In Chicago, teachers are on strike. In Boston, teachers and the school district just resolved a contentious contract negotiation that spanned two years. The loud issues thrown around during these and many other union-district disputes include: teacher evaluation, compensation, seniority rights, classes sizes, and extended schools days and years.
Yet, while these issues are important and have public funding implications, they often have very little to do with what really matters for education success: keeping good teachers in schools. Good teachers are the single most important asset to schools and their students. But most talented teachers do not leave because they feel underpaid, have to work an hour more, or are assigned additional students to their class. Nor do skilled teachers exit because they feel unfairly evaluated –they perform well on these assessments. They predominantly leave for one reason: schools are often poor work environments.
What makes schools undesirable places to work? Poor leadership is one key factor . Leaders with autocratic styles, who do not communicate goals and expectations well, or do so in a showy or superficial way disillusion good teachers. Leaders who have inconsistent, sporadic contact with teachers, do not know good instruction, and thus how to provide helpful, knowledgeable feedback drive good teachers away. Further, the high turnover rates among leaders destabilize school cultures.
As Harvard’s Susan Moore Johnson and her research team point out , another key factor is limited collegiality. Education can be a lonely profession, with teachers often working in isolation for large parts of the school day. Planning time with colleagues to discuss students and strong practice is minimal – e.g. one-two hours a week or less. And only a few schools provide ongoing mentoring, coaching or professional development.
So until unions and districts focus on these factors with the same energy they devote towards extended school hours or pay raises, they will continue to miss the mark when it comes to school improvement and student success.
Jake Murray is the Senior Director of the Wheelock College Aspire Institute. He has over 20 years of experience in the education, health and human services fields, serving as an organizational leader, policy analyst, and strategic planner.