Teacher Forum Talks: Work Environment Update

October 16, 2019  

The 100Kin10 Teacher Forum helps us keep an ear to the ground on what’s happening inside schools and classrooms across the country. Members hold listening sessions with their local STEM teaching communities and share back with us what STEM teachers are hearing, seeing, and experiencing in the field. These insights are then infused into the priorities and work of the 100Kin10 network.

Last year we heard from STEM teachers across America the importance of school work environments. When teachers are treated as the professionals they are, with time to learn and meaningfully collaborate with colleagues during the school day, they do their best work. As a result, teachers thrive, and student learning flourishes.

Driven by this, 100Kin10 is mobilizing our network to nurture positive work environments in schools. Our focus is on three high-leverage catalyst challenges: (1) professional growth during the school day, (2) opportunities for teacher collaboration during the school day, and (3) school leader responsibility for creating positive work environments. (Catalysts are the most strategic and efficient areas for creating impact and, if solved, would have outsized positive effects across the Grand Challenges system. Learn more.

We started by developing an action-oriented report titled “Teachers at Work”, an analysis of the research surrounding work environment for teachers in schools and the most promising collaborative opportunities for action. Building on this research, Project Teams are working to integrate professional growth into the school day, measure positive work environment and culture in schools, partner with schools to nurture positive working environment, and support holistic frameworks for mentoring teacher leaders. Read more about progress being made to nurture positive work environments in schools and lessons learned along the way through 100Kin10’s Living Research Document.

A year and a half into our effort, we continue to listen directly to STEM teachers to understand more about their work environment, if and how it’s changing, and how it impacts their teaching. While some shared that their school leaders and environment support them to continue to grow as STEM teachers, we heard from other teachers that work environment is still a pressing issue around the country. We heard that: (1) like other professionals, teachers want to be trusted and have their expertise valued, (2) teachers desire teacher-led collaboration and professional growth opportunities during the school day, and (3) teachers need supportive work environments to bring authentic learning to their classrooms. 

Teachers want to be treated like the professionals and experts they are.

Despite being workplaces, too many teachers are not treated as professionals in their schools. Teachers cited frustrating examples of not being trusted, from not being allowed to use the school credit card to having their expertise ignored. As one Teacher Forum member explained, “While some teachers are asked to participate in site or district planning meetings, it is perceived that the outcomes of the planning meetings are set in advance. [The meeting is used as] an opportunity to show on paper that teachers were involved, when in reality they had limited to no actual input.” 

“Time for collaboration and reflection with peers is limited; and when time is allotted, it is often accompanied by site or district set agendas that do not support what teachers view as needed and quality professional learning.”

Teachers are eager to learn from each other and for growth opportunities built into the school day.

Teachers know best the challenges they face and the support they need. Often this support is in a nearby classroom, just down the hall. Teachers expressed that they wanted more time to collaborate with their colleagues during the school day and the flexibility to choose how they use that time. They also value professional development when it is relevant and support their work, versus adding to it. Teachers wish more professional growth opportunities could be built into their school day along with time to reflect on and practice what they’re learning. One Teacher Forum member explained, “Teachers would like the opportunity to design their own professional learning opportunities which include the ability to plan and schedule regular times to collaborate, calibrate, lesson plan, debrief, reflect, vent, and support one another.” 

“There’s a tug between what we know to be best practices for science and what we’re actually able to implement based on institutional constraints.”

Teachers need work environments that encourage their own learning and experimentation if they are to create authentic learning spaces for their students.

Authentic STEM learning is driven by experimenting and learning from failure, yet too many STEM teachers find that their work environment discourages their own learning through experimentation. In these cases, teachers shared that they lacked support from their school leaders to innovate or use creative teaching practices. Some teachers are even afraid to try something new with their students, fearing that if it doesn’t work, then it will impact their performance evaluation. One Teacher Forum member elaborated, “Trying new things in front of students is really challenging [at my school]. Even though we see opportunities, jumping in, trying, and then failing is hard given the way we’re evaluated and that it plays into if we’re hired back the following year.”