The Teaching Workplace: Missing the Forest for the Bathroom Stalls

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers released the results of a survey on teacher workplace stress conducted in collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), a grassroots network of teachers across the country dedicated to pushing back “against so-called corporate education reform, or the Educational-Industrial Complex, and the damage it has done to students, schools, teachers, and communities.”  The survey focused on the quality of workplace life for teachers, and was comprised of 80 questions answered by over 30,000 participants. Results, presented in brief in this document, show a wide variety of issues that impact how teachers perceive their working conditions, including respect from politicians, the media, administrators, parents, and colleagues, frequency of workplace stress, major sources of stress, and frequency of bullying and negative health consequences within the workplace.  With so many participants, the survey is a notable first step to gaining major research and policy leverage for issues that have been impacting teachers for years, and it has already led to a meeting between the USDOE and the survey team of AFT and BAT representatives.

So it is somewhat disappointing that The Atlantic magazine decided to reduce the story to a tale of inadequate bathroom breaks.

To be fair, the article does discuss other workplace issues for teachers, and in a section of the survey report that also cites time pressure, disciplinary issues, and student aggression as everyday stressors for teachers, “lack of opportunity to use restroom” does stand out.  Further, the author, Alia Wong, makes very clear note of the health risks associated with inadequate hydration and use of the bathroom and quotes teachers in discussion forums noting the degradation of not being allowed basic sanitary needs.

However, the article missed a massive opportunity to take a substantive look at broader issues of workplace stress for teachers, potential reasons why it has been increasing in recent years, and how it contributes to the real staffing problem in our nation’s schools: the high percentage of teachers across the nation with fewer than 5 years of experience and the greater likelihood of schools with high percentages of students who are poor and ethnic minorities to have beginning teachers.  Research has shown that schools with blended cultures of experienced teachers able to mentor novices are best suited for teacher learning and professional development at all experience levels, and teachers in high poverty schools report that they leave either their schools or the profession entirely because of working conditions above any other factor.  The AFT and BAT collaboration on workplace stress opens the door to an incredibly important discussion that has, in recent years, been entirely shoved aside by anti-union activists who have declared, absent evidence, that experienced teachers protected by tenure are a central cause of school failure.

I was therefore disappointed that Ms. Wong’s article decided that, of all the issues reported in the public release of the survey, bathroom breaks warranted a lengthy treatment without pushing further on how workplace stress contributes to teacher turnover and the costs to students that come from high percentages of novice teachers who are often “on their own and presumed expert“.

Jamy Brice Hyde is a teacher in upstate New York, a member of the Badass Teachers Association, and a participant in the survey team that collaborated with the American Federation of Teachers.  According to Ms. Brice Hyde, The Atlantic “missed a tremendous opportunity to tell an incredible story about the crisis in public education. Because a teacher’s work environment is a student’s learning environment. They missed that.”  She spoke with me directly, and I learned that the survey has 31,342 respondents who answered the 80 questions online over a period of only 10 days at the end of April this year.  Ms. Brice Hyde explained that people had warned the team to only expect a few 1000 respondents given the general reach of such surveys, but the response rate was beyond anyone’s expectations.

Ms. Brice Hyde also confirmed that the survey results are not statistically weighted, and that the survey was solicited by a general call to AFT members rather than by statistical sampling.  As such, the results are only a beginning examination of the issue rather than a finished statistical analysis.  However, she confirmed that the raw data is currently being studied by qualified, university-based, researchers who are determining what can be validly inferred, so the process of learning from the survey will continue.

The survey itself was born from genuine grassroots discussions among members of the BAT group about conditions in the workplace, increase in teacher stress, and the very serious consequences many members have felt personally or seen among their colleagues, including recent suicides.  Contact with the AFT led to a conference call meeting with President Randi Weingarten, who Ms. Brice Hyde described as deeply impacted by the stories brought to the meeting and who immediately offered the teachers support to construct and disseminate the survey. President Weingarten, who spoke to me in a separate call, explained the impact of the phone conversation: “The level of need was so intense, and the level of disenfranchisement (of classroom teachers) was just so intense.”

Once the results were in and clear patterns in the responses were evident, the AFT lobbying team convinced Senator Booker of New Jersey and Senator Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title 2 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to examine workplace stress for teachers.  President Weingarten was enthusiastic about both the collaboration with the BAT group and with its impact. “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

The published survey results provide some stark highlights of what respondents believe to be the status of their profession and their working conditions.  While 89% strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about their profession when they began their careers, only 15% could strongly agree now with another 38% somewhat agreeing.  A staggering 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were “treated with respect” by elected officials, and 77% felt similarly about the media.  On the other hand, only 24% of respondents said the same thing about their students and their students’ parents, a result that reflects the annual KDP/Gallup poll which consistently shows that parents with children in public school hold those schools in high regard.

