Teacher Survey Project

Teachers reflect on the future of education, find silver linings and offer recommendations

Above: A sixth grade math teacher helps two students during a lesson about math and music.
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Introduction

Teachers — California’s leading teachers — are telling us that students, teachers, schools, districts, and communities have struggled as schools returned to in-person instruction for the 2021-22 school year. Their experiences and observations are alarming.

In 2021, The Inverness Institute’s Teacher Consultant Response Network members responded to two surveys about their experiences in the classroom during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Inverness Institute, in partnership with EdSource, published a series of spotlights portraying the different issues raised by accomplished teachers across California.

One year later, nearly 100 of these teachers have weighed in yet again and have shared their classroom experiences and perspectives on teaching in the current environment. This is the second of two spotlights highlighting their feedback. See the first spotlight here.

Our goal for this spotlight report is to elevate teachers’ voices. We begin each section with audio and video versions of a few teachers’ poignant and deeply honest commentaries, followed by samples of a wide range of teachers’ views. Next, we present the survey data on each of the topic areas. At the end of the spotlight, we present a brief analysis of the data and our interpretation of its significance.

This spotlight is divided into the following sections:

What do leading teachers think about the future of public education in California?

We asked California’s leading teachers about how they saw the future of public education. Remembering that these teachers experience firsthand realities of the system every day, their responses are alarming.

A teacher in a high school with 66% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area (Judy Smith)

A teacher in a high school with 90% low-income students in the Central Valley (Kyra Orgill)

EdSource · Inverness Teacher Survey – S2 – Audio 23

The following themes run through the teachers’ comments:

The current situation is not better since schools have reopened. In fact, most of the leading teachers report that the situation is getting worse and they are deeply worried about the future.

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It is scary. We are losing students. We are losing teachers. Our seasoned teachers are leaving the field and new teachers do not have the training to deal with the hardest groups of students to teach.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 64% low-income students in the San Diego Area

I fear for our schools. Decades of decimated funding and de-professionalization has stripped schools of the energy and creativity that kids deserve.

— A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Honestly, I am really afraid of the future of public education. Things seem to be getting even worse following the pandemic, instead of better. We had such an amazing opportunity to revamp public education with a “fresh start” and instead we doubled down on all of the features and factors that haven’t been working. … And these are all further exacerbated due to the pandemic. I’d like to remain a teacher, though hearing there are people outside education marketing their careers to teachers makes me curious.
— A teacher in a high school with 81% low-income students in the Northern Delta Sierra Foothills

The future is Bleak, I have been a teacher for 17 years and it is getting worse every year. The pandemic just made all this worse.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 93% low-income students in the Inland Empire

For teachers, it will continue to be painful without the supports our students need. The hierarchy that Maslow postulated is clearer than ever — our students will not learn unless they are safe and supported. We aren’t supporting them now, so the future is bleak.

— A teacher in a high school with 35% low-income students in the San Diego Area

I have been teaching for 26 years. I used to love my job. I used to feel hopeful about my students. Some days I still feel this way, but I am jaded and resentful toward the district office staff. The people at the top have lost touch with what we are really doing and how to go about educating children. All of society’s ills cannot be dropped into the laps of educators. The cost of living has risen so dramatically, we cannot afford to live in the towns we teach in. Something has to change. Our kids deserve better, and so do we that are in the classrooms creating the change the lawmakers seem to change on a whim.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 67% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Good teachers are leaving; California’s most committed teachers are losing their commitment

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I am very worried about the future of public education in California. I have firsthand witnessed the mass exodus of incredible teachers in my own district. These talented individuals chose to walk away from this profession because of the unrealistic expectations placed on them by their administrators, lack of support, inadequate pay, lack of respect for the profession and an unprecedented amount of student discipline and behavior issues. We need to address these issues sooner than later and put programs in place that help us hold on to our most qualified teachers.

— A teacher in a charter middle school in the Northern Delta-Sierra Foothills

Unless teachers are valued and are given reasonable working conditions, California public schools won’t be able to keep “good teachers” long enough to make a difference. Continuous change in staff then means having to continuously start over. Building a community that has the necessary experience and skills is possible with enough time, energy … but now I WONDER if I could do something else with my English degree instead.

