The results of the recently released MetLife Survey of the American Teacher weren’t surprising to many teachers, as it chronicled a steep decline in teacher job satisfaction. In fact, teachers’ job satisfaction is at its lowest level since 1987. Of the 1,000 teachers polled, only 39 percent claimed they were “very satisfied” with their profession. It is clear from the survey that American teachers are concerned with the state of their profession but more troubling to us, they are not being given a voice in school reform or educational initiatives–decisions usually made by people far removed from local school districts.
So, what do teachers want? We set out to conduct our own poll of educators and we asked only a single simple question: How would you improve the educational experience of your students? And what we learned did not surprise us–teachers love teaching and they have ideas. They are just waiting for someone to ask them for those ideas. Below are six ways teachers told us they would improve their schools. How would you improve yours?
Smaller Class Sizes
A desire for smaller class sizes dominated the responses we received. One teacher we polled, Maureen, wrote that she has almost thirty students in her first grade class. “25-29 first graders in a class are too many to teach effectively,” she wrote, “and to know them well enough to provide what each needs.” A number of teachers with the same issue supplied a dream student-to-teacher ratio of 10:1.
Unfortunately, we know that in many school districts class sizes continue to get larger. Critics will point out that research indicates class size is not a factor in educational achievement. For example, there are countries in the world, like Korea, that outperform American students on tests like the ones given by the Program for International Student Assessment and have larger class sizes. Lower secondary education class size in the United States averages about 23 students while in Korea, classes exceed 30 pupils on average.
However, the teachers we polled mentioned again and again that smaller class sizes were essential in giving them the necessary time to connect with all the different learning styles and personalities that might make up their American classrooms. With larger classes, our teachers feel that differentiated instruction becomes impossible. Differentiation allows more room for innovation by encouraging students to think critically and creatively, skills essential for students to master as they prepare for careers that don’t even exist yet.
Classrooms Without Walls
The teachers we polled called for classroom walls to be torn down–both literally and figuratively. Teachers wrote of their desire to create larger classroom spaces; some even called for rooms the size of warehouses to give students places to collaborate across disciplines.
Makerspaces and other areas that allow students to pursue creation rather than consumption were brought up again and again in the responses we received. These classrooms could encourage what Jess, a middle school teacher, called “kinetic learning” for both students and teachers. By creating an unstructured environment, students would have the ability and space to work with each other to find connections between subject areas.
Jennifer, an eleventh grade teacher, said that, “if students could collaborate on projects voluntarily, across class lines it could increase authentic learning, student motivation, and student relationships.”
These projects would be inherently interdisciplinary once the artificial walls between content areas were torn down. In order to facilitate this, teachers also called for technology use to reach past the limitations inherent in a brick-and-mortar classroom and to figuratively tear down classroom walls. Social media technology like Skype, Instagram, and Twitter are key for this goal to be accomplished, but the teachers we polled didn’t stop at these programs or even 1:1 student-to-computer ratios.
Teachers we surveyed wrote about students moving past just using technology to write papers and make presentations. They argued that students should be producers of content–not just consumers. Once they produce content, they should share it with their classmates and the world.
Almost unanimously, the teachers we polled asked for more access to books for their students. Rather than spending money on textbooks, scripted programs, and other initiatives, teachers wrote that they wanted to inspire their students to be lifelong readers. In order to do this, students need to be surrounded by books.
Classroom libraries, school libraries, and librarians were mentioned in most of the responses. In a perfect world, teachers would ensure a constant supply of good books. Teachers we surveyed wrote about libraries that are non-existent or dwindling in their schools. Far too many teachers noted that they struggled to provide their students with engaging, powerful books that incite a passion for reading and writing. This was true for English teachers we polled and for those in other content areas.
Carol Jago, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, responded that she “would make literacy the heartbeat of the school.”
The ability to provide the books students want to read and keep libraries supplied with new books in order to create a school focused on literacy was front and center in many teachers’ responses. Erica, a high school teacher, proclaimed that if it were within her power, “Classroom libraries everywhere would be teeming with high-interest texts.”
Longer School Day, Not Necessarily at School
Teachers felt that it’s time for the traditional school schedule to change. Marc, a high school teacher, believes that “school time should be more flexible…a college model might work here. Classes could also be offered on a flex schedule to allow students to take all their classes in the morning or in the afternoon depending on what they want their schedule to be.”
High schools and colleges could work together, along with businesses, to provide students with opportunities to take additional classes and participate in internships within and after what has always been the traditional school day. The current school schedule leaves teachers feeling constrained by 45-minute periods and artificial divides between subject areas. Mindi, a junior high literacy coach, said that students need time to think deeply and explore the topics they’re studying. “Real learning takes time,” she wrote, “and most middle and high schools do not provide enough of it.” Flexible scheduling could permit the curriculum personalization that many of the teachers wrote about.
They felt that by personalizing the curriculum, schools could honor the expertise of students and their passions. This would encourage student engagement and give them the chance to explore career paths beginning in high school. The traditional 7:00-3:00 school schedule hasn’t been altered in generations. By changing the schedule, students could be given more opportunities for authentic learning.
More Choice, Fewer Grades
More choice for students is another refrain echoed by many of the teachers we polled. One way they explained this could be achieved is for schools to turn their focus away from standardized exams and toward a greater emphasis on the creation of student portfolios. These portfolios would enable students to create a personalized education around what Nicholas, a high school teacher, called “the passions of our students.” Like technology integration in classrooms without walls, a portfolio approach would also shift the classroom paradigm from students as consumers to creators–and show actual growth of students over time.
Cheryl, an eleventh and twelfth grade teacher, suggested that we “move from a traditional or teacher-centric approach to a style that would engage students and build their ability to take responsibility for their own education.” Some educators even called for a de-emphasis of grades in general in a model similar to one implemented in many top colleges throughout the nation. Schools like Brown, M.I.T., Johns Hopkins, and Swarthmore grade students pass/fail during their first year of college.
Stanford and Yale’s law schools also have pass/fail grading. By changing students’ focus from grades to credit a more collegial environment truly focused on student learning might begin to form. Michelle, a high school teacher, said it best when she wrote that she’d “love to find a practical way to measure progress with formative assessment and not always have to plug in a number.” Many of the teachers we surveyed wanted to inspire in their students a desire to learn by letting them make choices in their learning instead of just a desire to earn grades.
A Love of Shared Learning
The idea of shared learning was an idea expressed time and time again by the teachers we surveyed. Teachers called for schools to become places where information is exchanged reciprocally between students, teachers, administrators, and the community. Cindy, a high school teacher, described this idea when she wrote that she would like to see “better opportunities for interacting with and sharing learning with the community.”
Paul, who teaches eleventh grade, put it best when he said, “Too much of education is done TO our young people.” He advocates moving to a model where teachers and students experience the learning process together. Examples of shared learning can be teachers that write and read along with their students, using technology like Google Hangouts to host group discussions outside of school hours, or even creating classroom Nings where teachers and community members can interact with students online.
Getting teachers involved in the learning process with students is paramount for the teachers we surveyed. By having faculty focus on what students need and want to learn instead of what standards and class titles dictate might encourage a love of learning in the entire community.
It is not surprising that teacher job satisfaction is low with the continual negative press that surrounds educators and persistent top-down mandates from people far removed from school districts. We know that if teachers were given a greater voice in school reform their job satisfaction would improve. Teachers want to do a great job and they have a million ideas as to how they can get there. However, sometimes it feels like no one is listening.