Though we’re all working towards the same goal—providing students with a great K-12 education—teachers and administrators don’t always see eye to eye.
In a survey for EdWeek Research Center, K-12 teachers and administrators were asked to list the top three factors that keep teachers in their roles. The answers showed a disconnect: While school and district leaders listed positive school culture, love for students, and supportive administrators, teachers cited love for students, retirement benefits, and love for the subjects they teach.
Bridging the divide will require administrators to listen to their staff. In a Facebook Live panel from Teacher Appreciation Week in May 2022, for example, educators said they wanted better pay, more respect, more decision-making power, and more mental health resources.
The year’s end is a time of reflection for everyone, reminding us that our work as educators is never done. So, let’s explore: What do K-12 teachers really want from their schools?
Teachers Want Respect
“As a new teacher who has never taught outside this pandemic, it’s been interesting to say the least,” Samantha Twohig, a West Virginia middle school special education teacher, said during the Facebook Live panel. “It’s hard to do your job when you have different parties coming at you from every direction with different inputs […] and thinking they can do your job better than you can.”
It’s no secret that fallout from the pandemic is driving a mass exodus from the K-12 education profession. Teacher turnover is on the rise. While sources vary, turnover averaged between 8% and 16% nationwide before the pandemic. Now, anywhere from 25% to 54% of educators are considering leaving.
There are a lot of reasons teachers feel overwhelmed. Generally, big class sizes, declining mental health, and more administration has made teaching harder, while teachers feel they get less respect than they deserve. Many say they are demotivated by the lack of resources and compensation.
When asked during the same panel what kind of support teachers need most, Kevin Adams, a Colorado middle and high school social studies teacher, said, “Fully fund education. Funding is critical. If we care about something we put money into it.
“You can show me you appreciate me by treating me with professional respect and understanding that I really am good at what I do […] And the last thing, show me with that paycheck.”
Teachers Want More Pay
Teaching is a passion for many educators. Akilah Williams, a 5th grade teacher in Georgia, told EdWeek, “The students are what keep me here [...] It’s the students’ faces, it’s their excitement to learn.”
Today, this passion should not be taken for granted. It’s increasingly waning in the face of low salaries, as teachers weigh other options.
In the 2020-2021 school year, the average starting teacher salary was $41,770, reflecting gains of 1.4% over 2019-2020. When adjusted for inflation, however, the salary represents a 4% decrease from 2019-2020. Starting teacher salaries are now at their lowest level since the Great Depression. (It’s worth mentioning that there are large differences between states like California and New York compared to Colorado and Arkansas, where schools are more likely to be under-resourced.)
When asked, the majority of teachers (57%) said raising salaries was the top action administrators could take to keep them from leaving. A similar number of administrators agreed this was important.
Pay increases can literally pay off, allowing schools to retain teachers longer and reducing stress for administrators, teachers, and students by extension. Some teachers may get their wish, with states like Florida and Mississippi beginning to offer a higher salary to attract more teachers to their districts.
Teachers Want Strong Resources
“The way to a teacher's heart is through school supplies!” we’ve known a teacher or two to say.
Teachers spend an average of $750 out-of-pocket on their classroom needs. This tells us two things off the bat: Teachers care about creating the best experience for their students. They also have to cut into their personal funds to provide it—another way low pay acts as a stress on teachers.
Even before the pandemic, teachers were struggling to create the classroom that would best aid their students’ learning.
EdWeek asked teachers to say how they would improve their classroom if money were no object, and answers varied. Many wanted books. Some wanted subject-specific resources, like new instrument cases for a music teacher. Others mentioned flexible or collaborative seating options, like collaborative desks, a kidney table, standing desks, or bean bag chairs.
Now that school is firmly back in session after the pandemic, it’s important to help K-12 students feel cheerful, safe, and well-resourced. An adaptable classroom environment can help kids work with others, aid their learning the way they do best, and get the physical movement they need to keep their brains functioning at their best.
Teachers Want Support — and Fewer Administrative Burdens
To say the least, educators have had a time of it the last couple of years, which required rapid adaptation to uncertain and ever-changing circumstances. Now, teachers are dealing with learning loss and behavioral issues that are a holdover from the pandemic.
On top of the increased workload and risk of burnout, teachers need to manage their own mental health so they can stay in control of their classrooms and give their students the quality education they deserve.
Administrative needs like paperwork and meetings are increasing the pressure on teachers. When asked what district and schools leaders can do to keep teachers from leaving, 43% of teachers said slashing this admin, which teachers see as a burden, would help.
These burdens may contribute to the feeling that teachers don’t feel supported by administrators—for example, only 11% of teachers said that teachers stay because of supportive administrators, compared to 35% of principals. Virginia agriculture teacher and coach Howard Hill said, “I’ve always told people […] if I did not have to deal with administration and just have my students, I would stay in teaching for a lifetime.”
Nation-wide staff shortages are also a stressor on teachers, who have had to substitute for sick or missing coworkers and cater to increasing class sizes. This is one place that teachers and administrators agree: 31% of each said that reducing class sizes would help retain more teachers.
The takeaway? Administrators should do their best to “unblock” teachers, i.e. to remove obstacles and allow teachers to do their best work.
Some administrators have successfully set up support mechanisms for teachers using funds from the American Rescue Plan. This includes collaborations and mentorships among staff, mental health resources, and additional learning hours and tutoring programs for kids who are falling behind.
Though the worst of the pandemic is over, this support—and empathy—for teachers should continue.
Provide Teachers with the Support They Need
In the face of a national teacher shortage, you can still attract the qualified and enthusiastic educators you need to fill vacancies and support your valued staff.