Being a bit of a data junkie, I really look forward to the release of the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher each year. Working to collect the kinds of tangible information that policymakers can use as a window into our profession, I see The Met as one of the most important tools that we teacher-types have when advocating for change in our profession.
Part one of this year’s MetLife survey was released this week, and it covers a topic likely to be near and dear to the hearts of anyone working in a school: Effective teaching and school leadership. Collecting the perspectives teachers and principals working across grade levels and social demographics, the results paint an interesting picture of the state of collaboration within the American schoolhouse.
While there were dozens of findings that caught my eye, none was more important than this: Principals and teachers STILL see core issues like “empowerment” and “teacher leadership” quite differently.
Need proof? Then check out the response rates to the following two statements:
Talk about shocking, huh?! Anytime you’ve got perception gaps ranging from 20 to 30 points, there’s DEFINITELY a problem.
The thing is that in almost every survey where the perceptions of principals and teachers are gathered, the same kinds of gaps exist. North Carolina’s Teacher Working Conditions Survey is a great example. Similar questions to the Met’s are asked every two years, and every two years, principals are consistently more positive about the levels of empowerment and shared decision-making in their buildings than teachers are.
Now, I’m not surprised by the disconnect. Principals are, after all, generally good people who are working hard to create the kinds of schools that attract motivated teachers and that tap into the human capital of their faculties. Most principals understand that shared decisions are more informed—and more reliable—than those made by “the boss.” They also believe in the ability of their teachers.
But I’m also not naive enough to overlook the consequences of this disconnect, either. When principals strongly believe that they are empowering their teachers and creating schools where shared decisions are common, little is going to change. Can we really expect to see more attempts to empower teachers when most principals are already convinced that their teachers ARE empowered?
In the end, these kinds of discrepancies between the perceptions of principals and teachers are collaboration killers. Teachers recognize early on whether investing time and energy into crafting shared decisions or into shaping the direction of a school is worth their while.
When true empowerment exists—represented by a balance between teacher and principal perceptions on the kinds of questions that the Met is spotlighting this year—there is a synergy around schools that is contagious. Every adult checks their title at the door and works together to drive change. Innovative thoughts and approaches are encouraged and powerful new discoveries are common.
But when empowerment is nothing more than a buzzword embraced by those who hold all of the power to begin with, innovation dies. Rather than invest energies into shared decisions that are likely to be overruled and/or ignored, teachers retreat into the apathetic, blue-collar world that we’ve spent the past two-decades railing against—and students suffer.
I guess my advice to school leaders would be simple: Carefully reflect on exactly how empowered your teachers are. Touch base with the most motivated teacher leaders on your staff and ask them whether or not your decision-making processes encourage collaborative efforts and innovation.
Think about how the most important initiatives in your building were selected and implemented. Did teachers have the chance to voice any dissent? Were their thoughts actively collected and considered? What would the consequences be if they chose to work in another direction?
When you’re own hands are tied by decisions made at the district or state level and teacher voice is ignored through no fault of your own, make that reality transparent to your faculty. Teachers are often too buried under the day-to-day reality of the classroom to see beyond the school. Honestly pointing out the places where shared decisions are replaced by mandates that no one can ignore will raise awareness and decrease resentment.
In the end, know that preaching about empowerment while making important decisions from the top—a trend that this year’s Met data seems to suggest—-leads to collaborative efforts that are likely to be half-hearted at best.
Does any of this make sense?