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Commentary: Empowering teachers by reinserting their voices into the education space

Guest Contributors | August 30, 2016

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By Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.

Two previous articles in this series, here and here, have detailed the enormity and the complexity of the teacher turnover problem in our country: more than 1 million teachers entering and exiting the classroom every year, and somewhere between 40 percent to 50 percent permanently exiting within five. This lack of stability in many educational communities means less emotionally stable and academically productive spaces for students.

As countless researchers, writers and experts on teacher retention have argued, keeping teachers engaged in our schools is not necessarily about pay. Recently, researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia discovered that the highest indicating factor for teacher retention is whether or not teachers feel that they are part of a productive and meaningful community—one where their voices are heard, valued and collectively used to inform practices and policies on school campuses (Fuller, Waite & Irribarra, 2016).

In order to stop the ever-revolving door of teachers in and out of our highest need schools, schools must become spaces where teachers can empower themselves as expert educators and honor their valuable contributions to our communities. Empowerment in any space must start with voice; Individuals must be allowed to speak what is true for them and have what they say valued by the community.

But how, in a concrete way, do we move away from top-down models of leadership and organization to honor our teachers and hear their voices?

As an 8th grade English grade teacher in Los Angeles, this is the point I used to make again and again with my students: “Anais, but what do you think? What is your belief? What do you have to say—what is the view that you have to offer that is unique to you?”

In the beginning of the year, many of them looked at me as if no one had ever asked or even requested of them to find their voices. Unfortunately this has proven to be the reality for many teachers as well.

In the public education system today, teachers labor in environments in which their voices are marginalized (Fullan, 1993). Federal and state regulations govern standards, funding, and almost all facets of education, which ultimately trickle down through systems. Administrators have less power than superintendents, and teachers are the lowest on the totem pole. Much of their daily lives are governed by grading systems, statewide tests, mandates, etc., all of which their voices have never been a part (Hargreaves, 1994; Ingersoll, 2003).

This has been going on for so long that teachers have learned to accept their powerlessness and adapt to “live within a broken system.” It’s the only way to have any chance at getting to be the change agents they so desperately want to be. But when we strip teachers of their voice and continue to demand that they work in broken systems, we should not be surprised about high burnout and attrition rates that coincide with such treatment.

However, when teachers are actively engaged in systems that allow them to both process (alone and in groups) their beliefs and their opinions, those teachers are likely to sharpen the clarity of their voices and more likely to listen to the voices of others around them. What is created is a dialogue of mutual respect where all human beings are honored  (Darder, 2015; Freire, 1970). And as evidenced above, this meaningful use of voice in contribution to community is the highest indicator for teacher retention.

If we as a society are truly committed to a sustainable education system, we have to make listening to and trusting our educators a priority. Without space for teacher voice and meaningful dialogue, turnover will continue to plague the system.

Teachers are our leaders—we need their voices in policy, curriculum, and philosophical school decisions. We cannot afford to continue this to lose their expertise and passion if we intend to provide thriving, sustainable spaces for young people.

Here are some ways to create space for teacher voice and dialogue on school sites, which can act as a catalyst for teacher empowerment and re-engagement:

1. Create a school culture that values wellness. Body awareness and health are essential to being able to speak our voices. In my years as a teacher and now as a facilitator of professional development, I have found that many teachers are so dissociated from their bodies that they don’t even know when they are stressed. They can’t feel their internal signals because they so often have to deny them (regulated bathroom breaks, anyone?). They aren’t aware that their undeniable desire to say “yes” to every need is detrimental to their health and long-term sustainability as teachers. Fundamentally, when people aren’t well, they can’t feel their truth, much less speak it to someone else. Or, feeling their truth, they lash out in anger and frustration when a sensitive situation calls for calm clarity and firm action. We need teachers who are clear, calm and focused—and able to speak the truth without resentment, anger or punishment.

A culture of wellness is established when personal needs can be balanced with the needs of the community—teachers are encouraged to not work on weekends, to eat full and healthy lunches rather than scarfing down snacks while kids test in their classrooms, or when administrators allow them to say no to commitments that would compromise their physical and mental health. Dr. Patricia Jennings, a preeminent researcher from The University of Virginia and creator of the CARE program for teachers, ran a study on teacher wellness in the New York City public schools that proves that cultures of wellness improve outcomes from adults and students on school campuses.

2. Listen to teachers. We can no longer afford a fundamental distrust of our teachers. Can we let go of our collective fear and trust that most people (most of the time) are doing the best they can in service of our students? That when they report that a student really isn’t responding to a behavior intervention that it’s not just the teacher being inadequate, but perhaps about a system or regulation that isn’t working? No adult is perfect—and every teacher has areas for growth. But we do much better as communities when we honor what people have to say and meet them where they are rather than denying their experiences.

A culture of listening is created when we stop trying to tell our colleagues and employees that their experiences carry no value (or, maybe worse, pay only lip service towards valuing them).  Impactful listening can happen in many ways: 1. At a faculty meeting when an administrator realizes that 50 percent of a staff is saying the same thing (and chooses to use that truth to delve deeper into a possible solution) or 2. When colleagues actually empathize with one another around difficult situations without needs for solution.

3. Create teacher feedback systems for school-wide policies and procedures (i.e behavior, grading, technology, curriculum, etc.) To truly engage teachers in using their voices in meaningful dialogue, we must create systems for feedback and honor voice. For instance, if enough teachers on a campus feel that a technology system is ineffective, the action that would encourage teacher sustainability is honoring their voices and trust that their experiences are valid and an important source of information. Then, use their feedback to inform a new way of creating the technology system that works for the majority.

Steven C. Ward wrote an article in Newsweek about ways to reverse plummeting teacher morale. He explains, “the key to effective schools does not reside in the interventionist strategies and think-tank polished ideas, but in the way teachers and schools are supported…the time is now long overdue to begin an entirely new path of education reform….This path seeks to support teachers, re-establish their autonomy and rebuild the more general trust in institutions.”

Yes, it’s time that the educational system actually heard and valued its greatest asset: the teachers themselves. Start focusing on teacher wellness, voice and meaningful collaboration and watch the as the system changes.

Jane Mayer is a former LAUSD and charter school teacher in Los Angeles. She currently directs the Los Angeles region of a nonprofit organization, The Teaching Well, committed to transforming education by prioritizing teacher well-being and sustainability.

Jesse Soza, Ed.D., is a former 12-year teacher. His dissertation on the origins of teacher turnover and dissatisfaction was nominated for a Carnegie Award for Distinguished Education Dissertation. He currently consults with schools and districts about how to reform systems to ensure teacher sustainability.

Please continue to follow this series in order to dive into a deeper understanding of how school sites can address these issues and transform the work environment for our city’s teachers.

Full References

  • Darder, A. (2015). Freire and education. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder and Herder.
  • Fullan, M. G. (1993). Why teachers must become change agents. Educational   Leadership, 50(6), 12–17.
  • Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teachers’ work and culture in the postmodern age. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Ingersoll, R. M. (2003). Who controls teachers’ work? Cambridge, MA: Harvard           University Press.
  • “Explaining Teacher Turnover: School Cohesion and Intrinsic Motivation in Los Angeles” by Bruce Fuller, Anisah Waite, and David Torres Irribarra in American Journal of Education, August 2016 (Vol. 122, #4, p. 537-567),


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