The Voice of Teachers

I have long been an admirer of Teach Plus, an organization that works with teachers to help make their voice heard within the many education policy debates that run through the public discourse. In service to their mission, Teach Plus recently released the results of a survey of over 1,000 teachers that asked them to respond to some hot topics for today’s teachers that also have policy implications, including teacher evaluations and class size.
Though there are several interesting findings, I wanted to focus on two, in particular, that hold relevance for our own work. The first is that teachers, both veterans and those relatively new to the profession, believed that the number one method schools should employ to improve instruction is to allow time for teachers to collaborate. In fact, this perspective comports with a research study that was conducted a few years ago that showed that having time for teachers to collaborate explained over 70 percent of the difference between the strength of a particular school’s professional learning community.  (Professional learning communities, or PLCs, is the term used to describe the effort of a whole faculty working together to improve student performance.) No other factor that researchers tested even came close to having that level of influence. And, as NCTL makes clear, having more time for collaboration is one of the three core uses of additional time that should be employed when a school expands their schedule.
On the other hand, on the same question of rating the importance of a particular change would be to help students achieve more, teachers were less enthused about a longer day. Indeed, among the eight possible reforms listed on the survey, they believed it least likely to make a difference for student achievement (scoring an average of 2.5 on a five-point scale). How to account for this seeming contradiction between wanting more time for teachers and not for students? I would speculate that perhaps too many teachers share the view of the general public such that when they hear the term “longer day,” they tend to think “just more of the same.” Having worked with and studied dozens of schools, we know that this view is disproved by the many expanded-time schools that harness their extra minutes and days to drive deeper, stronger instruction. Also, in our experience, we’ve seen how it is often the act of expanding the school day for all students that then leads schools to re-configure schedules such that teachers have more time to meet. A longer day, thus, helps teachers to reach their primary goal of more time to work together.
The second finding of note concerns the makeup of the respondents themselves. According to Teach Plus, almost half of the random sampling of all teachers surveyed (49%) had 10 years or fewer of teaching experience. The fact that there are so many newer teachers leading our nation’s classrooms is a sharp departure from what had been the norm throughout much of the second half of the 20th century, when most teachers had many years of experience behind them. As the report indicates, in 2012, there are more teachers in their first year than at any other experience level; in 1987, the most common experience level was 15 years. 
There are likely many implications of this dramatic shift in the population of teachers for the teaching profession and for American schools, but I think that one of the most important may be that these teachers are entering the school system at a time of tremendous change. Consider that in just the last few years and the few to come, we have experienced or will experience an intense focus on accountability and on the progress of individual students, an explosion of digital learning, and a total reconfiguration of the content and expectations of learning because of the Common Core. With all the new educational demands and opportunities that are taking root in classrooms, teachers have no other course but to be flexible, to be innovative, and to be responsive to the learning needs of students.  
Who knows what the future will look like, but if schools take seriously the yearning of teachers to collaborate so that they can process together the many changes they must face, then our students will likely benefit. We know that time well spent for students can make a huge difference for learning, and the same can be said of teachers. To my mind, giving teachers time for their own learning and development can only bode well for the future strength of our education system.