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Policymakers and Education Leaders Must Listen to Teachers

Taking over the guest blog this week is Andy Saultz, an assistant professor and the director of the Ph.D. in Education and Leadership Program at Pacific University. He is currently running for the Oregan state legislature and was previously a social studies teacher. This week, Andy will be discussing how education policy has shifted in Oregon and why that matters, and how we should expand the scope of what we mean by "education policy."

I spend a lot of time thinking, researching, and talking about how to improve our educational system. I have heard it all: "Funding is the problem," "We have to restructure the governance system," "We have to change the standards and curriculum," and even "Kids these days are the heart of the problem." Rather than dive into those debates, I want to focus on an important component of making policy stick. Today, I outline the things I have learned from teachers about educational policy.

More than anything, teachers often feel like policy is done to them. While policymakers are thinking about broad public-policy goals, teachers must address individual student and parent needs, which may or may not be included in overarching plans. Teachers, and other street-level bureaucrats, must work within systems that they may or may not agree with. The most effective policymakers and educational leaders listen to teachers, learn from them, and are able to craft solutions to address the issues they deal with on a daily basis.

Professional Development

Back when I was a high school social studies teacher, I went to a lot of required professional-development speakers. Most of these speakers were charismatic and had a few tricks about how to improve direct instruction. But this came at a significant financial cost to the district and always felt gimmicky. They would gather all the district or area teachers into a large auditorium, usually the week before school started. These efforts felt largely like districts trying to check a box that professional development was completed for the beginning of the year, rather than prioritizing the specific needs of the community and the teachers. Not surprisingly, teachers treated the professional-development time as a distraction from the real work of getting ready for the year. The one-size-fits-all approach ignored differences across subject matter and experience. Instead, districts should incorporate teachers into the process of selecting professional development and target specific needs.

Unexpected Challenges

Teaching high school was the hardest and most satisfying job I have ever had. I taught five one-hour periods of social studies, with a one-hour prep. It felt like I had 300 conversations with students every day and that I always had to be ready to engage a personal (my family is ill), professional (have you responded to the IEP request), or educational (why Nixon went to China) question. In short, it felt like I always had to be on my toes.

Teachers have a lot of students with emotional and behavioral challenges. What makes these challenges difficult is not always the individual event but the lack of space and support to absorb unexpected disruptions. Consider an event a few years ago in my 9th grade U.S. history class. I was giving a brief overview of the Spanish-American War and I looked back to see a student cutting his arm with a razor blade.

I froze. I could not draw attention to the student, but I had to get to him quickly. I stopped the lecture and got him the help he needed. Three minutes later, I am back standing in front of the class, carrying right on where we left off, expected to pretend nothing happened.

I received no training about how to handle traumatic events or how to personally recover. Teachers have repeatedly told me that they feel overwhelmed by the complexity of student lives, particularly around issues of violence and emotional and mental health. Teacher educators, policymakers, and educational leaders need to both acknowledge the challenges in the classroom and better prioritize the socio-emotional health of teachers who respond to them.

Class Size

Researchers, policymakers, and think tank folks love to cite the research about class size and the negligible effects on student achievement. But those arguments miss the point of why class size matters to teachers. Teachers care about intrinsic rewards and building lasting relationships with students. Large class sizes make it harder to get to know each student. A friend of mine has 46 students in her 9th grade social studies class. 46? Beyond the challenges with building quality relationships with those students (and the other four classes she has), much of her time is focused on classroom management. Policymakers miss the mark by only framing class size in terms of student outcomes and should broaden their thinking on how it affects students and teachers.

The point is that policymakers need to incorporate teacher voices and experiences into decisionmaking. Without teacher buy-in, even the perfect policy solution is doomed to fail. Developing policy solutions with stakeholder involvement is a lot more time consuming, but a policy with an exclusive process will inevitably struggle to be implemented well.

— Andy Saultz

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