Changing the Way We Think About Teacher Engagement

Life experiences can be categorized in two ways– as mountain-top highs or valley lows. Working with the #edwritenow team has certainly been one of the most personal and professional mountain-top highlights of my life. Being able to contribute to this project to help other educators grow was definitely rewarding, but knowing that the proceeds from the project will support the work of a worthy organization is fulfilling.

Ten educators were charged with writing a book on some of the most pressing topics in education. We were given less than 72 hours to complete the project. Bringing different educators from all over the country, with more varied perspectives than similar ones, to produce a book that sounds like one voice was AMAZING! Kudos to Jeff Zoul and Joe Mazza for their vision on this project.

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As we began to write, the collective genius and professional capital in the room was so exciting; but more importantly, the personal relationships that were developed while writing on this project outweigh the satisfaction of its completion.  

During my writing breaks, I talked to some of my esteemed colleagues about their work. Tom Murray was one of my accountability partners. As I read his work, Changing the Way We Think About Technology, I couldn’t help but think about how much technology has changed the way we do business. On the other hand, Tom also challenged my thinking by pointing out that in many cases technology has just replaced worksheets and other low level tasks. He challenges educators to use technology authentically so that students can connect with others in ways that they never have before to create things that would not have been possible without technolgy. 

I also took some time to talk to Starr Sackstein about how “assessment” has become a word that causes teachers and students so much stress. Unfortunately, when the word assessment is spoken in our profession, many think about standardized testing. The era of high-stakes testing that we are currently working in has led to, in my opinion, the lack of teacher engagement. In my contribution to the book, I outline ways that leaders can create an environment that promotes, ecourages, and supports active teacher engagement. 

If teachers are responsible for student engagement, what role do leaders play in teacher engagement?

While the responsibility cannot totally fall on the shoulders of leaders, it is important to note that they certainly play a significant role in creating and sustaining a culture that encourages, promotes, and supports active teacher engagement. As professionals, we have the responsibility to continue to learn and grow, regardless of the working environment and leadership we may encounter, but it is my opinion that strong leadership can move the teacher engagement pendulum. I do believe that teachers must have the desire to move from being disengaged or engaged to become actively engaged, but I think leaders should see themselves as part of the process of removing barriers that hinder teachers from becoming actively engaged in their work.

Being a leader is a huge responsibility. Teachers, students, and parents are watching your every move. People want to know what makes you tick as a person, and it matters to them what you think. Because of my position as a leader, I recognize that I have a responsibility to the people I serve each day. Although there are days I fall short, I seek to add value to someone’s life each day. I am not perfect by any means, and unfortunately, I do miss opportunities. When that occurs, I constantly think about what I need to do the next time to correct the missed opportunity to engage with teachers in a meaningful way. If you, as the leader, are not making others who work around your better, then I question your purpose. Leaders must see every single encounter with a teacher as an opportunity for authentic engagement.

Leaders must be able and willing to help teachers connect their “why” to the work. Being able to anchor the work to a greater purpose is what will sustain and motivate teachers through challenges. In addition, when teachers are a part of creating the purpose of the organization, the long-term benefits of ownership will carry the organization further along than the short-term wins that buy-in promises. Furthermore, leaders must be intentional about developing a culture that promotes, encourages, and cultivates learning by giving teachers the opportunity to learn from one another. Encouraging this type of collaboration will not only build the professional capital of the teachers, but it will also deepen and enrich the collegial collaboration amongst them as well.  When teachers know that they are appreciated, valued, and supported in all aspects of their lives, they will be committed to their work and to those around them. This commitment will fuel them with the desire to become better each day.

Although leadership is not the only gatekeeper to teacher engagement, it is certainly a critical component to creating an environment that fosters active engagement. Leaders must be willing to change the way they think about their responsibility in cultivating a  working environment that promotes and supports active engagement. In the absence of leadership, only pockets of excellence will exist, but with strong leaders at the helm, systems of excellence that foster and support high teacher engagement can be created and sustained.

Next week’s post will be shared by my friend and colleague, Amber Teamann. As you continue to think about ways you can create engaging working environments for teachers, I encourage you to read Amber’s ideas on changing the way we think about leadership. I guarantee you will be challenged and encouraged to think about leadership in a different way.

Be sure to pick up your copy of Edcuation Write Now in December 2017.

 

Who is Responsible for Teacher Engagement​?

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.

1. Read more books2. Get a new hobby3. Try rock climbing4. Be more creative

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.