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Survey: Top Teachers Cite Student Poverty, Family Stress as Chief Academic Barriers

What really matters in education? To get an inside perspective, Scholastic Inc., assisted by the Council of Chief State School Officers, surveyed 46 of the 2015 state teachers of the year on issues affecting students, where funding should be directed, and what parts of the job they value most. It turns out that the factors these top-rated educators see as important are not necessarily the ones that get the most attention from education policymakers. Here are four takeaways from the findings:

1. Teaching is all about the personal connection.

It's probably no surprise that in response to a question about the parts of their job that give them the most satisfaction, the teachers put a higher value on working directly with students and colleagues than anything else. (Completing paperwork and filing reports came out on the bottom of the scale. You can click on the chart below to enlarge and see the full results.) And when asked what qualities make a good teacher, the words "relationships" and "compassion" came up more than any other characteristic.


2. The most important negative influences on students happen outside the classroom.

Meanwhile, more than half of the teachers named family stress (72 percent), poverty (63 percent), and learning and psychological problems (52 percent) when asked about major barriers to students' academic success. While teachers can take these things into consideration in class, it's hard for a teacher to get to the root such problems.

The disconnect between what classroom teachers can do and what will help students became even clearer when the teachers were asked about the three areas they think would have the "greatest impact on student learning and success" if better funded. Anti-poverty initiatives was a top choice for nearly half of the teachers, followed by early learning and "reducing barriers to learning (access to wrap-around services, healthcare, etc.)." K-12 teachers can help a little bit in these areas, but for the most part, these involve systematic, societal changes that are beyond educators' control.


3. Some of the most media-friendly and politically popular topics are the least relevant to student success.

For all the attention put on anti-bullying and nutrition initiatives by politicians and the media alike, the teachers ranked those issues near the bottom of the list of challenges their students face. One question asked, "Which of the following barriers to learning most affect your students' academic success?" Bullying and nutrition initiatives received just nine and four percent of the teachers' votes, respectively. That doesn't mean that these issues don't matter, but at least in the eyes of the state teachers of the year (who of course represent only a small number of schools) they're far from the largest problems.

And in a question about the areas in greatest need of funding, just nine percent of the teachers selected "technology access/coordination" as one of their top three choices, despite ed tech being a pretty big topic in recent years, to say the least.

4. Higher standards are great. Testing isn't.

Nearly all of the teachers (44 out of 46) said that higher standards—including, but not limited to, the Common Core State Standards—would have a "positive impact on student learning." However, "accountability/assessments" was listed as an option in the question about funding, but it didn't get a single vote from any of the teachers, suggesting that more testing isn't their preferred way of going about implementing those higher standards.

Bonus: Top teachers' favorite books.

Over on Scholastic's book blog, On Our Minds, you can find a list of the teachers' favorite books to use in class, from R.J. Palacio's 2012 children's novel Wonder to classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath.

Images courtesy of Scholastic Inc.

More posts about teachers of the year:

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