October 27, 2022
“[T]he percentages of teachers who agreed with positive statements about their profession were higher among teachers who believed their opinions were considered in school decisions and lower among those who did not believe they had a voice.”
~ Center on Education Policy survey.
Five years of work—five years that, on one night, faced a final vote in a winter faculty meeting. The journey toward this night had begun during a discussion of the curriculum committee when a couple of members suggested that we needed to do a better job of educating our students. Their proposal was radical: redesign the curriculum, change the way we teach—create a new school. The majority of the committee was opposed, and so began a long process of discussion, argument, rage, laughter, and compromise.
“We can’t just change everything.”
“OK, let’s focus on the ninth-grade curriculum. Let’s start there.”
A small group of volunteers began weekly meetings to explore an array of ideas: how to create a new balance between studying facts and developing skills; how to increase opportunities for students to pursue personal interests and questions that genuinely mattered to them; how to respond to the teaching implications of the complex connections between emotion and thinking. The group reported its progress to the curriculum committee and the full faculty every month or two, eliciting reactions—agreement, disagreement, and suggestions. Eventually, as a plan began to form, the group of volunteers grew until about 25 teachers were involved, a quarter of the faculty. Hours became months became years, as the different perspectives, arguments, and counterarguments shaped a new curriculum and new structures.
“We need a new daily schedule to make this approach work. How do we find a schedule that will work simultaneously for the ninth graders and for the rest of the school?” We designed one.
“This curriculum won’t work for foreign languages and math.” We altered the plan.
“Who’s going to want to learn new teaching methods?” A team of teachers volunteered.
If the plan was accepted, the school would pay these teachers to work through the summer during the year before it was implemented. Tenacity and persistence drove the process. And then that final vote: It passed with a large majority. A wonderful night climaxed years of remarkably difficult, exhilarating, frustrating, stimulating work.
The promise of exactly this sort of experience was the critical factor that attracted me to a career in independent rather than public education: the opportunity to participate directly in decision-making in a culture that encouraged debate and exploration of ideas among adults and students. It seemed essential to work in a school where teachers had the power and freedom to shape policy and question the assumptions behind practices. Teachers in most public schools seemed restricted by the larger district, state, and federal systems that established standards, curricula, and practices. Independent school teachers enjoyed the freedom to participate in shaping the direction of the school itself. In the cultures of independent schools, teachers’ voices mattered. Teachers’ voices should matter in any school.
Regardless of where they teach, teachers continue to be happier when they are valued participants in creating their school learning culture. Over the past few years, studies and polls have shown that one of the main factors in the shortage of teachers (even before adding the extra stresses of COVID) is frustration over not being consulted or heard. In a 2015 NPR interview, Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor, citing a study from the Center for Education Policy said, on the topic of teacher attrition, “One of the main factors is the issue of voice and having a say, and being able to have input into the key decisions in the building that affect a teacher’s job.” It always seemed that I had made the right choice in pursuing a career in independent schools. Unfortunately, although many schools continue to enjoy a tradition of democratic decision-making, I have seen startling signs that the culture may be changing to more authoritarian rule.
These signs are particularly ominous this year as states enact gag orders aimed at preventing teachers from teaching certain books, topics, and historical facts. A friend in a public school told me recently about a parent who burst into his 7th-grade classroom, with the students present, to berate him for discussing slavery. We need to take these signs seriously. No school is immune to the fear and loathing of autocrats and angry mobs.
Change can occur so gradually that it’s difficult to pinpoint when you first noticed a nascent trend. This can be particularly true for cultural shifts. When I look back over my 50 years in six different independent schools, I wonder if a particular meeting between the trustees and faculty somewhere around 1986 might have portended this change. Though I don’t recall the specific focus of the meeting, I know that the faculty wanted to discuss a decision with curricular ramifications that we felt the trustees did not understand. And I do remember exactly what the board chair said to cut the meeting short: “We are management; you are labor.” In other words, “shut up.” Some would say this sort of attitude reflects “good governance,” but it was a surprise to us because we were accustomed to school cultures that always included and respected faculty voices, cultures that understood the value of questioning and dissent.
