Teacher First: Creating a better classroom environment

If you want to increase student achievement forget everything else you’ve read and just focus on making your teachers happy.

Those outside of the profession have made a lot of claims about how we might increase the standard of education in our country but many of the suggestions are downright ridiculous.

Increase the required ATAR of teaching degrees? Sure, but then you’re implying that intelligence (or the ability to translate knowledge onto a page under timed conditions) correlates with good teaching. Where do I fit then? I’m a Level 3 Classroom Teacher who is second in charge of their department at a big metro school and I’ve got more than 10 years of experience behind me. These factors might lead you to assume I’m good at my job and yet my university entrance score was depressingly low. What I can do, which isn’t measurable through my own test scores, is relate to students on a personal level and create an engaging classroom environment.

Smaller class sizes? Sounds great. This would definitely work but it’s unrealistic. To do this a school would need to hire more teachers and have more rooms they could teach in to cater for the same number of students that are currently enrolled. This is achievable but it requires financial support from the government and greater thought when planning the infrastructure of our education system. The key problem, however, is that it requires more teachers when, by all accounts, we’re headed for another shortage.

There are other ‘solutions’ too but there are reasons why they won’t work – at least, not in isolation.

Schools are businesses. It’s a fact.

What’s not set in stone is what sort of business and, if it’s an analogy, what each hierarchical level of a school’s population correlates with in a business sense. Are students our clients or our products? Are teachers customer service providers or machines in the grades factory?

It’s murky water and part of the problem is schools, and to some extent the wider community, are not consistent with their position.

In part, this is brought on by the fact that many administrators have lost touch with the classroom setting. This is because many of them no longer have a teaching load and some of them have climbed the corporate ladder too quickly and never actually established themselves as a teacher to begin with. Then there’s the fact that the community’s perception of teachers has changed drastically in the space of a generation. Ultimately, it’s not just teachers – it’s all authority figures. Today’s youth have a sense of entitlement and self-importance that society accepts as par for the course (keep in mind that this is a generalisation and not indicative of all adolescents).

Teachers, then, walk a tightrope on a daily basis. We try to appease the administration, directors and members of parliament despite the fact their ideals put more constraints on our time and we do this while trying to coerce reluctant students into completing work. It’s stressful. The number of people who leaves this profession is astounding.

So, what do we need?

Time. Teachers go back days before students do and there are a small handful of student-free days throughout the year but these days are not set aside for teachers to catch up on marking or plan their next sequence of lessons. Instead, these days are often a series of monotonous meetings where we read and discuss the same documents we looked at on the last three staff development days.

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Schools might say they support staff by offering a variety of professional development opportunities but these still monopolise our time in a time-poor profession. Essentially this is a trust issue; they plan meeting-filled days because they don’t trust us to get on with our work and not just surf the net all day. My two cents? If you’re going to dictate what we do, make it memorable. One administrator I’ve had understood this. She organised pampering, a stand up comedian and bomb disposal team-building exercises. I still had to work twice as hard at home to compensate for not getting time to complete tasks at work but at least I left at the end of the day with a smile on my face.

Happy staff do their job well.

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I’ve seen this expressed in a business sense but never at school. Even if management are conscious of this premise they don’t seem to know how to put it in effect. This is because many schools don’t ask their staff directly, not with carefully constructed leading questions about confidence and an understanding of the business plan but with open ended questions that allow teachers to articulate their fears and desires.

No one in a position of authority has ever asked me any of the following and if they have I’ve haven’t walked away feeling as if my response would govern future actions –

  • are you happy in your job? What do you need for job satisfaction?
  • what do you need to feel supported in the classroom?
  • what is the scariest prospect about the next school year?

 

This isn’t rocket science. If your job caused you nothing but stress and concern would you put in your best effort and spend time at home completing tasks and planning ahead? Probably not. You’d be more inclined to distance yourself from that negativity and/or drown your worries in alcohol. If thinking of your job made you smile would you work harder? More than likely, it’s human nature.

And if your job is raising the knowledge and abilities of our youth then it stands to reason that you’ll do it better if you’re happy doing it.

If fly catching is more successful with honey as opposed to vinegar, then educational standards might just be better if you sweeten up the lives of your teachers.

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