— A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 15% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area

A career in education needs to become a more attractive profession that post-secondary students are passionate in pursuing. … Otherwise, our teaching profession could turn into merely having a warm body in front of a group of students teaching canned curriculum.

— A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in Southern California

Unless funds are invested in the right people, I don’t see my school growing as it should because we are all overwhelmed and overworked.

— A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 15% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area

We are at a pivotal point: Education could go either way

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I had hopes that the pandemic has made people realize what a power and positive force our public education system can be. I am aware that the movement to do away with the system has become more organized and vocal. I think that we are at a very pivotal moment — and no one can predict the future of education with much certainty.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 96% low-income students in the North Coast

I am hopeful. I feel like we are at a turning point. We could really change things, but we need to continue to support our teachers in every way possible — and thank you cards are not enough. Policy and action are necessary.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 98% low-income students in Southern California

If we can leverage lessons and experiences learned during our time of online learning … If we can increase flexibility and creative approaches to teaching along with strategic steps to increase the quality of teachers through salary and paid training, then we will benefit. If we continue to try and push 20th-century practices onto the 21st century, post-pandemic students, then we will struggle.

— A teacher in a high school with 30% low-income students in the Inland Empire

Public education in California is at a tipping point. Increased demands on teachers’ time coupled with increasing criticism/doubt of the profession has made an already time-consuming job less desirable to both those in it and those considering it.

— A teacher in a high school with 36% low-income students in the San Diego Area

Lots of people are working very hard in an ever-changing environment. Trust and hope are waning. We need to get through this phase and get to some sort of safe stability.

— A teacher in a high school with 16% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey Area

I wish I could be more positive, but the future of public education in the state of California is grim unless we start taking steps now to make things better in the future. Teachers are leaving the classroom in record numbers due, in large part, to the disrespect and lack of support that they are experiencing. … If we start treating teachers as professionals and help students build positive relationships between themselves and their educators, then there is a chance that we can turn things around before it is too late. Sadly, we are running out of road.

— A teacher in a high school with 21% low-income students in the Central Coast

I think there is a lot of possibility, but it will get worse before it gets better. Parents, students and even many teachers are so comfortable with the way they were schooled, many stakeholders are not willing to try the new things that could be more effective!

— A teacher in a high school with 41% low-income students in the Central Coast

The community and students are increasingly questioning the value of public education

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The carrot of doing well in school so you can go to college and get a “good” job has failed so many students that there is skepticism about pursuing that path. I think we might want to consider more focused paths through school that lead to a specific career along with better access to adult education so that career changes later in life are more feasible.

— A teacher in a high school with 86% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey Area

It scares the hell out of me. I am proud of what I do. And I’m a salmon — I like the fight! I volunteer a lot, and I am just preternaturally built to handle this stress. But it scares the hell out of me thinking of my student teachers and what they will have to do to feel successful or be successful. I fear polarization and politicization of schools will drop enrollment, which will make public schools themselves a debatable issue.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 93% low-income students in the San Diego Area

I think we might be entering a period where students question the value they get out of a public school education.

— A teacher in a high school with 86% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey Area

Inequities will get worse

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If our schools don’t receive abundant funding moving forward, the outcome looks bleak. I believe the gaps between wealthy and poor students will widen, and this will deeply affect our politics and community cohesion.

— A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 100% low-income students in the North Coast

I am pretty positive about the future of public education because we are becoming aware of the inequities that exist. But I am skeptical as to what we are going to do with that awareness and how our schools/district is going to evaluate equity.

— A teacher in a high school with 89% low-income students in the San Diego Area

There is hope for the future of public education, but we need to ensure all schools are funded with equity so that all students have the opportunity to learn.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 41% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

To Note:

Summary of teacher reports about the future of education

The best teachers derive both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards from teaching. The current systemic malaise is reducing both of these sources of reward. As a result, many of the best teachers in California are now leaving the profession. This is a form of “brain drain” that could severely deplete the capacity of the profession for decades.

Why are these teachers pessimistic about the future of public education and the teaching profession? They see a critical lack of support from the community, from state policymakers, from parents, and even from students. They see all the key elements which used to make teaching a rewarding profession disappearing.

The teachers report that they cannot teach effectively when students have academic and social-emotional needs but are unsupported, when inordinate and unreasonable demands are made on teachers, when communities and parents distrust teachers and when public education becomes a politicized battleground.

