According to a 2014 survey conducted by Gallup, only 30% of teachers are engaged in their work. When I first saw this statistic, I was somewhat surprised. After reading the report further, I asked myself the following question, “Who is responsible for teacher engagement?” Before I share my thoughts on this question, I want to define the levels of engagement that were discussed in the report: engaged, not engaged, actively disengaged.
The actively disengaged employee is not only unhappy with his or her work, but they want to make sure others are unhappy and unsuccessful, too. This type of employee is a culture killer who seeks to create and spread toxic energy. They undermine any good that is occurring on a campus or in the professional lives of others. They are so miserable in their role, and probably with their life, but yet they keep hanging around instead of seeking other employment opportunities.
The employee who is not engaged can be described as being compliant. They go through the motions without any purpose or passion. They do what they are asked to do, not because they believe in it, but because they were told to do so. This type of employee is on auto pilot. They are not causing problems by rocking the boat, but they are not interested in making any positive waves. Compliant employees are not hot or cold, but can be considered to be lukewarm. With support or a nudge from the right influencer, they can move up on the employee engagement barometer.
The engaged employee is committed. They are constantly seeking to grow professionally. They own their professional learning and see the value in connecting with others to improve their craft. Engaged employees do not view the teaching profession as work. They view their chosen profession as an ongoing passion project with endless possibilities.
If we believe that student engagement is the responsibility of the teacher, what role does the principal play when it comes to teacher engagement? Below are three suggestions for leaders about how to create a more engaging working environment for teachers.
Give teachers permission to take risks and support them when they fail. Teaching is an art and a science. I don’t know of any artist or scientist who did not fail during the artistic or scientific inquiry process. Teachers must be given the opportunity to think outside of the box as they focus on how to meet the multiple needs of the learners in their classroom. The ability to solve problems and think critically are key characteristics of risk takers, and in almost every risk, there is a high probability of failure. Failure is not the end; it is just the beginning of a breakthrough. Engaged teachers are risk takers, and they need principals who will encourage and support them in their risk taking efforts. Principals need to give them quality feedback on identified areas of growth, recognize their effort and desire to improve, and celebrate their success.
Listen to the voices of teachers. One of the main points of the study discussed the lack of teacher voice in the profession. Teachers surveyed during this study expressed that they felt their voice was not heard, and their opinions did not matter. Historically, our profession is one that follows the bureaucratic model. Typically, initiatives are top down from the federal and state government to the local agency, from the local agency to the principal, and from the principal to the teachers. Ultimately, teachers are the doers, but they are often the furthest away from the decision-making table. When rolling out campus initiatives or embarking on the change process, it is important to have teachers sitting at the table. Allow them to be part of the conversation. Listen to their suggestions, concerns, hopes, and fears. This discourse will help leaders think through the change process and make more informed decisions that impact the lives of the teachers on the campus.
Help teachers innovate inside the box. There are many aspects of schooling where educators do not have a say in what happens in public education. The role of the principal is to make sure that the campus is compliant in those areas, but it is equally important for leaders to help teachers innovate within the box. Giving teachers permission to work through the parameters that have been set, without neglecting the compliance pieces, is possible if the leader has developed a collaborative culture that values shared decision making. Shared decision making leads to a culture where teachers understand the big picture, are committed and dedicated to the work, and can see impossibles as possibles in waiting.
Strong principal leadership is a contributor to a positive, engaging working environment for teachers. In the absence of leadership, only pockets of excellence can exist. With strong leaders at the helm, systems of excellence that foster and support high teacher engagement can be created and sustained.