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Commentary: Is collaboration the key to satisfaction?

Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District. 

Job satisfaction among teachers is the worst it has been for decades.  That’s what the 2012 MetLife survey of the American teacher says.

Since 1984 MetLife has conducted a survey of teachers, parents, and students about the teaching profession, parent and community engagement and the effects of the economy on families and schools.  The survey reflects what so many of my colleagues have been saying for the past few years.  The increased scrutiny along with what seems like endless teacher bashing is taking its toll.

But not all teachers feel this way.  A significant number of teachers, even with current economic conditions, are satisfied with their job. I think it is worth looking at those who are satisfied and see what makes them so.

The survey shows that teacher job satisfaction has dropped 15 points since 2009, from 59 percent who were very satisfied to 44 percent in 2011. This is the lowest number in 20 years.  This bit of data will probably generate the most buzz from the education field.  While many may use the drop in satisfaction as proof that the teaching profession is under unfair and intense scrutiny (see Kevin Welner’s post), I hope we can look at the data on those teachers who are satisfied with their jobs and see why they are satisfied.  Here, after all, is clear information as to why teachers are satisfied versus the conjecture on why teachers are not satisfied.

First a note about those teachers with low job satisfaction: according to the survey  teachers with “low job satisfaction are more likely to teach in urban schools and in schools with larger proportions of minority students.”  There is certainly a disproportionate impact of the economic recession and budget cuts in these districts.  This coupled with the fact that urban students and their families have increased their reliance on health and social support services has put high levels of stress on schools and districts as they find themselves filling in the gaps that the local services cannot fill.

But are these economic situations impossible to overcome?  Has the microscope under which teachers have been recently placed left scars on the motivations of teachers?  Are educators destined to leave the profession in droves, or if they stay be overwhelmed to the point that maintaining any sense of positive student achievement gives way to just making it through the day?

The responses of teachers satisfied with their jobs might just point the way to a brighter future.

Teachers with high job satisfaction

are more likely to feel their jobs are secure and they are treated as a professional by the community. They are also likely to have adequate opportunities for professional development, time to collaborate with other teachers, more preparation and support to engage parents effectively, and greater involvement of parents and their schools in coming together to improve the learning and success of students.

Giving teachers the capacity to collaborate (professional development) and the time to do so can directly impact student achievement and improve teacher morale.

Last fall I wrote about a study by the Stanford Social Innovation Review that argued that when schools focused on human and social capital there were impressive improvements in student achievement.  The study looked at over 1,000 elementary teachers in over 130 elementary schools in New York City.

According to their research, when teachers were given time to collaborate and engage in conversations relative to their practice teachers were more likely to have a positive impact on student achievement.  This idea makes sense.

Malcolm Gladwell has argued that it takes 10,000 hours of purposeful practice to be a success in any field.  This equates to five years of purposeful practice for teachers before they become “successful.”  Imagine how much quicker we could get to better practice if teachers collaborated to get there?  And imagine how much more positive teachers would feel about their work?

Collaboration among teachers is not the silver bullet to make education reform a reality.  But it is an important piece to a puzzle that has certainly been made more difficult by current economic realities.

It is a practice that can be made reality if we decide to reprioritize our finite resources.  If we don’t we are in danger of not only depleting our current teacher workforce but  more importantly leaving students behind.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.