Opinion: It’s the culture, not the cash, that matters most to teachers

Are bonuses enough to attract and keep good teachers?

I am at a conference in Orlando sponsored by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that develops engineering, computer science and biomedical curricula for schools and helps them improve and enhance k-12 science education. I was chatting with some young science teachers today about what would make them and their peers stay in the classroom.

Money, while on the list, was not the top driver. (Several teachers I met are engineers and could increase their salaries instantly in the private sector.)

Rather, teachers talked about school cultures and how important it was for them to work in a building where there was a shared purpose, collaboration and school-wide commitment to improvement and to excellence. They wanted smart principals who not only listened to teachers but regarded them as partners and who created a safe and welcoming environment for students.

In essence, they wanted to work in good places with good people doing good things.

That brings me to this guest column by Etienne R. LeGrand, who writes about education and researches organizational culture as a leadership responsibility. An Atlanta writer, LeGrand has written for the blog before including this piece.

LeGrand was responding in part to a blog I wrote about how big bonuses were not enough to draw top teachers to under performing schools.

By Etienne R. LeGrand

Money solves a lot of problems, but can it motivate top teaching talent to teach in low-performing schools?  Based on a number of initiatives that offer teachers as much as $25,000 to take on teaching assignments in such schools, including those in Georgia and Florida, the answer seems to be no.

Do we fully understand the barriers to teachers working in the schools where they’re most needed?

Etienne R. LeGrand

The knee-jerk answers of racism and classism remain distinct possibilities.  Until America’s aspirations of equality and justice have been met, we can’t rule these out completely. But what else may be going on inside of school districts around which more can be done?

According to research conducted by Education Trust, a Washington-based education policy nonprofit, teachers’ unwillingness to work in low-performing schools has less to do with the kids, the neighborhoods or the commute and more to do with the workplace culture.

Though it’s loosely used and little understood term, culture is the habits and behaviors of individuals and teams in a school district – – the way people in a school district interact with one another as they perform their jobs.

Teachers don’t want to work in schools that are poorly led, where expectations are unclear, where coaching and feedback are in short supply, where contributions go unappreciated, where little concern is demonstrated for them as people, where they have little opportunity to learn and grow and where colleagues aren’t expected to work as a team or do their best.  In essence they don’t want to work in a dysfunctional organization.

Can we really blame them?

If schools located in a low status neighborhood and attended by poor and minority children who are not yet actualizing their potential were led by leaders who were adept at coaching and developing their teachers and employees, who expected all to perform at their best and to work together as a team, who expressed appreciation to individuals and teams for their contributions, who genuinely cared for employees, and provided them with opportunities to learn and grow, could these be schools that teachers might want to work in?  Could such schools actually produce better results for more kids?

I think the answer is yes. The opportunity to attract teachers to teach in low-performing schools lies less in offering financial incentives, even though compensation has a role to play in attracting talent and recognizing employee contributions, and more in the ability of educational leaders who can shape a high functioning, high performing district culture that emphasizes high performance behaviors, such as teamwork and mutual support, coaching and “a can do attitude” to name a few.

The idea of creating school districts as great places to work gets short shrift.  It’s the key ingredient to creating great places to learn. We need more educational leaders who are adept at addressing the human issues or organizational culture that is weighing the performance of too many school districts down much as a rip tide causes a swimmer to struggle to reach the shore.

Money may buy love and it’s definitely necessary to pay a mortgage and other living expenses, but creating higher functioning schools and districts that teachers are excited and proud to work in is a stronger inducement than money alone can buy.

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

25 comments
Becky Riches Giardina
Becky Riches Giardina

I took a pay cut to go to a school with a better culture and climate. It was either that or quit teaching. When you feel unsupported the job is almost impossible.

Dee Douglas
Dee Douglas

How do you research to find those schools with better climate?

Becky Riches Giardina
Becky Riches Giardina

I followed a colleague. I could also tell the difference when I walked in for my interview. People were smiling.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

Good question, bad answer. 

I can understand why you would want, HOPE, that creating a better culture via strong leadership would make teachers want to work at a school.

Yes, lousy leadership can drive teachers away, but it doesn't attract them. What teachers WANT is to work with children who come from homes where their parents (i.e., BOTH parents, and mostly TWO parents) value education, have high expectations for their children's conduct and academic success, and as necessary, with with their children's teachers to make sure that happens. 

Alas, what teachers mostly want to work with are BETTER KIDS. That is why the old-timers get AP and magnet classes while newbies get more challenging and harder-to-teach general classes. That is why teachers, after gaining sufficient experience, move from lower achieving, lower income schools to higher achieving, higher income schools. That is why teachers take pay cuts to move from public to private schools.

