We Won’t Get Great Teachers By Treating Them Badly

Jeff Bryant

An article by Alia Wong for The Atlantic this week caused quite a stir by pointing to a recent survey of teachers that found one of the main stresses they have during their busy days is getting a potty break.

Wong looked at results from a poll about the work conditions of teachers conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association, a grassroots teacher-led movement resisting current education policies.

She found lots of interesting findings on the “everyday stressors” teachers face in the workplace, including time pressure, student discipline problems, and mandated curricula. But “the biggest takeaway” Wong got from the data was that “of the various everyday workplace stressors educators could check off, one of the most popular was, ‘Lack of opportunity to use restroom.'” Wong noted bathroom breaks were “in third place” on the list of work-related stressors with about one in two teachers “having inadequate bathroom breaks.”

Part of the “stir” resulting from Wong’s article was evident in the extensive comments that reflected the all-too-typical belief that teachers have “cushy” jobs with short workdays and summers off. This attitude has become so run-of-the-mill that we actually have a political candidate running for president in the Republican Party – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – who openly chastises teachers for being “part-time workers” who get “full-time pay.”

These contentions about the supposed leisure the teaching profession affords fly in the face of longstanding studies that show classroom teachers in the U.S. work longer hours with less financial return than in practically all other countries in the industrial world.

The other, more widespread, “stir” Wong’s article prompted was more surprising.

Shortly after The Atlantic’s article went live, members of the Badass Teachers group – one of the organization’s responsible for gathering the survey data – took to Twitter and Facebook to decry the publication for “trivializing” their work conditions. The Twitter account for the Badass group kicked off a long thread with the hashtag #BoycottTheAtlantic that accused the publication of publishing “garbage” instead of “real issues” about teacher work conditions. The Twitter accounts for the various BAT state chapters chimed in immediately, accusing Wong’s article of marginalizing “teacher suffering.”

To be fair, Wong hardly “trivialized” the discomfort and the potential health hazard of being unable to relieve oneself throughout the work day. In particular, she called attention to how that situation might impact pregnant teachers (certainly a significant population in the profession due to the gender and age of the average worker), teachers with health conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, and teachers who respond to limited toilet breaks by abstaining from drinking water during the day and becoming dehydrated.

However, as a comment on the article from “Los Angeles PUBLIC school teac” points out, Wong’s original version stated, “Educators are, moreover, known for their tendency to complain about and perhaps over-exaggerate their stress levels.” Interestingly, this sentence has been removed from the current version. But some of the BAT’s resentment is justified.

Many of the tweets from the BAT account accuse Wong of ignoring the subject of teacher suicides, which apparently was one of the issues that prompted the desire to conduct the survey. In fact, just hours before Wong’s article appeared, local press outlets in New York City reported that an elementary school principal had committed suicide by stepping in front of a subway train. The principal had been accused of cheating on state standardized tests – tests that have been very controversial in the state because many contend they are designed to make educators look bad.

Fairfield University professor and BAT member Yohuru Williams tweeted, “I wish @TheAtlantic cared more about #teachers than to publish the rubbish they did on the #teachershortage.” The teacher shortage is in fact one issue Wong did touch on, highlighting a shortage of teachers in Kansas and a report finding the number of students interested in becoming educators has dropped “significantly” from 2010 to 2014. But it’s hard to believe people en masse avoid the profession because word on the street is once you get the job you never get to use the bathroom.

So what’s going on here? For sure, those who say teachers have a cushy job – including blowhard pols like Christie – are to be ignored. But like what so often happens in the current education debate, contentious arguments get mired in detail while much bigger issues are allowed to lurk in the background unaddressed.

Those much bigger, unaddressed issues affecting teachers’ work environments are the current love affair with economic efficiency and the cognitive dissonance among believers in the education “reform” movement that although teachers are the “single most significant” determiner of student academic outcomes, we need to make their jobs harder and less secure.