The pandemic offered an opportunity to make changes — to reinvent the system. These teachers see that opportunity as missed and the health of public education in decline.

Were there any silver linings from the pandemic?

Despite the challenges, teachers shared a variety of silver linings from the past two years.

A teacher in an elementary school with 94% low-income students in the North Coast (Martin McClure).

A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 66% low-income students in Northeast California (Mary Ludwig)

EdSource · Inverness Teacher Survey – S2 – Audio 19

The comments for this section fall into four broad categories:

Being back in person and the importance of building relationships with students

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Being able to have the students back with us in person has definitely been the silver lining this year. Although we’ve faced more student behavior and discipline issues than ever before I also feel that I’ve been able to build strong relationships with students.

— A teacher in a middle school in the Northern Delta-Sierra Foothills

Students who had rough situations at home during heightened Covid restrictions were very excited to come back to school.

— A teacher in a high school with 66% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

I feel more connected to my students now that they are in person.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 16% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

The silver lining has been focusing, more than ever, on building relationships with students. It has kept me going.

— A teacher in a high school with 35% low-income students in the San Diego Area

There have been a few. The most important has been continuing to foster and develop relationships and connections with students. Also, the development of the “hybrid” meeting (in-person and online) has been helpful increasing meeting attendance and involvement/input in some situations.

— A teacher in a high school with 72% low-income students in the Sacramento Area

I have become more patient and understanding of what my students face at home. I have focused more on building positive relationships with them.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 94% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area

It has been nice to rebuild those student relationships again, doing that on Zoom was really difficult.

— A teacher in a middle school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area

It made my commitment to my community stronger and made me dig deeper, learn more to meet my students’ needs and support their families.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 88% low-income students in the Inland Empire

Improved technical skills (for both teachers and students) and making positive changes to their teaching practice

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My technology skills have improved greatly. I am able to switch instructional strategies using apps fairly quickly. Having my materials on Google Classroom makes it easy to direct students to my lessons and examples.

— A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in Southern California

The students learned to use more technology.

— A teacher in a high school with 89% low-income students in Southern California

My technology knowledge and usage has blossomed, and I feel very confident in my ability to integrate technology in my teaching.

— A teacher in a middle school with 95% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area

Students have progressed in life skills (mostly in the tech sector) that were unthinkable before.

— A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 15% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area

It has caused me to rethink my grading practices and develop a more humanizing lens towards the classroom.

— A teacher in a high school with 85% low-income students in the Los Angeles Area

The pandemic allowed me to focus and go deep on various topics rather than covering it all.

— A teacher in a high school with 16% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey Area

I have learned to evaluate my curriculum a little, and work towards a “less is more” approach and really emphasize key concepts.

— A teacher in a high school with 30% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I have learned how to incorporate project-based learning.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 95% low-income students in the San Diego Area

Student resilience and a renewed focus on fostering social and emotional learning

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The resilience of children is amazing. They’ve been the bright spot in all of this. Their ability to thrive despite all the odds have really helped me through all of this.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 98% low-income students in Southern California

I have been invigorated by the new challenges and resilience of my students.

— A teacher in a middle school with 83% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I still see students learning making progress even if not at grade level. I am happy to be a support for them and a hope in their life during this difficult time.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 41% low-income students in the Central Valley

A focus on community building and social emotional learning of students has taken precedence over content, which I believe to be a healthy transition.

— A teacher in a high school with 48% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

For me personally, this pandemic taught me that it’s OK to take a break and play kickball with the kids. … We don’t need every second of the day to be a heavy academic focus. Our kids need more space to breathe, play and develop positive peer interactions.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 28% low-income students in the Sacramento area.

I feel more empowered to focus on student mental health and social-emotional development as equally important to student learning.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 40% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey Area

Teacher connection and collaboration with colleagues

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Teachers have started working closer together and have started being the support systems we need for one another.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 74% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I’ve formed some stronger collaborative relationships than I have had in the past and I feel like I am more flexible about my practice than I used to be.

— A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

I have built a few new relationships with educators via Zoom during the pandemic that I have maintained after returning to school.

— A teacher in a high school with 38% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Survey Data

Number of times leading teachers mentioned these silver linings.

