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Teacher Survey Project

How teachers in other states compare with California teachers

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Introduction

In this spotlight, Inverness Institute asked some of our research colleagues located on the East Coast to survey and interview leading teachers they know from their years of work with teacher networks across the United States. Barnett Berry is a professor at the University of South Carolina, who has been on a 35-year journey to both study and advocate for the teaching profession. Emily Liebtag is a school innovation consultant, based in Hillsborough, NC.

Barnett and Emily provide major highlights from a survey and in-depth conversations with 23 highly accomplished teachers across the country who teach at every grade level and core subject areas. The majority of them are National Board Certified. All are involved in wide variety of external (including global) networks. Some have won prestigious fellowships.

The national sample is too small to make precise comparisons to the California survey findings. However, there appears to be very little differences between the two groups. Barnett and Emily have been focusing more on understanding the innovations the U.S. teachers were discovering and how their solutions could be the basis for the future of schooling and their profession. They also have begun to engage other teachers from across the globe to further explore the teacher experience in the midst of the pandemic-induced disruptions to schooling.

What follows are five lessons for policymakers derived by Emily and Barnett, accompanied by illustrative comments from the teachers. The comments reported in this spotlight are from elementary, middle, and high school teachers in the following states: California, Florida, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.

Lesson #1: The major challenges leading teachers face center on their students’ difficulty with distance learning and the trauma associated with the pandemic; teachers say they were able to overcome the lack of system capacity to meet students’ needs.

Both groups – California teacher and U.S. teachers – reported multiple significant challenges and barriers. California teachers appear to be more strongly and negatively impacted by the upheaval caused by economic and social distress and the emotional trauma of their students and families. Additionally, the California teachers reported more significant issues with technology and lack of internet access as well as the lack of parental support.

U.S. teachers are concerned about academic learning loss. However, they see social-emotional and mental health issues as a more severe problem.

Illustrative comments from U.S. leading teachers on barriers to effective teaching and learning:
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Many of my students are in VERY difficult home situations. Family members have died of Covid or are fighting Covid in the next room. Many are facing evictions (from their homes). Many of my students are very isolated or at home while their parents are working all day.

I teach in a very low-income, high poverty, high need urban district (my building in particular), and our students and families have been heavily affected by job loss and lack of steady income, food insecurity, and other aspects of life.

Marginalized students have been and continue to be the group most affected by the pandemic. If we are going to address academic learning loss, it is my recommendation that policymakers and education leaders provide a culturally responsive approach for teaching students who are socially and economically challenged.

I have not had a lot of trouble with the transition. I’ve used Zoom before with adult learning groups, already used Google Classroom, and generally feel comfortable with the teaching tools I have. Of course, I’m still trying to find the best ways to engage everyone, but I wouldn’t say I’m struggling too much.

I think these are all areas that we need to be mindful of and focus on supporting and building relationships first, before focusing solely on content. We need to check in with students and families to best support them.

Lesson #2: The majority of leading teachers have found their teaching colleagues to be their most useful support – followed by professional associations and online resources. Their states, universities, and districts were the least helpful

Much like their California colleagues, most of these leading teachers from across the nation did not see their states’ agencies, school districts, and universities as helpful as they made rapid shifts to remote teaching. The U.S. teachers are involved in and relied heavily upon a wide array of professional learning networks. Our conversations with these leading teachers revealed the ways in which and the extent to which they relied on the support of their teaching colleagues — who have first-hand knowledge of the challenges they face, and the realities of the contexts in which they teach.

Illustrative comments from U.S. leading teachers about sources of support:
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There was some PD at the very beginning of the school year (August/September), but not much since then. Teachers have been relying on each other for instructional support.

I have figured out much of what I needed to do for online learning on my own, including the creation and delivery of all items needed for the students to learn online.

We all turned to teacher Facebook groups, and all of us teamed up and did what we could to make it through.

The union had led a lot of workshops that have really helped us.

Lots of information is available and I’m sure would be more useful but it’s overwhelming and I don’t feel we have all the supports in place to use them.

Many of us turned to Twitter and the equity-minded ed-tech leaders we know.

Outside of my team of four teachers, I haven’t had much interaction with others.

Our school’s coaches are always trying to “show us new stuff” but we’re so tired of sitting at a computer all day. The last thing I want to do is hear from people who are not in the classroom telling me what to do with my students.

Lesson #3: The vast majority of leading U.S. teachers have discovered innovations in teaching and learning — including inventing their own curriculum and pedagogy and novel ways of  working with parents.

These leading teachers reported that they have discovered a great deal about how to teach more effectively and how to customize lessons for distance and hybrid learning . For some the pandemic disruption created space for innovations (e.g. tools to document the non-academic needs of students and piloting proficiency-based grading systems) that would not have been developed otherwise.

Illustrative comments from U.S. leading teachers on invention and innovation:
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I actually have loved the opportunity to re-envision my teaching after a decade.

