By Louis Dzierzak

For educators, job satisfaction transcends money and makes good sense

The broader discourse surrounding public education is increasingly contentious. Taxpayer frustrations regarding repeated referendums, anxieties over class sizes, and headlines bemoaning low test scores are frequent talking points on op-ed pages and at school board meetings across Minnesota. And like many of today’s civic issues, debate about the best way to make systematic improvements gets bogged down in bitter disagreements over causality and cost.

Currently, teacher salaries are front and center as the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, both facing budget shortfalls, embark on what looks to be another round of antagonistic contract negotiations. What’s likely to get short shrift in these talks, and will most certainly not be a subject of wider consideration in the accompanying media coverage, is a nuanced discussion about how teachers’ job descriptions have expanded as resources have dwindled. Or what it might take, along with competitive wages, to ensure that the most talented and dedicated teachers stay engaged in the profession.

“Educators are engaged in this profession spiritually, emotionally, physically, personally, and professionally,” says Nate Eklund, author of How Was Your Day at School? Improving Dialogue About Teacher Job Satisfaction. “They are collaboratively helping to raise other people’s kids. It’s possibly the most volatile environment you can work in. Even on the best day, in the most supportive environment, it’s unpredictable.”

Data in the 2017 Report of Teacher Supply and Demand in Minnesota’s Public Schools show that the number of teachers leaving their positions has increased 46 percent since the 2008–09 school year. The average number of teachers who abandon the lectern after one year is 15.1 percent, and 25.9 percent walk away after just 3 years.

“Public perceptions of the job have plummeted so far [that] fewer college students are pursuing a career in teaching,” the report concludes. “The job itself is far more difficult than it was 30 years ago, with raised expectations and no real investment in supporting and developing those that choose to do it. This reality means we have a much smaller pool of teachers to choose from. The profession needs to be viewed as an honorable profession in public discourse.”

Nate Eklund, author of How Was Your Day at School? Improving Dialogue About Teacher Job Satisfaction (photo: Michael Dvorak)

To help school districts attract and retain talent, and thereby achieve better outcomes for students, Eklund founded an eponymously named consulting group. The centerpiece of the organization’s work is the School Workplace Satisfaction Survey, which creates an intimate portrait of a school’s culture and measures each teacher’s level of job satisfaction. Employees engage in a personal inventory, answering questions like Do you feel valued and respected by your students? The administration? Your peers? And they’re also invited to honestly evaluate the institution where they work. Does it support collegiality? Does it take feedback seriously? Are expectations clearly communicated?

Eklund has used the tool in more than 300 schools across the nation since 2010, and a few trends have emerged. The most notable is that a majority of teachers overwhelmingly agree with the statement “I believe teaching is an important job.” But the question “Would I recommend education as a field to young people?” receives limited support.

Lynn Krepp, a senior vice president at the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit focused on increasing teachers’ job satisfaction, explains the discrepancy. “A major influence in becoming a teacher is having an impact on the next generation. Teachers want to make a difference in the lives of children and have a positive influence in society. There’s no other role like it,” she says. “But when teachers don’t feel successful, when they don’t see student achievement and don’t feel supported, and when they feel like they are alone and fighting an uphill battle, that’s when they leave the profession.”

“Teachers want to hear about mentoring, professional development, and opportunities for collaboration. They want to make sure they are coming into a trusting and supportive environment.”

Data that Eklund has collected suggest that as school districts compete to hire teachers for their schools, salary should only be one part of the pitch. Work-environment issues like administrative support, professional development, and mentoring are becoming more influential. “People don’t go into teaching for the money,” says Monica Schroeder, an assistant superintendent at North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Illinois. “The more that we can show people that we are going to support them to achieve their goals, the better off we will be.”

An all-too-common symptom of an unhealthy work environment is teacher burnout, which not only leads to attrition but, perhaps more than any other human resources issue, impacts students in the classroom. Emotional exhaustion can make it harder for educators to empathize with kids, parents, and peers. This inevitably creates an environment where the adults in the room might begin to blame the kids they’ve been hired to help for their job frustrations. Ultimately, some teachers either check out entirely or begin acting out.

Eklund’s mission is to combat this cycle. His survey gives staff members, who are often hesitant to admit their exhaustion, a chance to give honest feedback to their superiors. And then protocols are put in place to bring teachers, administrators, and support staff together to talk about everything from time management to institutional values.

This methodology is in tune with what young teachers are telling prospective employers. Improved communication and resources for professional development have moved to the top of teachers’ checklists for accepting their first job or moving to a new school district. “Teaching can be a very lonely profession,” Schroeder explains. “New teachers want to hear about mentoring, professional development, and opportunities for collaboration. They want to make sure they are coming into a trusting and supportive environment.”

One of the most effective and accessible ways for school districts to improve working conditions is to provide opportunities for mentorship, both formal and informal. Sometimes giving colleagues a free period in the middle of the day does wonders. Other times, a more formal program is warranted. Whatever the case, when employees are given the time and encouragement to co-plan curriculum, co-create strategies for tough students, and just generally bounce ideas off each other, they report higher levels of job satisfaction and their employers benefit from higher rates of retention.

“It’s not just a buddy person there for emotional support. It’s someone who is there to help that teacher think about what they are doing instructionally,” Krepp says. “Teachers who stay have mentors who have received professional training, [mentors] who have tools and protocols to formatively help them assess and build their [own] practices.”

Experience also tells Krepp and Eklund that a supportive culture works best when it starts from the top. This includes having superintendents and principals that set a common vision and then reach out to staff for feedback. It also helps if everyone involved can accept criticism and always keep in mind that improved student achievement is the end goal. “You can’t just say let’s all get along and be nice. You have to enact that with supporting structures, coaching, and feedback to help people live in that vision,” Krepp says.

“We’re not going to buy ourselves out of the problem,” concludes Eklund, who joshes that he won’t rest until a magazine like Minnesota Monthly names a public school one of the Top 20 Employers in the Twin Cities. “Increasing salaries is not a monolithic lever that we can pull that will transform schools as workplaces. The question is How do we create and support a healthy environment where school districts actively compete to be better places to work?”

LOUIS DZIERZAK is a full-time freelance writer living in Richfield, Minnesota. Raising four children, he always has education-related issues top of mind.