A Good Teacher Needs to Be Surrounded by Good Teachers
This is the fifth of a five-part conversation on equitable teacher distribution.
Efforts to improve education that focus solely on incentivizing top teachers to move into the neediest schools forget that teachers and students alone do not determine a school's success; not surprisingly, these reforms have often fallen short. It's not the kids that keep these programs from being successful; it's the failure to recognize that outstanding teachers are just one piece of the puzzle to make a school successful.
Disadvantaged or struggling schools often suffer from a quieter menace that typically receives little attention: ineffective policies, behemoth bureaucracy, low staff morale, cultural disconnects between staff and students, and ineffective management. Too often the flailing, or crawling support systems of disadvantaged schools and their impact on teachers receives little attention.
A school that struggles in any of these areas struggle as a whole, and experienced high performing teachers feel it. When listening to teachers lament the difficulties of working in high need areas, the complaints rest not necessarily on students or their parents but on little things, which when aggregated become big things: the copy machine that never works, the turn-around time for document translation, the purchase of computers but no printers, a library with outdated texts, a lack of supplies for science labs, curriculum rigidity, a principal with minimum instructional expertise, a lack of feedback and support, the list goes on.
Teachers expect to donate time and energy preparing lessons, grading papers, creating assessments and activities, tutoring, writing letters of recommendation, bringing in healthy snacks for their students to munch on while taking their final exams ... so what teachers expect, then, is that their school work with them in return, breathe with them, sprint with them, and support them when they need it. If a teacher needs copies, he or she doesn't want the machine to break down; a teacher does not want to procure access for their students to attend a theatrical show, to not have the funds for buses to take them.
Also, it is not just building support; this is about having strong colleagues. Accomplished educators typically do not want to be the only accomplished educator in the building—when we think about teacher allocation, we should be talking about supporting groups of like-minded, high performing educators to work together in challenging places. When a high performing teacher is alone, as they often are, they become the de facto department chair, teacher mentor, professional development planner, and quasi administrator without the professional development or stability they might seek personally. High performing teachers expect support staff and their colleagues to be in sync with them or even perhaps ahead of them (especially if the communities in which they teach are not) but definitely not behind them.
Lastly, it is not just teachers that deserve attention; their support systems are a big part of what make a building a quality work environment. Highly effective teachers need efficient and effective clerks, counselors, nurses, technicians, paraprofessionals, and building and grounds workers. They want to work for knowledgeable, effective administrative staff of educational leaders who know how to motivate and inspire; and need budgets that offer flexibility and support their content areas. When we start to create buildings where all staff are valued players, where staff have leadership, collaborative opportunities, and the support they need, we will finally act on what teachers and students have known all along: schools aren't buildings—they are living breathing bodies. We need to treat the heart and the head, the arms and the legs in order for them to thrive.
Latosha R. Guy is a high school English teacher in LAUSD, an America Achieves Fellow, and a National Board Certified Teacher. Follow her on Twitter @weteachtoo.