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Teacher Voice: Myth? Or Long Overdue?

Today's guest post is co-authored by Lisa Lande, Ed.D and Russell Quaglia, Ed.D. Lande and Quaglia represent the Teacher Voice and Aspiration International Center. 

As long as there have been teachers, there has been teacher voice.  Teachers have always had opinions and ideas to share, and certainly teacher voice has not been silent over the years.  However, in the profession of education, we have yet to put in place a system that not only guarantees teacher voice, but also makes their voice an accepted, integral part of the day-to-day operations of schools.  Additionally, many teachers are unsure of how to best exercise their voice within the school system, often leaving them frustrated and feeling powerless. 

This must change.

Teachers have a great deal to say, and it is of vital importance that we listen to, learn from, and learn with, them.  Our belief is that the voice of teachers is an untapped resource in efforts to improve the teaching and learning environment. To be clear, teacher voice is not simply conducting an annual survey, appointing one amazing teacher to the school leadership team, or providing a comment box in the teachers lounge.  These are all fine strategies that can help leaders garner a pulse on the current thinking of their staff.  We envision school systems in which:

  • All teachers have safe opportunities to exercise their voice on a regular basis through voicing their opinions, but more importantly by developing and leading strategic improvement efforts,
  • All teachers are provided with support on how to effectively communicate with students, colleagues, leadership, parents, and the community,
  • All teachers have personal and professional self-worth, are engaged in their school, and have purpose as an educator.

Unfortunately, embracing teacher voice is not yet a natural way of being within the education system.  Only 59% of teachers surveyed are confident voicing their honest opinions and concerns (Teacher Voice Report, 2014, QISA & TVAIC).  For this to change organizations must be willing, and individual teachers must be ready, to truly partner in a new way.  Shared leadership has been talked about and written about for quite some time, but there is still substantial work to be done for this to become part of the way we do business in schools.

The Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) has dedicated their existence and efforts towards amplifying the voice of students, and over the past three decades student voice has been increasingly embraced and fostered in schools.  It has become apparent that student voice, and its impact in schools cannot truly thrive if teacher voice is not honored as well.

We have been asking teachers to support and guide students in developing and effectively expressing their voice, when they may not yet have had the opportunity to develop and express their own voice, at least not in any formal fashion.  It would be like asking someone that has never been under water to teach someone else how to scuba dive! 

In response to what teachers have been expressing, the Teacher Voice and Aspirations International Center (TVAIC) has been launched and is dedicated to amplifying the voice of teachers in order for them to realize their aspirations and reach their fullest potential. While different in their own right, student voice and teacher voice share similarities and can be fostered in parallel ways. 

The 3 Guiding Principles (Quaglia & Corso, 2014) for fostering voice through the lens of teachers are as follows: 

Self-Worth - Teachers need to feel accepted for who they are within a safe environment where varying ideas are respected; they must have a colleague who is a hero, someone they trust and can be mentored by; and they must feel a sense of accomplishment for their efforts.

Engagement - Teachers must be meaningfully engaged in a school environment where they enjoy what they are doing, can be creative, and are willing to take risks without the fear of failure or success.  Yes, this means they should have fun on the job! 

Purpose - Teachers need opportunities to take on leadership roles and accept responsibility for their actions; and they have the confidence to take action knowing that what they are doing will benefit those beyond themselves.

Valuing teacher voice should be the norm within schools simply because it is the right thing to do.  However we also have data to support that when teachers have a voice in decision making at school they are at least three times more likely to:

  • Work hard to reach their goals,
  • Believe they can make a difference in the world,
  • Be excited about their future career in education, (Teacher Voice Report, 2014, QISA & TVAIC).

We are incredibly interested in filling schools with teachers that are working hard towards the achievement of professional goals and that are excited about making a difference in the lives of their students.  A clear strategy to making this a reality is to give teachers voice! Here are three specific ideas for amplifying teacher voice in your school:

  1. Provide learning opportunities that teach staff members to use their voice in meaningful and productive ways.  Dedicate 15 minutes in each faculty meeting to engaging teachers in activities that promote the learned skills of communication and collaboration.  If possible get your teachers to lead these "mini-lessons" on topics such as listening skills, the importance of body language, behaviors that demonstrate valuing the thoughts and contributions of others, facilitating balanced contributions from all participants, solutions oriented thinking, and strategic improvement planning skills for turning conversation into meaningful action; to name a few.
  2.  Ensure the organization has a system in place that allows teachers to express opinions, but also to engage in developing and implementing action plans.  Teachers quickly tire of sharing their thoughts if conversation never leads to action.  For every challenge that is voiced, make sure there is also discussion on suggestions for improvement.  Avoid being stuck in the long-term admiration of problems by quickly utilizing teams of teachers that are skilled in solutions based thinking to develop next steps for moving forward.  Be ready to embrace ideas that may be different from your own, and to empower teachers with authentic opportunities for leadership and responsibility in turning ideas into action.
  3.  Celebrate accomplishments.  The best way to guarantee and support teacher voice is by recognizing and celebrating all the good that comes from it.  Once a month recognize an innovative idea or celebrate a previous suggestion that turned into meaningful action. This can easily and quickly be done during faculty meetings.  But if you are looking to really ramp up your celebration efforts, organize recognition breakfast events throughout the year.  Invite community members and local media to share in the successes of the school.  Success breeds success, and by the end of the year you will have built an impressive record of accomplishments!

Our hope is that one day the voices of everyone in the educational community will be heard, learned from, and acted upon. Now is the time to amplify teacher voice as a valuable resource in school change efforts. 

In fact, it's way overdue.

Connect with Lisa Lande on Twitter

Peter DeWitt is on the board of TVAIC and works part-time as a field team specialist for QISA. 

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