- Teaching in a Pandemic: Help Teachers, Help You - February 2, 2021
- The Importance of Feedback in Distance Learning - October 9, 2020
- What a Teacher Wants: One Teacher's View - March 25, 2018
- Artist is Not a Dirty Word - March 18, 2018
- The Death of Reflection in English/Language Arts Classrooms - March 9, 2018
- More Than A Teacher - March 4, 2018
- Real Teaching Resolutions - January 5, 2017
- 23 Times I have Questioned My Sanity While Teaching - September 7, 2016
- Part 3: Adventures in Real Word English/Language Arts - Let Them Be Great - August 23, 2016
- Part 2: Adventures in Real World English/Language Arts: Making Them Care - August 4, 2016
By Guest Author Andrea Shunk
It’s lunchtime at school and a familiar scene is playing out once again with my coworkers amid the reheated leftovers and cold sandwiches.
“Ugh,” complains Sheila. “I hate teaching this reading intervention curriculum.”
This is the reheated version of the same conversation I’ve had with Sheila for three years. Today’s iteration is just the latest version of the same complaint she brings to the lunchroom week after week.
“The content is great, don’t get me wrong. We’re reading about the Freedom Riders, but the writing lessons are terrible!”
She said the same thing about the Ebola unit and the unit on the Vietnam War. Great content. Terrible lessons.
“The writing lessons are too prescriptive and confusing and the kids don’t get it. I could do something much better myself.”
And so yet again, I offer up the same advice Sheila has ignored thus far. “Have you considered talking to your district coach about reworking the lessons or bringing in some materials from your English classes?”
“No, I couldn’t possibly do that,” she replies. “The district has said this is the reading intervention curriculum.” She sighs and shrugs, at either her third helping of leftover soup this week or her inertia to change a curriculum that isn’t working. After three years of this, I’m not sure.
“What can I do?” Sheila says. “I’m just a teacher.”
And this is the moment in this same, stale conversation where I want to grab a hold of Sheila and shake her, to scream from the rooftops how wrong she is, and to break the stranglehold of the disenfranchisement paralyzing this great teacher.
“I’m just a teacher.”
Exactly! You are the teacher! Who better to know the students, context and content to reach this group of struggling learners?
But clearly, Sheila does not feel empowered to use her considerable expertise to improve student learning. She has learned from experience or from a pervasive culture of silencing teachers that her voice does not matter in education, and the “justa” problem persists. “I’m justa teacher …”
In January 2015, Gallup released a poll that said only 30 percent of teachers are engaged in their jobs. More than half are not engaged, and 13 percent are actively disengaged, meaning that not only are these teachers unhappy, but they also act out on their unhappiness in ways that undermine their coworkers accomplishments.
The subsection of actively disengaged teachers isn’t overly concerning to me. We can easily identify these disengaged teachers, and in most cases, mitigate their efforts to undermine the profession.
It’s actually the 57 percent of teachers classified as “not engaged” who concern me the most.
Those who are not engaged in teaching, according to Gallup’s definitions of engagement, might like their jobs, but don’t have an emotional connection to their workplaces and are unlikely to devote much discretionary effort to their work. These are the Justas, and this is where Sheila, my dissatisfied coworker exists.
Sheila and those like her arrive at school each day, dutifully completing the busy-work of education, waiting for the day, the week, the month to end. They make copies, administer the tests, join the committees they must, and leave as close to the end of the contract day as possible.
They do not, as I’ve learned from Sheila, rock the boat, advocate outside of their narrow scope, or do anything that might be considered beyond their authority. They acutely perceive that there are actions they are allowed to take and actions they are not allowed take, no matter whether those perceptions are true or not.
Engaged teachers, on the other hand, are involved with, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. They know the scope of their jobs, but constantly look for new and better ways to improve student growth and outcomes. They do not feel the same way about being “allowed” to try things in their classroom; they try new strategies because they know it’s right for students.
You know who these engaged teachers are. They are the teachers in your building who do not accept the policies and procedures given to them, but who use their voice and expertise to advocate for students and the profession. They speak up, speak out, collaborate and cooperate with their peers, principals and district leaders to improve education for students. They feel empowered to work on behalf of their students and confident in their actions.
