Put Teachers First, So They Can Put Their Students First

September 3, 2019

By Jim Furman, Executive Director, The Danielson Group 

It’s hard for me to pass up a good Harvard Business Review article, and I have recently become a devotee of Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast. I also believe that attempts to apply the principles of successful businesses or other professions to teaching and schools have probably gone wrong more often than they’ve gone right. That said, I think we can learn from other professions and apply that knowledge where it makes sense, as long as we are careful not to turn it into the next big thing. 

While listening to an episode of WorkLife while on vacation recently (ironic, I know), I had another “What if we applied this idea to schools?” moment. The episode focused on emotional labor, excellent customer service, and the oft-heard mantra of “the customer comes first,” which has a striking similarity to “students first,” a decision-making guidepost that is common in schools and districts.

In one of the interviews, Danny Meyer, founder of Shake Shack, emphasizes the hospitality culture that he has focused on as a successful restaurateur: “If you really want to have the best customer experience, put your customers second.” The basic lesson: when you put employees first (ensure their satisfaction, create an environment that supports their well-being, treat them with kindness and compassion) they are better equipped and more likely to do the same for your customers. 

You can probably see where I’m going. What if, instead of having “students first” as a core value, districts made “teachers first” a core value? What if, instead of asking, “Is this what’s best for students?,” school leadership teams were asking, “Is this what’s best for our teachers?” What if putting teachers first was actually the best way to put students first? 

What would this mean exactly? First of all, it means acknowledging that we can’t expect teachers to do a job we know to be incredibly complex, intellectually demanding, and physically and emotionally exhausting without the resources and support they need to do it successfully. As many are pointing out, we can’t expect them to attend to the whole child unless their whole selves (personal and professional) are acknowledged and attended to in their work.

Where wouldwe start? Here are a few areas where we can make an impact: 

  • Time. Teachers need time to plan, reflect, and learn. Of course, schools and districts need tobuild schedules around student needs, but they also need to pay more attention to teacher needs. And it isn’t as simple as more planning time each week or more PD days. The time needs to be thoughtfully carved out and intentionally planned. What time do we give teachers, when do we give it to them, and, most importantly, what are the different purposes of the time we provide? 
  • Coherent, Engaging Professional Learning. We need to put the learning of teachers front and center – focus on elevating teaching by elevating the learning of teachers. Professional learning should begin at the classroom, teacher, and teacher team level. Rather than coming from the top down, structures and initiatives must be designed to support the needs of teachers and what we know about how they learn. In addition, until professional learning within a school supports teachers’ curiosity, their own need to be engaged learners, and a culture of collaboration and trust, we are unlikely to see significant improvement in the culture of learning for students in that school. We need to position teachers as problem solvers with their goals for students and their understanding of effective instructional practice as their guides.
  • Teacher Leadership and Teacher Teams. I am of course not the first to say it, but we need to do a better job of empowering teachers and giving them a measure of autonomy over their own learning and development. That’s what’s best for students and adults. They should be involved in decision-making at the school level and provide feedback and support to one another in teacher teams. We also need to focus on stability within these teams to build and support teams that last. Teacher turnover is a real problem, of course, but turnover in teams seems to occur at an even higher level. Teachers change grades and subjects and then the team is disrupted. In all my years of teaching, I never once had the exact same team two years in a row, and that was more often due to teacher movement within the building.
  • Curriculum and Instructional Materials. Too many teachers (especially new ones) lose sleep writing lesson plans. Districts and schools should provide high-quality instructional materials for teachers that allow them to focus on meeting the needs of the students in front of them. Let me be clear, I am not saying give teachers a script. In fact, I think nothing could be further from the value of putting teachers first. I’m saying, make sure that teachers have excellent materials that they can draw on and that will serve as the foundation of their teaching, allowing them to put their energy elsewhere. 
  • Educator Wellness. Just as the social and emotional needs of students are addressed in the most effective schools, the wellness of educators is a prerequisite to improvement. Their wellness is supported by addressing their social, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs; creating an environment that supports those needs; and providing opportunities for them to be creative and intellectually stimulated.

There are many other ways in which we could more intentionally put teachers first. At The Danielson Group, we are putting teachers first, so that they can put their students first. Among other things, we are refining our program model and creating blended models of support with a focus on using the Framework for Teaching within schools as the centerpiece of a holistic professional learning system.

The bottom line is that if we operate with teachers first as a value we will better equip them to put their students first. Whether it is named as one officially or not, putting students first is a core value of all the great teachers I’ve known. Those of us who support them should focus on creating the conditions that make it easier for them to live that value.