Worry about Working Conditions

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I just read a recent Hartford Courant article about an op-ed piece written by middle school English teacher, Elizabeth Natale, of West Hartford Connecticut.  Elizabeth stated in her article that she was considering quitting her job because of government education reforms that are “stripping the joy out of teaching and doing nothing to help the children.” [i][1]  A week after publishing Elisabeth’s editorial, The Courant discovered her comments had gone viral and were receiving supportive responses from teachers all over the country. The Courant quoted education author, Jonathan Kozol, “There’s no question that Elizabeth Natale has captured the mood among classroom teachers who are caught in the straitjacket of the Common Core and the entire regimen that evaluates teachers on the basis of their students’ scores on virtually meaningless standardized exams.” [2]

Commentaries like this seem to be getting a lot of attention in the press and social media. Each time I read about another teacher’s dissatisfaction or about unrest in a school district regarding the implementation of school reform policies, I wonder about the context, about how the policies were rolled out, about the culture of the building, about the “back story”. Being optimistic about the potential for the Common Core, for improved teaching standards, and for better measures of student learning, I tend to take this type of news with a grain of salt. After all, I don’t know these teachers or the districts where they work.

A dear friend of mine is retiring this May, after a full and successful career as a classroom teacher working with high school students who are at risk of dropping out. For the last few years, she has repeatedly told me that she wished that she could quit, but the loss of retirement benefits was keeping her in the classroom.  She cares deeply about her students, is steadfast about delivering quality instruction, and is passionate about providing the supports to keep her students in school. Her deeply felt frustration is not with the students or the school setting, but with the systemic changes being implemented in her district and school. My friend feels like her work isn’t valued and that she is disrespected by “administration”. Her comments are similar to what I read in blogs, editorials, and news articles – too much testing, lack of trust in the teacher evaluation system, wasted time on red-tape, limited support to make curriculum changes, etc. She works in another state. I don’t know a lot about how this district operates, but hearing a friend’s sad voice express a sense of loss, rather than joy, as she prepares to leave the profession, shifts my perceptions about these issues.

To approach these issues more objectively and ground my thinking beyond a knee-jerk emotional reaction, I decided to look into the literature base on recruitment, retention, and working conditions.  I found an interesting study by Susan Moore Johnson and other authors that examines how working conditions predict teachers’ job satisfaction and their career plans (Johnson, Kraft, & Papay, 2012). This study considered various elements of the work environment to see what matters the most to teachers.  According to this study, working conditions such as planning time, school facilities, and instructional resource were found to be important to teachers, but the elements that matter the most were social. The types of social conditions that were found to be predictive of teachers’ job satisfaction and career plans included:

  • collegial relationships (the extent to which teachers report having productive working relationships with their colleagues);
  • principal’s leadership (extent to which teachers report that their school leaders are supportive and create school environments conducive to learning; and
  • school culture (the extent to which school environments are characterized by mutual trust, respect, openness, and commitment to student achievement.)[3]

Analyses revealed that the magnitude of the social effects were almost twice as large as those of school resources and facilities.

According to Johnson and her colleagues, findings suggest that favorable working conditions predict higher rates of student academic growth, even when comparing schools serving demographically similar groups of students in Massachusetts. Research conducted in North Carolina had similar conclusions (Ladd, 2009)[4].

Additionally, Johnson, et al, noted that their study, along with a growing body of research, suggests that high rates of teacher turn-over in schools serving high percentages of low-income and minority students “are driven largely by teachers fleeing the dysfunctional and unsupportive work environments in the schools to which low-income and minority students are most likely to be assigned.”[5]

I believe that research-based evidence that positive teacher working conditions make a difference in student achievement should be of great importance for leaders addressing educator work force issues.  Urgent attention should be paid to working conditions that have the potential to retain more quality teachers in schools serving low-income, high-minority populations.

This article reinforces what I have learned in my work with teachers, schools, districts, and the agencies that support them. Teachers work well and accomplish the goals for improved student learning when they are supported with collaborative structures for engaging in professional partnerships with their colleague in the school setting. Teachers want to learn from each other, refine their practices, solve problems together, and both individually and collectively assume responsibility for student learning outcomes. They value a principal’s feedback when they are engaged in an organizational culture that is built on trusting relationships and supports growth.  I worry about those teachers who don’t teach in supportive working conditions, yet are expected to meet high expectations for practice, accomplish aggressive goals for student achievement, and continuously respond to curricular changes and assessment procedures.

If the intent of policy makers is to establish systems that produce and keep effective teachers in every school to improve instruction for all students, then they should raise their level of concern about working conditions. I am not suggesting that reform policies need to abandoned or rolled back, but that careful thought be given to working conditions as schools go about the difficult work of implementation.  Worry about the working conditions now, before more teachers blog that their greatest wish for their career is to end it.


[1] Natale, E. (January 17, 2014) Why I want to give up teaching. The Hartford Courant. Retrieved from http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-op-natale-teacher-ready-to-quit-over-common-cor-20140117,0,6264603.story

[2] Megan, K. (January 26, 2014).A teacher’s lesson for the whole country: Natale gives voice to anxiety about education reform. The Hartford Courant. Retrieved from  http://articles.courant.com/2014-01-26/news/hc-teachers-unhappy-0123-20140122_1_classroom-teachers-education-reform-randi-weingarten

[3] Johnson, S. M. Kraft, M. A. & Papay, J. P. (2012) how context matters in high-need schools: The effects of teachers’ working conditions on their professional satisfaction and their students’ achievement. Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 10, , p. 1-39 http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16685, Date Accessed: 1/28/2014

[4] Ladd, H. (2009). Teachers’ perceptions of their working conditions: How predictive of policy relevant outcomes? (Working Paper No. 33). Washington, DC: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education. Retrieved March 2, 2011, from http://www.urban.org/uploadedpdf/1001440-Teachers-Perceptions.pdf

[5] Johnson, S. M. Kraft, M. A. & Papay, J. P. (2012) how context matters in high-need schools”.

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