To Note:

Summary of Teacher Reports of Silver Linings

Relationships, resilience, skills, social-emotional learning, teaching practices — these words encapsulate the silver linings for teachers. Building relationships with students was mentioned frequently as well as returning to in-person classes and activities. Some teachers reported a renewed appreciation for taking the time to slow down and focus on students’ social-emotional needs. Some described a stronger connection with colleagues. Becoming more technologically savvy and integrating technology into their classroom practice were also highlighted along with other positive changes to their teaching.

Only a handful of teachers didn’t identify any silver linings from teaching during the past two years. This speaks to the resilience and commitment of this group that so many could name silver linings related to being a teacher. Amidst all the upheaval and stress over the past two years, teachers can still find a bright spot, which for many is simply the joy of being with their students.

What are teachers recommending to policymakers?

Leading teachers described the changes in state policy they would like to see to better meet the needs of students and their schools. Recommendations included their schools’ need for more adults (teachers, aides, counselors, social workers, librarians, nurses), the elimination of teacher, substitute, and staff shortages and an emphasis on students’ social and emotional needs.

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I would like to have time for every student in my class every day, but that will not happen without changes at the state and district level — 36 students in a class period and 180 students a day is too many to be able to provide the support and enrichment they all deserve.

— A teacher in a high school with 72% low-income students in the Sacramento Area

I would like to see the district provide more specialists to provide students with more quality learning experiences through experts in art, PE, and science, and to provide teachers with prep time to plan, evaluate student work and to adjust instruction.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 30% low-income students in the North Coast

We need a greater focus on the acceptance of diversity among our students and staff. Our school board needs to stand up and fund the support of our marginalized students.

— A teacher in a middle school with 83% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I’d like to focus more on students’ social-emotional health, but the district/state continues to emphasize state testing. … Unfortunately, SEL is often what gets put on the back burner even though we are seeing that’s what kids need most.

— A teacher in a middle school with 39% low-income students in the Central Coast

The state health and safety guidance has caused so much stress and tension — last year when they used phrases like “to the greatest extent possible” it was anything but helpful.

— A teacher in an elementary school with 28% low-income students in the Sacramento Area

I’d like to see district provide mentorship programs and opportunities that engaged early career educators, middle-career educators and veteran educators in meaningful ways as a way to share, collaborate and grow as professionals.

— A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in Southern California

The state has imposed outrageous rules for independent study. … It’s infuriating. As we’re all trying to get back on our feet, the state imposed more rules and mandates than before.

— A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 100% low-income students in the North Coast

By far the biggest issue this year has been staff changes. .… I feel like our district has tried to hire quality candidates; however, they have not had a lot of luck since there doesn’t seem to be too many people joining the teaching profession.

— A teacher in a middle school in the Northern Delta-Sierra Foothills

After a year online, it feels as though we should have gained significant insight into the flexible possibilities that could happen in education. … We must embrace more flexible avenues for students as they make their way through high school.

— A teacher in a high school with 30% low-income students in the Inland Empire

Survey Data

The leading teachers’ responses to policy-related survey questions provide some insights into both the current state of education policy in California, along their opinions about some proposed budget changes and various bills under consideration.

To what extent do you agree with each of the statements regarding recent state and federal policies to address the challenges of education during the pandemic?

To Note:

The governor’s proposed budget and various bills being considered in the legislature are described below. What priority would you assign each of the following?

To Note:

Large majorities of our leading teachers reported that their high or top priorities among the current proposals under consideration are:

  1. additional funds to improve early literacy (85%)
  2. new programs to increase the number of new teachers in the pipeline (75%)
  3. additional funds for the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program (75%)
  4. measures to avoid the loss of revenue for districts with declining enrollment (74%)
  5. universal access to subsidized meals (73%)

The leading teachers viewed relaxed certification requirements as not a priority or a low priority (61%).

What two or three things could state-level leaders and policymakers do to make a significant contribution to helping California teachers and students?

Summary of Teacher Recommendations to policymakers

While the leading teachers were largely supportive of most of the current policies under consideration, their own priorities were more ambitious. The most frequently mentioned change they would recommend is to increase the number of support staff, including counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, and classroom aides. In addition, raising salaries, lowering class size, and increasing (and stabilizing) funding were identified as priorities.

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