I wonder how many of the “not engaged” teachers were once part of the engaged. How many of them fought the good fight for their students early in their careers, but met resistance from the other 70 percent of teachers and leaders in their buildings and districts again and again? Over time, did they slowly disengage? Did they stop speaking up, speaking out, collaborating and cooperating? Did they became a Justa after encountering too many roadblocks, too many shut doors, and too many others in the education system with a Justa outlook?
Because it’s not just teachers who fall into a Justa mentality or who disengage from their jobs. This attitude persists through various levels within the school system. I’m just a principal. I’m just a coach. I’m just a parent. I’m just a director. I’m just a state politician. I’m just a … And so it goes. All of the Justas in the world failing to stand up for justice for our students.
The danger in the Justa mindset is the damage it can then inflict upon students. When students see and hear their teacher’s unwillingness to stand up for them as students, when teachers say, “Just take the test. I can’t do anything about it. I’m justa teacher,” students learn that they are Justas, too. “I’m justa student. What voice do I have?”
If our goal is — and it should be our goal — to have more actively engaged teachers across our system empowered to do their best for students every day and to have leaders who champion teacher voice, we have to advocate for and start making changes in our school systems. We have to eliminate the Justa mindset at all levels so the voices we most need to hear from — teachers and students — are the loudest in the room.
It takes bold leadership from teachers, principals and district leaders to flip the hierarchy and to ask, “Teachers and students, what do you think? How should this decision that directly impacts your practice and your learning be made?”
Thankfully, there are many successful examples of schools and systems where principals and district leaders have turned to the teachers for inspiration and leadership. And in these success stories, teacher engagement has thrived.
At an elementary school in my district, the principal convened an instructional improvement for the first time in that school. The team, composed of five classroom teachers, the building coach, and the principal came together as equals to plan for and provide building level professional learning. They read and learned and struggled together, sought input from their peers, and made the decisions about what professional learning to engage in as a whole school during the year. As a result, collaboration among teacher teams and grade levels increased and teachers had a better idea of how to support students not only in their own classroom, but also throughout their elementary schooling.
What if more principals took this approach?
In a nearby elementary school, the Language Development Specialist created a language exchange program, Intercambio, where parents and teachers gather together weekly to build community and increase intercultural understanding. Teachers, staff, students and parents all benefit from the increased parent presence and cross-cultural dialogue.
What if more teachers felt empowered to create similar solutions to complex problems?
At my school, an alternative high school with a predominantly male student population, I proposed an elective class for the young women where, through film and discussion, they could explore topics relevant to their lives such as sex trafficking, teen pregnancy, sexual harassment, body image, and gender roles. Through the support of my principal and counselor, we created a safe space for these young girls to have their voices heard.
What if more teachers and principals supported this kind of responsive curriculum?
Across the country, teachers have found ways to stay engaged and to engage their peers. From Seattle to New Jersey, teachers, students and parents have stood together against high-stakes standardized tests. In Denver, Boston, California and Portland, Maine, teacher led schools have embraced shared leadership and put teachers at the helm of their buildings. Organizations like the Center for Teaching Quality are making it possible for teachers to work in hybrid roles where they lead and teach at the same time.
And in hundreds of small actions we can’t see every day — the blog post, the home visit, the compassionate approach to discipline — teachers and leaders are shedding the Justa label to take a stand for their students.
What if more schools and teachers and principals embraced this mindset? What if more leaders put teachers first, trusting teachers to do what is best and right for students when given the opportunity to do so? What if more teachers recognized the power of their experiences and took action to change the education landscape for students?
Think about what this shift would do for the Justas and all the teachers who have tried again and again to break through the artificial hierarchy of school systems. Teachers have spent years knocking on doors, trying to get their voices heard, only to have those doors slammed in their faces. Some have given up, and some have found backdoors. But when enough engaged teachers start knocking on the same door, pretty soon, that door falls down.
I will, in all likelihood, have more conversations with Sheila and coworkers and principals and leaders like her. Conversations where those charged with educating youth disempower themselves and by proxy, their students, with a Justa label.
But rather than silently fume or offer the same unheeded advice, my job as an engaged teachers is to encourage Sheila and all the other Justas to get back to speaking up, speaking out, collaborating and cooperating lest I become another Justa as well.