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What Teachers Want

In North Carolina and a growing number of states, improving working conditions has become a science.

By Tim Walker

When invited to “please take our survey,” most people take a pass. But not the teachers at Broad Creek Middle School in Newport, North Carolina. They eagerly participated in the state’s 2006 Teacher Working Conditions Survey—and with good reason.

Two years before, Broad Creek teachers had said in a survey that their top priority was faster integration of technology in their classrooms. The school’s improvement team acted quickly to supply laptops and Smart Boards to more teachers and upgrade the school’s information systems.

“We had total buy-in [for the 2006 survey] because our teachers knew we would use the data,” says Broad Creek Principal Cathy Tonon.

Buy-in has been a critical factor in the Teacher Working Conditions (TWC) program, which is now spreading from North Carolina to other states with financial support from NEA. Recognizing that student achievement depends on improved working conditions for educators, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley implemented the first-of-its-kind biennial statewide survey in 2002. At the suggestion of his teacher advisor, Ann McArthur, Easley approved a 39-question, pencil-and-paper survey. Some 42,000 educators volunteered to fill out the questionnaire, which focused on five issues critical to teacher working conditions: planning time, teacher empowerment, facilities and resources, quality of school leadership, and professional development. With input from NEA researchers and its state affiliate, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the survey was refined and conducted online two years later, identifying both local issues and statewide concerns.

After citing technology as a priority in a Teacher Working Condition's Survey, teachers at David Holland's school now benefit from Smart Boards, laptops, and upgraded information systems.

Photo: Randy Davey

“My specific working condition issues may be different from someone else’s in a different school,” explains Bill Ferriter, a teacher at Salem Middle School. “But there are definite common perceptions that you heard across the state.” Lack of preparation time and decision-making authority were commonly cited roadblocks in the 2004 survey, which also confirmed the connection between working conditions, student performance, and teacher retention. The results led to policy changes in areas ranging from planning time to increased educator voice in school improvement teams such as the one at Broad Creek.

The TWC survey also singled out schools with excellent environments, including Broad Creek in 2004, when the school garnered one of North Carolina’s “Real D.E.A.L.” awards, given to schools with “Dedicated Educators, Administrators, and Learners.”

David Holland, who has taught sixth grade at Broad Creek for 8 of his 17 years as an educator, says his school fosters a culture of support and collaboration. Peer observation, in particular, is encouraged, as teachers at Broad Creek often visit their colleagues’ classrooms and compare different teaching styles. “Teachers here have the freedom to teach,” he explains. “We are allowed to take ownership of our classrooms.”

Holland echoes the TWC’s finding that quality working conditions make a difference for students as well as teachers. “Sixth grade is a transitional year and can be quite difficult for students,” he says. “But parents come up to me all the time and say how surprised they were that their kids had an easier time than expected.”

Gov. Easley, meanwhile, had been talking up the TWC survey at meetings of the National Governors Association, says McArthur. Statewide teacher surveys have now been conducted in South Carolina and Kansas, while pilot surveys have been conducted in several districts in Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia. A January TWC conference cosponsored by NEA attracted educators, administrators, lawmakers, and state affiliate members from 14 states.

“It’s exciting for teachers,” Ferriter says, “to realize that lawmakers in the governor’s office, state legislatures and school boards are using these surveys to really listen to educators. Teachers have to raise their voices and seize this opportunity.”

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