By Amy Auletto
Last month, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Michigan Education Association (MEA) released survey results from a joint project assessing Michigan educators’ perceptions of the profession. In a presentation titled Dissed, Devalued, Demeaned, the two organizations painted a grim picture of teacher morale in Michigan. Nearly 11,000 educators participated in the survey last spring and shared their thoughts on a number of issues, including compensation, standardized testing, teacher evaluation, and building conditions.
The following are a few highlights from the survey:
Less than a quarter of educators feel they are adequately compensated and more than half have concerns about being able to retire comfortably.
- Only 5.6% of respondents report that recent changes to the teacher evaluation system (namely an increased emphasis on standardized test scores) have had a positive impact on their teaching. One teacher even went so far as to compare the current system to the popular book and movie series, The Hunger Games.
- Over half of participants report that their buildings have unreliable heating and cooling systems.
- Nearly one-third of participants report ongoing issues with rodents and insects in schools.
Low Teacher Morale Isn’t New or Unique to Michigan
The findings from this survey are shameful but sadly, the issue of low teacher morale isn’t new or unique to Michigan. Annual surveys of U.S. teachers from 1984 to 2012, sponsored by the MetLife Foundation, have long depicted similarly concerning conditions for educators across the country. Survey results from 2012 indicate that teacher satisfaction has been on the decline for decades. While 62% of teachers were “very satisfied” in 2008, this rate had plummeted to 39% by 2012, its lowest level in 25 years. Teacher reports of job-related stress have also increased. In 1985, only 16% of teachers reported that they were under great stress nearly every day. In 2012, this rate increased to 27%.
Job Dissatisfaction Also Harms Schools and Students
When teachers suffer from low morale, they aren’t the only ones to suffer. Job dissatisfaction is a major contributing factor to teacher mobility. Teachers transfer between schools and leave the profession altogether at the alarming annual rate of 13%. This constant churn of teachers is detrimental to schools and students, costing the U.S. an estimated $1 to $2.2 billion dollars a year in recruitment and replacement expenses and harming student achievement.
Professional Collaboration Opportunities as a Potential Solution
At first glance, it may seem that Michigan teachers’ concerns are a hopeless cause. Facilities are in terrible condition and compensation shows no sign of improvement. Dozens of news outlets have covered survey results from the AFT and MEA in recent weeks, calling teachers demoralized and predicting that Michigan is headed towards a crisis.
Despite all of the negative rhetoric surrounding the current state of teaching, there may still be hope for improving teacher morale. Looking beyond the U.S., the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) may offer some potential solutions. In 2013, TALIS surveyed over 5 million teachers in 34 countries on a number of issues related to education, including teacher satisfaction. One approach to improving job satisfaction apparent from the TALIS may be increasing teachers’ access to professional collaboration opportunities. Teachers who are given more opportunities to team-teach, observe colleagues, engage in joint activities with other teachers, and participate in collaborative professional learning have higher rates of satisfaction, on average, than their peers with fewer opportunities.
It is important to note, however, that these survey findings are not necessarily causal. It may not be the case that requiring teachers to collaborate with their colleagues automatically makes them happier. There are likely other factors at play. Schools with high rates of collaboration may also have more resources (such as funding for support staff) or more effective administrators.
Nevertheless, an abundance of literature (see here and here) argues in favor of teacher collaboration. At the very least, it’s a starting point to address the larger issue of teacher satisfaction. It may not be possible to immediately overhaul teacher evaluation systems, erect brand-new facilities, and give every teacher a raise, but the least we can do is provide teachers with a professional work environment that allows them to develop and become more effective in their practice.
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