I have not had a lot of trouble with the transition. I’ve used Zoom before with adult learning groups, had already used Google Classroom, and generally feel comfortable with the teaching tools I have. Of course, I’m still trying to find the best ways to engage everyone, but I wouldn’t say I’m struggling too much.

My teaching became a lot more engaging, as the focus became keeping students engaged socially and intellectually. My focus was on bringing gamified elements to class to make healthy competition a part of the class. I learned a lot more about my students individually and the ways that they engage online especially. In terms of leadership, running online Teach Meets and continuing #edureading without face-to-face meetings proved a new and exciting challenge ….

For me, with 600+ instructional videos already available on my Teaching YouTube channel, the transition wasn’t that troubling. I quickly made use of these resources to allow students to work independently, but with my explicit guidance. This freed up time to make the (online) classroom space as engaging and exciting to attend as possible.

I have developed a new system for tracking the social-emotional needs of my students and using my own spreadsheet to keep track of the issues they are facing.

We have learned how to co-teach. We have used new technologies to engage parents.

My team got involved in piloting a proficiency-based grading system and rethinking assessments.

I have discovered the power of online supports to serve the quiet, more introverted students.

During remote learning and lockdowns, I was able to write multiple articles, book chapters and even put together a proposal for a co-edited volume that is at the stage of finalizing contracts at the moment …

Lesson #4: Leading teachers reported  their school districts and administrators have not capitalized on their expertise; they pointed to a range of issues that could better be addressed with their help. 

These leading U.S. teachers, like their California colleagues, reported that their years of experience, their expertise and their innovations were not well utilized by their district and school administrators. We learned that many districts just did not have the resources to make use of these assets. However, other issues also limited their utilization. Teachers reported that administrators had too much to do. In some cases, leading teachers felt that their principals were just indifferent to them and their leadership.

Illustrative comments from U.S. leading teachers on district and administrator support:
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Administrators in my school have been working nonstop to conduct home visits, deliver grocery gift cards, and to support students and their families any way they can. They have been very responsive to my inquiries. But overall, I have not received very much support for how to teach effectively online.

State and district budget cuts have forced our district to redistribute teaching staff and school personnel. This action had an adverse effect on our students.

Administrators are willing to provide resources that we request, like apps and more. And they help do some of the outreach to families. They do not, however, listen when we say it’s too much screen time. However, they are worried about proving we are offering the mandated number of instructional hours for students, so they are forcing everyone to be on Zoom all day long.

The district has provided a lot of resources, but there has been no response to concerns that teachers have shared about the deficiencies of the learning models and the overwhelming amount of work that teachers are putting in to keep their heads above water. There is something missing here.

For teachers, our jobs have completely transformed since Covid started. For district leaders and personnel though, very little of their day-to-day job has changed. Morale is at an all-time low. Since the concerns of teachers have not been heeded, students have organized a walk-out that will take place this week.

I emailed my administrator early on (in the shift to hybrid and remote learning) to start a mastery-based grading process. I wanted to try it. I followed up and didn’t get a response and thought maybe they were busy. In December, I sent a follow-up and still haven’t heard back. I don’t think they are interested to know what I am doing in the classroom.

My principal has never taught in a situation like this. They can read about it, but they haven’t experienced it; they haven’t created, delivered, reflected on it …  not in the way we have to every single day. The board hasn’t done that. We are the experts in this because we have done this – every day. What I struggle with is that I have felt that teachers have been exploited to carry out reopening plans and procedures and to flex, stretch, bend, and break in the process. There is indifference at best and no respect.

Lesson #5: Both groups of teachers — national and California — strongly felt that they are not understood by the public or even educational leaders.

The U.S. teachers voiced strong sentiments about being able to contribute to the solution of the complex challenges they are facing. They also bemoaned the lack of opportunity for those solutions to be seen and heard more broadly. They have ideas about how to make education more effective in the aftermath of the pandemic and want to be central in those discussions.

Illustrative comments from the U.S. leading teachers on public understanding
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Times like this call for compassion and listening from leadership. If leaders try to politic this sort of disruption, they will always make the wrong decision for students. Listen to students, families, and teachers and they will show you the way.

Anyone making any policy decisions that will directly affect any educator should be mandated to shadow a teacher (or 4 or 5!) who is currently in that teaching position. They need to know the direct impact of their policy on the people it affects.

The shut-down of schools has exposed how essential teachers are for a functioning community and economy. I am interested to see how the public responds in the coming years as state revenues recover from this recession. Will teachers continue to be disparaged, or will they be elevated to a more suitable place in society?

Students and teachers needed to be provided with resources. PD is important to the growth of teachers. Teachers’ agency is vital to the growth of our students. Teachers need to be compensated for the work that they do. Teachers had to learn how to do their jobs differently overnight. Teachers clock in but they do not clock out. Policymakers should consider supporting teachers’ mental health. They do not understand.

There was no kitchen cabinet for teachers to work with administrators and policymakers to meet the needs of students … every teacher’s world is flipped upside down, and lots of us are burning out.

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