73% of teachers in the survey said they often find their workplace stressful, citing factors such as new initiatives being adopted without adequate support or professional development, negative portrayals of teachers and teaching in the media, uncertain job expectations, salary, and lack of participation in decision making as major sources of that stress.  Further, teachers said that mandated curricula, large class sizes, standardized testing, and lack of support for student discipline were daily sources of stress in the classroom.

Perhaps most alarming is the section reporting workplace bullying and health.  30% of all respondents reported having been bullied in the workplace, and 58% identified an administrator as a bully with 38% saying a coworker was a bully and 34% and 30% respectively identifying a student or a parent as a bully.  While 70% of respondents said their schools had a harassment and bullying in the workplace policy, only 42% said they got regular training on it.  45% of teachers in the survey did say they did not get adequate bathroom breaks, but it is possibly more disturbing to read that only half of teachers said their districts encourage them to use sick days when actually ill, and 26% said that in the past month their mental health was was not good for 9 or more days.

Jamy Brice Hyde informed me that the rest of the data set gave even more nuance to some of these problems.  Of the nearly one third of the respondents who had experienced harassment and bullying in the workplace, 64% believed it was not handled properly, and 38% of them did not report the experience to either a supervisor or a union representative.  84% said that they had not gotten union training on workplace harassment and bullying.  49% of the teachers responding said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point during their careers.

From the standpoint of professionalism, many of the responses should raise serious concerns as well.  Ms. Brice Hyde added that 45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.

While 86% of survey respondents said that their feelings about teaching have changed in the past 2-3 years, Ms. Brice Hyde is hopeful that the data gathered by the BAT/AFT collaboration will lead to positive changes.  “The biggest thing we came away from this with is how to get local unions to be better as first responders to our teachers in need,” she said, “And to get the federal government to do a scientific study of teacher work conditions.”  I can certainly see her point, and I think she also correct to say that the survey has happened now “because it is relevant.”  Over 30,000 teachers took the opportunity to make their feelings about their workplaces known in only a 10 day period, and the results have already led to legislative change with the ESEA amendment by Senators Booker and Bennet.

This moment is, indeed, crucial. Research supports that working conditions are a central feature in teachers’ decisions to leave either a school or the profession.  Helen Ladd of Duke University found that more than 1 in 4 teachers in America had fewer than five years of experience in 2008, and her research further demonstrates that when it comes to teacher effectiveness, experience counts.  Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers confirmed that working conditions is the number one reason why new teachers leave high poverty schools with no student factor even close in significance.  Recent research from the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests that national new teacher attrition over 5 years may be 17% which is much lower than previous estimates, but there may be flaws in comparing the new data with older research.  While this data does come from actually tracking a cohort of new teachers, it stopped after the fourth year while previous research by Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania drew estimates through 5 years in the classroom, and his estimates included teachers in private schools as well as public schools.  Also, the NCES study began tracking its cohort of teachers just when the Great Recession hit, so it is possible the attrition of this group of teachers was kept artificially lower than historic averages.

The NCES data, however, also speaks to the need to address the workplace.  First year teachers with mentors were far more likely to be teaching in their second year than those without.  Teachers who are better compensated tended to stay in teaching longer.  Teachers who began teaching in high poverty schools were slightly more likely to leave the profession entirely, but the data did not address the teachers who leave high poverty schools for more affluent schools, a significant source of staff turnover at such schools who pay a high price for such turnover.

The Badass Teachers Association’s collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers’ has provided valuable insights into which workplace conditions most seriously impact teachers and result in high levels of stress.  Our nation’s policymakers have made unprecedented demands on teacher accountability.  It is past time to hold the policymakers accountable for giving teachers the support and environment most conducive to their students’ learning.

That is a real story worth national attention.

11 Comments

Filed under Activism, Media, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

11 responses to “The Teaching Workplace: Missing the Forest for the Bathroom Stalls

  1. Sandy

    Thank you! As one of the BATs who worked on this survey, I deeply appreciate your observations re: its significance . There are clearly so many more directions to go in order to truly recognize our children as priceless citizens-in-training. I hope that bullying initiatives start looking at the complex interplay between the school employees, parents, students and community members rather than assuming bullying occurs only among students…. We connected because we were deeply affected by bullying, suicides, facilities in disrepair… Participation in this gave me renewed hope that our collective voices would be heard.

    • We should all be thanking you for being on this project! This is truly an awesome and inspiring step…with tangible results already! We may yet succeed in turning the conversation with efforts from such inspiring teachers!

  2. Will the results be given to other platforms such as NPR or USA Today?

  3. Torii

    This is very positive. Boston Teachers Union did not send out the survey. This is very important data since the BTU does not protect all its members. Just like Boston Public Schools administrators use various methods to tamper with teacher/student survey data and the statewide teacher surveys. Those areas with low participation should be outed. I found the survey on BAT page and sent it to several BPS educators who told me they replied and sent in. I am, of course, glad that bullying was mentioned in several paragraphs of the article. Teachers are the most bullied group of all professions. Randi was not proactive with our concerns of the poor leadership in BTU. Again, we are not against unions, we are against ineffective, corrupt ones.

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