The cult of economic efficiency that currently predominates all levels of government continues to press for measures that a majority of teachers despise.

For instance, lawmakers continue to pass budgets and push policy ideas that increase class sizes or fail to reduce them where class sizes are too large. According to an overwhelming amount of survey data, teachers prefer smaller class sizes and say larger class sizes negatively affect their quality of work. For sure, you can always find an economist, usually working for a conservative think tank, who argues that class size matters little to student test scores. But many of these studies have been refuted outright or at least seriously called into question. And none of these findings can change the reality that increasing class size will make most teachers’ lives miserable.

Another favorite of the efficiency cult is to tie teacher pay to student test scores, either through performance pay scales or an evaluation process.

Education historian Diane Ravitch has found that in-depth, extended studies of merit pay have found that these programs hardly ever show much benefit in terms of raised test scores (not that that should stand as the be-all and end-all of education). Also, teachers hate it.

Research also shows teacher evaluations based on student test scores continue to be mostly inaccurate, unreliable, and subject to too many variables. By the way, teachers hate these evaluations too.

Nevertheless, the efficiency cult continues to push their favorite measures instead of attending to what teachers say they value most: work environment.

While the efficiency cult grinds away at teachers’ working conditions, people who call themselves “reformers” say they value teachers but then do all they can to undermine their job security by challenging teachers’ collective bargaining rights, opposing seniority privileges, or working to end due process rights when teachers are threatened with being fired.

Like it or not, if you’re anti-union you are to some extent diametrically opposed to what teachers say they need to make their work conditions better.

As Matthew Di Carlo argues at the blog for the Albert Shanker Institute, “In the majority of cases, disagreeing with unions’ education policy positions represents disagreeing with most teachers. In other words, opposing unions certainly doesn’t mean you’re ‘bashing’ teachers, but it does, on average, mean you hold different views than they do.”

Di Carlo concludes, “Vociferous opposition to teachers’ unions is too often a shield behind which advocates hide, thus precluding their having to acknowledge and address their disagreement with most of the teachers who make up those unions.”

But mostly, let’s be clear, a conversation about teachers’ well-being while on the job matters. First, because their working conditions are the students’ learning conditions.

Second, because there’s evidence that making teachers more stressed out and unhappy at work may have an effect on decreasing the supply of quality teachers.

Many states are currently experiencing steep drops in enrollments for teacher preparation programs. As Education Week recently reported, “Massive changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, engaging career. Nationwide, enrollments in university teacher-preparation programs have fallen by about 10 percent from 2004 to 2012.”

In some states, the constricted supply of new teacher recruits has led to an “employee’s market” for teachers that makes it difficult for schools and districts to find suitable candidates at the budget levels they are given from the state.

Classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene has noticed that the problem of teacher shortages has become “coast to coast.” Greene cites examples of teacher shortages – or teacher recruitment and substitute teacher shortages – in many states and highlights numerous examples of diminished supplies of teachers for rural schools and specific subject areas – such as science and math. He also notices many states are responding to shortages by creating new programs that “fast track” new teacher recruits into the classroom with less preparation – which seems like a recipe for raising teacher attrition in the coming years.

Greene concludes, “There is no state among the fifty that is paying top dollar, providing great working conditions, and treating its teachers like professionals that is struggling with a teacher shortage. Instead, states offer low pay, poor work conditions, no job security, no autonomy, and no power over your own workplace and voila – teacher shortage.”

So yes, schools need to create schedules that give teachers opportunities to relieve themselves, get a bite to eat, and take care of other daily maintenance needs. But don’t stop there. Teachers need education policies made with their input and observant of the dignified treatment these professionals deserve.

Otherwise, it just stands to reason that when you make a job more stressful and negative, you’re going to get fewer qualified people who want to do it. That might not be economically efficient, but it is human nature. We don’t need a “reform” movement to tell us that.

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