Citation: Johnson, S. M. (2019). Where teachers thrive: Organizing schools for success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.