Several years ago, I was part a group of teachers who met with our state senator, Donald Williams, to discuss pressing educational issues in Connecticut. Like most political leaders, he invoked members of his family who were educators and praised the teachers who made a difference in his life.
Significantly, though, he then did something different. He took the time to ask us for our insights and perspectives, and he seemed genuinely interested in understanding the realities in our classrooms and schools. Because Sen. Williams was concerned about the unintended consequences of policies created without teacher input, we found ourselves in a unique position to truly inform his views on policies under consideration.
It also became clear that Sen. Williams was looking for more than anecdotes and criticism. If any real movement was going to happen, he needed our ideas and solutions.
Experiences like this one have led me to consider the power of teachers’ perspectives in policymaking, which is why I recommend a report NNSTOY (National Network of State Teachers of the Year) issued this week, the first in our Teacher Researcher Policy Series. Teacher Morale, Motivation and Professional Identity examines the motivational forces inherent in the profession and reveals opportunities for teachers and policymakers to collaborate in order to improve education.
The research findings come from interviews I conducted with 24 fellow State Teachers of the Year. Although they represent a relatively disparate group of teachers, common themes emerged. Many felt that education would be improved if more people outside of education had a deeper understanding of teachers, including the forces that shape our professional identities and the factors that impact our motivation and morale.
The affective dimensions of teaching strongly influence teachers’ identities, morale and motivation.
Teachers tend to talk of teaching as a calling, and our sense of obligation to our students and to the profession as a whole are fundamental aspects of who we are and how we see ourselves.
As one teacher in the study said, “It feels like every day you have some sort of reaffirmation that you have this purpose. Even on the tricky days, there’s always a feeling of great purpose.” Another said, “The emotional labor of teaching is the most exhausting part of teaching, but also the most fulfilling.”
Although this is perhaps difficult for those outside of education to understand, it is too vital a variable in teachers’ lives to ignore.
External views of the profession impact teachers’ self-perceptions and morale.
Many teachers feel that the bureaucratic and behaviorist nature of policy reflects a limited amount of trust in, and respect for, teachers as professionals.
One teacher in the study expressed that policymakers and the general public lack an understanding of “what the life is really like, what the struggles are like, the amount of work that goes into it.” Another expressed concern that “There are people who are making policies and laws that are perhaps very smart people, but don’t understand what it looks like when their policy is put into practice.”
Teachers’ perspectives can reshape commonly held views of the profession and better inform policymaking.
Teachers’ sense of efficacy is dynamic, contextual and influenced by many factors.
Professional identity is not static, and as much as teachers will build their self-efficacy through meaningful professional growth opportunities, the changes wrought by policy mandates may lead to increased workloads, stress and role ambiguity.
As one teacher said, “We see that progress, we see it every day in our classroom, we know how far students are coming, but’s always being pushed down from outside where you’re constantly being told it’s not good enough, you’re not doing enough, you’re failing, the profession’s failing, the schools are failing.”
When policymakers have a firmer appreciation for the myriad factors that impact teachers’ sense of efficacy, they may reconsider the far-reaching impact of educational changes.
Recognized and validated teachers feel compelled to elevate the profession. Building teacher efficacy through formal or informal validation and recognition mechanisms can boost self-efficacy and morale. As such, for those who have been recognized as a State Teacher of the Year, a stronger sense of responsibility to advocate for the profession often ensues.
As one teacher in the study declared upon being named Teacher of the Year, “I’m thinking I have a position, I can use my voice and push that envelope a little bit farther…and I feel an obligation to do that.”
As I was working on this research, it became evident that if policy discussions at the local, state and federal levels were informed by, and responsive to, these ideas, they would result in smarter, stronger policies.
There is clearly a need for teachers to be much more intimately involved in policymaking discussions from the onset. Our stories can help open the door to facilitate these dynamics; our reasoned, sensible solutions can ensure that we are oft-invited and welcome partners in the policymaking sphere.