Starik
Starik

@AlreadySheared  Even in the worst of schools there are some good kids, trying to do the right thing without their peers noticing. Some are very intelligent, intelligent enough to play dumb when necessary. 

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

So the classroom environment is such that the smart kids ack stoopid so they won't be picked on. Lovely - I am sure that teachers are lining up to get the chance to teach there.

mad_russian
mad_russian

@AlreadySheared Just to ask, have you ever worked in education? Just want to be able to respond correctly to your statement.

Kelly S. Moore
Kelly S. Moore

In my opinion, it’s both. The culture is terrible and so is the salary. After getting two degrees, the salary is still low compared to a career in corporate America especially in the IT, medical, or law field. If you are in the teaching field you need two months off to get a mental break. The pay is worse for a substitute teacher, especially if you are certified with two degrees. How embarrassing!!! The school system is behind the times. They need to spend more time in raising the bar. The computers are old and outdated. There is too much competition out there. The homeschool community are so much far ahead of the game. Their students are exposed to so much that many of their students are taking college classes, “real” theatre, computer classes, etc. Many of them are over seas experiencing the “real” world.

kaelyn
kaelyn

Bingo! It is the culture. Administrators, teachers, parents, and students all have to buy into the idea that school is a place where learning is the focus and appropriate behavior is expected. The theme and charter schools in my county buy into this model. They tend to bring together stakeholders who are there to support a common and positive purpose, unlike many of our neighborhood schools. I’ve watched too many awesome educators leave our local schools for better opportunities. It’s our loss, but until the culture becomes more supportive and purposeful, what other choice do they have?

Kate Maloney
Kate Maloney

I went back to engineering for the flexibility (aging parents, one who is quite fragile and one who is the caretaker, and I want to be present for both of them; between the workload and the sub issue, it was too much.) I miss the students and the colleagues I respected very, very much. I hope to go back one day, but I also hope conditions in general improve!

AJC  Get Schooled
AJC Get Schooled

At this conference -- Project Lead the Way --- I have met several engineers-turned-teachers. It is great to see. They all say it is much harder, however, than engineering.

Kate Maloney
Kate Maloney

It depends in how you define hard. But, the hours and the physical and emotional workload in teaching are very difficult, even more than when I taught at Georgia Tech. But the thinking and responsibility in engineering design are challenging for sure! I could share so much of what I think after 5 years of public school teaching, but I am not comfortable doing so too much on social media!

redweather
redweather

Great post!


Based on discussions I have had with teachers and having been one myself, at poorly administered schools it's easy to feel like you are on an island. The administration pays lip service to things like team building and shared commitment, but it isn't willing or perhaps doesn't know how to make that happen. Add at-risk students and ineffective parents to the mix and you have a perfect storm.

Astropig
Astropig

@redweather


Not arguing with anything you write here,but aren't administrators just teachers that have failed up? Aren't they the ones that played the political angles just the right way and their reward is an incremental increase in power, responsibility and salary? How can they be pure-hearted public servants on Friday and (after a promotion), out of touch idiot/tyrants on the following Monday? What does this tell us about the system and the people inside it?

weetamoe
weetamoe

But what is the remedy for cultural complacency ?

Kelli Sinclair
Kelli Sinclair

The workload is killing me. I'm so tired of working 60+ hours a week just to keep up.

Ty Jones
Ty Jones

The cash is miserable also, teachers it’s ok to say we are not paid enough....we are the only profession to make it seems like it’s a bad thing to say we are underpaid and the culture is horrible!

Janusz Maciuba
Janusz Maciuba

BOEs: no more gym teachers in administration. Nothing against gym teachers but at least throw in people with degrees in academic subjects and you may see some progress.

Janusz Maciuba
Janusz Maciuba

Great , but most of us were in thrall to the clueless. A hint to

Christie Ware Bryan
Christie Ware Bryan

I love where I teach! Not only is my school administration amazing but my superintendent and other BOE staff are too! I work with an unbelievable team of teachers that make our school a positive place to work! I know I could make more money working in bigger counties, but I wouldn't trade our system's positive culture for more money! #LincolnCounty

Aboukir
Aboukir

The teachers' unions pump out a continuous supply of these self-serving anecdotes. Meanwhile, there's not a local school district which doesn't have a legion of qualified teaching applicants turn up at every job fair.

For the good pay & benefits, extensive vacation time, and near-absolute job security.