Do your workplaces allow staff to flourish or to falter?

After many years researching the role physical learning environments play in the creation of learning environments in schools, I have been turning my attention to schools as teachers’ workplaces. My goal is to develop a current and deep knowledge of contemporary workplace trends for adults, especially those who work in innovative, creative and collaborative work environments. As education moves away from the factory/industrial model that dominated 20th Century schools in the West, teachers need to be viewed as innovators, knowledge creators, designers and curators of learning environments. They are also working in a world saturated with technology and myriad ways of connecting with learners and colleagues. Surely, this calls for an evaluation of the places where teachers work?

I have also been considering how we could increase teacher effectiveness by using what we know about teacher motivation, their current workloads and workplaces. During the past year, I have looked at the design of adult workspaces (other than in schools since there was very little happening there in terms of new adult work environments). At the same time, I have hunted down current research on teacher motivation, satisfaction and workloads. I have been asking the questions: What exactly do teachers do and why do they do it?. There is a reasonable amount on teachers during their first five years in the profession but much less on the mid to late career teachers, who have stayed working in schools.

 Wilderness School staffroom

There is little on what actually constitutes a teacher’s workload – we have some idea on the tasks teachers complete. In Australia, the new national Professional Standards go some way to defining and simplifying the identity of the teacher as a professional, regardless of the sector and school context. These standards for teachers comprise seven standards that outline what teachers should know and be able to do. On thing that clearly emerges, is the complexity and diversity of this work and the expectation that it develops over many years and through many experiences. It is also important to consider the differences between K-6, K-12 and 7-12 work environments since each reflect different needs, different physical environments, different mandatory requirements and different traditions for providing staff spaces. It would be difficult to imagine one workplace design or one professional description would fit all teachers across the K-12 spectrum.

staffroom doorIn order to understand how teachers view their workloads and workspaces, I recently conducted a survey of teachers that captured what a sample of Australian teachers were saying about their current workloads and work environments. The survey covered two aspects of the contemporary teacher experience: the nature of the teacher’s workload in a school and how this work was carried out. The majority of the respondents are from non-government K-12 schools in New South Wales, but the sample also included a wider group of teaching professionals. Nearly all of the respondents were teachers, who spent most or all of their time in the classroom (a total of 84% of the sample). Two-thirds of the respondents worked in schools that had been established prior to 2000. More than half of the sample worked in schools that had more than 400 students. The sample is described in the following table.

 In my next post, I will share some of the key results of this survey.

Profile of sample n = 199 %
Teaching 15 years or less 53 26.7
Teaching duties only 112 57.1
Teaching plus teaching with some executive duties 165 83.9
Executive with some or no teaching 32 16.2
Working in a K-12 school 172 87.3
Working in a school with more than 400 students 116 58.9
Working in a school established prior to 2000 133 67.5

Table: Profile of sample

A checklist for choosing a child’s school – why educators should pay attention.

David Gillespie’s new book, Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, is a valuable perspective on contemporary education from the parent’s point-of-view. Although Gillespie spent a great deal of time researching the current educational landscape, which the average parent might not necessarily do themselves, he maintains his parental perspective by focusing on what matters to a parent looking for the best schooling option for his children. SchoolIMG_0195 leaders are well advised to consider the book because Gillespie offers a systematic way for parents to evaluate and select a school for their child. It is supercharged advice from one parent to thousands of other parents and educators should take the opportunity of listening in on this conversation.

In Part 2 of his book, Gillespie articulates what matters and what does not matter when it comes to finding the right school for your child. The items that do not matter as much as parents might think are: gender-based schools; high fees; small classes and multi-age classes. While small classes obviously provide more opportunity for one-on-one time for each child, it does come at a financial cost. Single gender IMG_3245schools do not cause any significant academic advantages unless coupled with selective enrollments that target the most capable students and stream according to ability. The value added items a significant income can buy within a school (such as individual technology and impressive facilities) are recognised as making the task of learning and teaching more comfortable, varied and easier, but Gillespie says the research still points to the fact these items will not have the same impact on student achievement as effective teachers and principals will have.

IMG_0271

The book concludes the quality of teaching in the classroom and the leadership offered by the principal matter a great deal more than any other factors. However, there are eleven other things that matter, once you have established the school provides effective leadership and teaching (Gillespie, 2014, pages 165-6).

  1. Learning to learn is important;
  2. Extracurricular activities (especially music) should be on offer;
  3. Languages other than English should be part of the curriculum (especially for primary schools);
  4. Effective use of technology will make a difference;
  5. Effective behaviour management is important;
  6. Homework policy does not make a lot of difference;
  7. Effective communication with parents (about educational matters) matters a great deal;
  8. Avoid primary schools that do not use phonics to teach reading;
  9. Avoid schools that stream according to academic ability;
  10. Look for schools that accelerate gifted students (if your child is a genius);
  11. If your child has special needs, know exactly what resources are available.

Running through the list of eleven things that matter, in addition to the two non-negotiables of teacher effectiveness and principal leadership, you have a reasonable summary of what happens in schools. By the time I had finished reading the book, I was already running through the responses I would give parents who happened to use this list to test the quality and appropriateness of my school for their children. It would be a good exercise to consider the criteria Gillespie shares and test out what your school prioritises. If your list is different to this one, then you may still need to be ready to argue your case against this very persuasive book and parents who arrive at their interviews armed with this checklist.

Reference: David Gillespie: Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, MacMillan, 2014.