Sunday, November 3, 2013

#137- Educator Morale

The Beatings Will Continue
Until Morale Improves. . .
Public educator morale is low.  We hear this all the time from a variety of sources, and those of us in the field of education hear it, know it and live it on a daily basis.  Low educator morale isn't a new phenomena, but the dropping spirits of educators are accelerating at an alarming rate.  Concerns about losing collective bargaining rights, increased pressure from evaluations, and an increasingly hostile climate all add to the existing stresses that educators face.   

Yet, there are many who question the need for concern about educator morale.  After all, to many, education is just another profession and educators should be able to handle the same stresses and challenges that any other employee faces.  We hear this sentiment expressed all the time.  When educator morale is mentioned the conversation inevitably turns to the long summers off, the short hours, the fact that those in the private sector have been suffering more for longer periods of time, etc.  The question comes up, why shouldn't those educators be treated like all the rest of America's workforce?  After all, it's not like they have a tough demanding job.  The hours are short, the pay is good, and those benefits, wow!  Even those sympathetic to educators and supportive of our public schools frequently take this tone.  I often hear people say, I support my kid's teachers, but. . .     

In addition to the comments about pay, working conditions and benefits, talk inevitably turns to the quality of the American public education system.  Test scores, employer concerns, and anecdotal evidence of the failure of our schools is used to essentially say that public school educators don't earn their paychecks anyway.  We should ignore the realities that educators work in, the challenges our students face, the society we live in, and the validity of the assessments used to evaluate schools.  Just look at the bottom line, that's what we do in the private sector right?  Education should be treated as a business, and educators are just like any other employee in any other industry.  Morale should be secondary to productivity is the thinking of many.

This flawed logic is having an incredibly harmful impact on our nation's schools.  While the argument that employee morale in any industry or profession is important and that "happy" workers make for better productivity, the reality is that educators do their jobs in a profession that is very different from much of the rest of the workforce.  We are not "better" and we are not "more privileged" or "more deserving", we simply do a job that requires a specific set of skills and a particular emotional approach in order to successfully carry out our responsibilities.

The heart of the issue lies in the reality that the "products" produced in the "educational industry" are the knowledge, skills and attitudes of our nation's children.  This is very different from a physical product or even a service that employees in other professions create or deliver.  A professional educator designs the curriculum, delivers the instruction and sets the tone for the environment that the students work and socialize in.  Our "customers" are our "products" at the same time.  The "raw materials" we work to mold into a finished "product" (a well educated, career and college ready citizen) come to us with a variety of strengths and challenges, they operate in a society filled with preconceived ideas about them.  In a public school every student's needs must be addressed and no one can be turned away.  As educators we accept these challenges and do our best to create a learning environment that is positive, supportive and filled with opportunity. 

In order to do this challenging task well, educators need to be sound not only in their knowledge, but also in their emotional state.  We have to be ready to calm a frightened or angry student, support a family in crisis, help solve the social problems of students and provide an education all at the same time.  If morale is low, then these multiple challenges become simply overwhelming. 

Our morale is low, not because we have been coddled for too long.  It is low, not because we couldn't handle it in the private sector so we turned to public education as an easy way to make a buck.  It is low, not because we don't want to work hard to help our students.  It isn't low because we don't want to be held accountable for our student's achievement.  It is low for a number of sound reasons. 

Lack of respect- We have all heard these lines (or some variation of them) "Those who can do, do.  Those who can't do, teach."  Sitting in a professional development last week I watched a video (made by an educator with a pro-education message) say that teaching "isn't rocket science."  There is a general sense among many that teaching students is tough, not because of the skills required, but rather because of other intangible reasons.  Somehow the skills required to teach 25 students of different backgrounds, abilities and motivations a concept is devalued in our society.  Educators aren't skilled professionals, but rather glorified babysitters who simply give out information to students that the students really could get anywhere. 

Actually, it is true, teaching isn't "rocket science".  It isn't "brain surgery" either.  Educating students is a unique combination of technical skill combined with an ability to motivate students while understanding their basic needs and addressing their emotional health.  Education is a form of art.  Just like any art form it is easy to say what to do and how to do it, but a totally different thing to actually accomplish.  In devaluing educator's skills we use the flawed logic that anyone can paint a masterpiece, compose a musical score or wow the crowd with an electrifying athletic move simply by following a set of directions or trying hard.

Educators take great pride in our ability to perform a demanding job.  Saying that our skills are less than those in other professions and are not worthy of respect is a direct attack on us and our value to society.

Devaluing educators and education- Once the professional skills of educators are questioned, it isn't too hard to begin arguing that they don't deserve to be respected or compensated at the same level as other professionals.  Sentiments like this one from the comment section of an article about educator morale sum up the disrespect shown directly to elementary educators.    

"Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with that sort of salary ($73k/year) for a teacher who teaches higher level subjects...but there is no reason for an elementary school teacher to make anywhere near that amount."

However, the reality is that $73k/year isn't a salary that compares to other professions that require the same expertise and education.  For that reason it really disrespectful to all educators.  Would a professional actor, athlete or CEO work for that amount of money? 

Here in Wisconsin we are still reeling from the impacts of Act 10 and other "reforms" that have been directly aimed at educators and education.  It is difficult to feel valued when my families take home pay for the last month was over $700 less than in previous years.  That this can occur in my state with a long history of supporting public schools certainly doesn't help the morale of educators. 

Creating an intimidating and unfriendly environment- The decline in morale over the past couple of years can be directly traced to the changes in working conditions brought on by new legislation and policy.  These are supposedly designed to make our schools more "efficient" and more "accountable".  Yet, the legacy of policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is not increased student achievement, but rather an environment that is hostile to learning and reduced opportunity for students.  

The loss of collective bargaining rights for most educators, and the restrictions on bargaining that exist for those who do still have contracts create unfavorable working conditions for educators.  The movement to make educators more "accountable" has caused many to question whether our employers trust us to use our time well.  We are increasingly required to document how we use our time and to participate in mandated professional development instead of planning or collaborating with our colleagues to meet our student's needs.      

This environment isn't just unfriendly to educators, but is unfriendly to public schools in general.  The entire voucher movement arises out of a climate that is hostile to public education.  The idea that our public schools deserve our respect and support is foreign to many in public office and their ideas fuel negative public opinions.  

Implementing harmful "reforms"- While working conditions, compensation and the general climate surrounding education are important to educators, it is often our inability to do our jobs in the way we feel that is best for our students that causes significant stress for us.  We are seeing a disturbing movement in education right now towards "rigor" and "accountability".  These trends aren't disturbing to educators because we don't want to challenge our students or be accountable.  They are troubling because the "rigor" and "accountability" that is currently being imposed on us appears to be misguided and harmful to our students. 

At the end of the day most educators that I know put their students needs ahead of their own in almost every way.  It is because of this that we put in the extra time to meet with students and their families, that we attend events in the community and that we speak out about so called "reforms".  We provide snacks on a daily basis for hungry students, we pay for field trips for students who can't afford them, we provide school supplies.  We offer encouragement and emotional support above and beyond what is required of us.  We look for ways to help students achieve the standards and benchmarks while still retaining a love of learning. 

Our reward for these efforts is continuing professional development calling for us to either completely scrap our existing curricula or to learn new terms for things that we already do.  We are asked to collect data on our students to be used to fuel more changes.  We must change our schedules to implement programs that have little impact on student achievement.  We are pressured to pressure our students and make them view learning as a chore or obligation.  Learning becomes something measurable and a requirement instead of an opportunity and a joy.  The means becomes more important than the ends.  We spend more time justifying ourselves and worrying about data than we do preparing lessons to engage our students in learning.  In the end it is the children who suffer because of the policies that are implemented.          

None of what I've written so far is likely to change the opinions of those who truly believe that our current state of education is moving us in the proper direction.  The thinking that schools should be run like businesses and educators need to simply deal with that or leave the profession is a difficult mindset to change.  The only way to really understand what is happening to our public educators is to experience what we are experiencing and talk directly to people who work in our schools.  All of the data, all of the test scores and all of the anecdotal evidence can't compare to real life experience. 

The real problems in education aren't the public educators and they aren't the students or families who attend our public schools.  The problems lie in our continuing political and economic battles.  Our schools are caught in the crossfire between powerful groups who seek to maintain and expand their hold on wealth and power.  Our students suffer, not because of the educators who work with them, but because of policies enacted from people outside of the schools.  

Our students, educators and school suffer because we as a society, haven't ever committed to making our schools work for all students.  We are quick to assess blame, but not as quick to work towards solutions that will effectively address our challenges.  It is one thing to point fingers of blame, but another to put your hands to work fixing the problems that we all know exist in our schools and in our society.       

Educators feel helpless in the face of these attacks and unable to do what they feel is correct for their students and their profession.  They feel disrespected and devalued.  We don't have many friends in high places who advocate for us on policy issues.  Most of those with access to power are aligned with the "reformers" and the educational profiteers.  It is a recipe for low morale, high-turnover and dissatisfaction among employees who are so vital for the future of our students and our society.  We need to start changing the ingredients in our "educational menu" so that we can  make positive change happen for our students, our educators and our public schools.         

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