During the past decade, I have witnessed in one school and listened to my colleagues in other schools describe a very different culture—one in which curricular, structural, and policy changes are handed down by fiat. Rarely, in these schools, are issues discussed with the faculty. Rather than forums for exploring education and curricular or policy initiatives, faculty meetings are held for administrative pronouncements of decisions that the head has made without any guidance from those who must implement them. And there are fewer faculty meetings. “The head has no interest in hearing anything we might have to say,” these teachers report. In one school, the head has established a rule that during meetings teachers may ask only “clarifying questions”—his way of ensuring that no one will challenge or openly disagree with him.
Compounding the problem is the lack of extensive experience many administrators, especially some school heads and principals, have in the classroom. Because, too often, the classroom was not their primary interest, they lack a deep understanding of teaching and learning or curriculum; and they have no substantial vision or philosophy of education, yet they blithely make decisions that affect teaching and learning. If someone is courageous enough to ask a challenging question, they dismiss it with, “Oh, we can work all that out later.” And they usually make clear that they didn’t appreciate the question.
Some schools have increasing layers of managers, some of whom have never taught at all yet are empowered to make unilateral decisions that affect teachers and students. Many of these groups then become the pool from which future school heads are selected. The result is schools led by people who aren’t educators and that both oversee managers who aren’t educators and are overseen by boards of non-educators. It’s hardly surprising that such leadership is content if admissions numbers are solid, test scores are high, college lists are good, parents are happy, and fund-raising is successful. And teachers are silent.
If anything, the pandemic has magnified the dangers of ignoring the voices of teachers. The teachers whom I know were not consulted during a period of rapid, radical change; instead, administrators made unilateral decisions about the structures and directions of online learning. Crises require good, informed decisions to increase the likelihood that structures and practices will produce the desired goals. Many of the failures of virtual learning might have been mitigated or avoided if those who best understood learning and teaching had been involved in the technological, practical, and curricular discussions.
The teachers with whom I spoke echoed one who participated in a study in England: “I think we’ve wasted this opportunity to, to address … the good things and the not so good things in schools and in teaching, and we’ve … missed that opportunity for a teacher’s voice in all of this.” The study reported participants feeling “that policymakers have shown no trust in teachers’ expertise and that this has led to a lack of joined-up thinking and a raft of poorly considered policies which are harmful to pupils as well as staff because they are unfeasible in practice.”
When teachers’ voices matter, when what goes on in school is shaped by discussion and the votes of educators, the lack of the managers’ teaching experience can be offset. Historically, the more democratic schools—public or private—have always benefited from this balance. Though frustrating at times, the collegial nature of participatory decision-making by real educators is a source of joy, intellectual stimulation, and growth. These practices promote discussion and debate and a sense that teachers matter and can effect change. In order to evolve, take new shapes, and become viable, ideas require a climate that invites questioning and dissent. Schools with teachers who have been silenced are no place for children: as Simon and Garfunkel knew, “Silence like a cancer grows.”
If school leaders join today’s riot of politicians and authoritarian parents who want to silence teachers, students will be the ultimate victims. We can already see the signs in the increasing numbers of students who feel the need to self-censor, whether in left- or right-leaning political environments—the realities that my grandsons tell me they face in their colleges today and against which one of them struggled for four years in his high school. Although there are still many schools where teachers’ voices shape school practices, I hear the not-so-distant thunder of a trend toward creating cultures of silence that needs to be stopped. Where it has taken hold, it needs to be reversed. If schools are serious in their claim to teach students collaboration, cooperation, communication, and deep thinking, shouldn’t adults model these abilities—particularly in an increasingly tyrannical world? Silence is not golden. Like democracy, the freedom to speak must be earned and protected—every generation, every day—especially in schools.
This article was originally published on Intrepid Ed News on August 5, 2022 under the title, NAIS President Candidates Question #2: Supporting teacher voices. Since the theme of the article stands on its own, we have republished it by request.