New Survey Shows Teachers Want Change. Their Contracts Could Help Make It Happen

Stone: As Teacher Appreciation Month comes to a close, it's time to rethink how districts and unions can work together to unlock transformation.

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An inherently contradictory challenge about my time as a sixth-grade teacher in the Bronx still sticks with me and feels particularly poignant as Teacher Appreciation Month comes to a close: Teachers have been asked to do far too much with far too little while not being supported to maximize their unique talents. This has been the status quo for far too long. Now, educators find themselves in a profession in dire need not only of change, but complete reimagination.

The stress, burnout and strains on teachers have compounded so significantly that students, families and educators themselves face an undeniable crisis. Educators for Excellence’s seventh annual Voices from the Classroom teacher survey shows that just 19% of teachers say the profession is sustainable and only 16% would recommend it to others. Simply put, America’s education system is failing teachers and students.

While the world has evolved rapidly, the same cannot be said for the teaching profession. When I began teaching in 2007, I can vividly remember pausing after dismissing my after-school club and realizing I had been with students for the past nine hours. My day was focused solely on my classroom. I had little time to take care of personal matters, let alone collaborate with or learn from my colleagues to better our collective teaching skills. I loved my work and knew it was important, but I also knew that my students weren’t getting my best under these working conditions.

The survey results paint a picture that is eerily similar to the conditions of my school in 2007. Teachers are still asked to do too much with too little. They are rarely afforded opportunities to demonstrate the full extent of their skills or collaborate with their colleagues to increase their professional learning: Just 26% say the profession is dynamic and less than half, 46%, say it’s collaborative. This is evidenced by historically low teacher morale, with less than half expressing a commitment to staying in education for the long haul.

Piecemeal solutions have been ineffective, as evidenced by teachers’ calls for change. Instead, what’s needed is an urgent and sweeping transformation of the profession. Teachers unequivocally want something different, but they also want to — and ought to be — meaningfully engaged in designing and implementing the change that comes.

When teachers are given the opportunity to voice their opinions to those who can make meaningful change in the profession, they are clear in what they want to see. First, teachers want more collaboration: 63% report wanting more time to work with colleagues, making it the most popular activity out of 13 provided options, including wanting more time for grading, lesson planning, professional development or even classroom instruction. They also report wanting to learn about innovative approaches to teaching and learning: alternatives to the one-teacher, one-classroom model; how to use research-backed instructional practices; and how to incorporate emerging technologies that drive student success, such as artificial intelligence. 

How can teachers drive transformation within their own profession? Though state and national policy has a critical role to play, an often overlooked but deeply essential tool for unlocking transformation exists elsewhere, in one built by educators themselves: teachers contracts. 

Contracts serve as the guiding document of the profession, creating the structure within which teachers and students navigate teaching and learning. They are intended to be democratic documents, allowing teachers to shape the profession from within their ranks and empowering them to lead from their classrooms.

Far too often, though, they instead create rigidity and immutability that prevent school leaders and teachers from shaping their school together and evolving alongside the rest of the world. They usually codify a one-size-fits-all job description that ignores teachers’ individual skills and passions, limiting the ability of a school community to shift and meet the students’ needs through the talents of their educators. With just a third of teachers reporting being very satisfied with their union’s negotiating priorities, the moment begs reflection on how contracts can address dissatisfaction with the state of the profession and instead welcome innovative new approaches.  

Thankfully, there are shining examples where districts have seriously rethought what teacher contracts look like, designing them in a way that directly addresses educators’ strengths and needs. Take Ravenswood City School District in California, for example. There, district and union leaders worked together to develop a contract that allows issues such as class size and compensation to be renegotiated at specified times during its term. This offers a unique built-in mechanism for reflection and adjustment, giving teachers a regular opportunity to build a profession that supports them and their students’ ever-changing strengths and needs. The contract also provided for salary increases and an innovative career ladder designed to incentivize and reward exceptional performance. Ravenswood’s new approach was tested through a soft launch and pilot year with built-in opportunities for renegotiation, allowing teachers to get a feel for the changes and the ability to make final revisions.

To fundamentally redesign the role of the teacher, creating modern classrooms ready to better serve students and truly appreciate educators, contracts must be modified to reflect the collaborative, dynamic and sustainable profession teachers are asking for.

Right now, starting with Teacher Appreciation Month and continuing far beyond, is the time to ignite a national conversation around the crisis in K-12 public education. It is time to elevate the voices and power of teachers and to deliver upon a fundamental shift in the education structure. Voices from the Classroom shares the shifts teachers would like to see. It’s time to listen. 

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