If there’s one thing students teach us, it’s the value of being heard.
When students feel like they are heard—like they matter—they tend to be more open, more trusting, and more willing to contribute. The same is true for teachers, especially when it comes to their input about decisions that affect their day-to-day work.
Imagine the following scenario: In the flurry inherent to a normal school day, a teacher receives a memo about a change in attendance-taking procedures. He vaguely remembers that something related to this was mentioned in a faculty meeting last year, but this is the first time he had heard of anything happening since. Given the stress and pace of a school day, figuring out the new system adds to his mental load. Without pausing to think, he speaks aloud in the faculty room: “What is this? Why am I just hearing about this? I don’t have time for this!” At this point, the quality of the policy in question almost doesn’t matter. Even if the new attendance-taking procedure is an improvement, the teacher feels excluded from it.
This type of story likely feels familiar. Indeed, a 2016 Center on Education Policy (CEP) study found that nearly half of surveyed teachers reported that their input is not considered in schoolwide decisions and that they feel frustrated and excluded. The study links low levels of teacher voice with job dissatisfaction, pointing to 57 percent of teachers who are considering transferring to another school and 52 percent leaving the field altogether.
Our experiences are consistent with the findings of the CEP survey. We are teacher-leaders at independent schools across the country and student researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College, studying school leadership. We formed a research group because of a common concern: How are teachers supposed to feel committed to organization-wide decisions if the administration does not seek their input?
We have all heard stories about negative feelings that surfaced among the faculty as a result of not being asked for input, particularly regarding decisions that directly affect classroom instruction. Often, these negative feelings stem from the teacher’s perceived lack of voice, and ultimately lead to a break in trust between faculty and the administration that adversely affects school culture. So why don’t administrators seek input from teachers, especially if it means creating a more invested community? And how much do faculty want? How much is truly possible? While it sounds easy enough to suggest that administrators ask faculty for their opinions and suggestions before making a school-related decision, the reality is not so simple.
Our shared curiosity led us to design a study of faculty voice, defined as “the ability for teachers to contribute their ideas and opinions about problems or decisions facing school communities.” We first conducted a pilot study in October 2015 at four independent schools across the United States to find out how much perceived faculty voice contributed to teacher job satisfaction.
We designed a questionnaire drawn from the 1999-2000 “Schools and Staffing Survey” (SASS) and the 2013 “Teaching and Learning International Study” by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The 271 faculty members who completed the survey provided us with strong, statistically significant evidence that faculty perception of “voice” positively influences job satisfaction for both part-time and full-time faculty.
Based on the demographic information collected, we also found that: Male teachers have a higher perception of voice than female teachers; administrators have higher levels of job satisfaction than teachers; and faculty who have worked three to five years in their current schools experience the lowest levels of job satisfaction, while those who have worked more than 20 years in their current schools experience the highest job satisfaction.
Wanting to understand more about the concept of voice and its influence on job satisfaction, we convened two focus groups in July 2016—one for independent school faculty and one for independent school administrators. The goal of these focus groups was to further investigate the appropriateness of our definition for “faculty voice” and to examine what conditions invite faculty voice, how important faculty voice is to leadership decisions in schools, and how important faculty voice may be to job satisfaction. The first focus group was composed of five teachers, and the second of eight administrators, all of whom were volunteers from the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership at Teachers College at Columbia University.
After coding and analyzing the focus group interview transcripts, we identified three areas that appear to matter to both teachers and administrators regarding faculty voice: impact; transparency and fairness; and issues. Faculty and administrators, however, revealed distinct—and sometimes opposing—perspectives about how they view faculty voice in these areas.
Faculty Members Say:
° Impact matters.
As teachers, we care not only about having a voice, but also that our voice has impact. We have firsthand experience regarding what works in the classroom, and we care about our voices being genuinely solicited and heard. We start to care less about offering our opinions when it seems like the asking is a mere formality. For example, we feel frustrated when administrators present an idea, solicit our input, but then ignore the feedback we provide. It can often feel like you are running a PR campaign. We understand that decisions cannot always go our way, but we want to see how our input is considered in your final decision.
° Transparency and fairness matter. We also care about the way in which you seek out our input. Although we appreciate your stated accessibility, we prefer a formal and consistent process that solicits faculty voice over an “open door” policy. Discussing faculty survey data with us, publishing administrative meeting minutes, and establishing relevant faculty committees are some ways to help facilitate transparency. In the absence of this, we start to worry that you only seek feedback from your favorite teachers or that we will be judged if we “go against you.” Having a clear structure for soliciting voice helps allay these fears.
° Issues matter. Although voice matters, we do not expect to influence every issue. We understand that some issues require top-down decisions and that schools cannot function if you are constantly gathering input from teachers. We do, however, want our voices heard regarding issues that impact our day-to-day job responsibilities and the lives of our students: issues such as curriculum changes, changes in exam format, student discipline, and scheduling. Though some issues, such as the procedure for taking attendance, might seem like a minute detail, it is a change that affects our daily jobs and should involve teacher input.
° Impact does matter. However, time limits and privacy concerns make it difficult to solicit and apply faculty input: Some decisions need to be made too quickly to afford greater consultation or contain details that cannot be shared with a wider audience. We are frustrated by the perception that we do not care and that, despite our best intentions, faculty still feel unheard. We prefer to consult faculty whenever issues directly impact them, but decisions will not always go in the way faculty may hope. If we do solicit your (faculty) input but decide against your suggestion, know that we have carefully considered your ideas, but in the end another solution proved best. If time and space allow, we’d be happy to acknowledge your ideas and explain our choice in person.
° Transparency and fairness also matter. We believe that transparency and fairness are the key to building trust. Our ability to be fully transparent, however, depends on a number of factors, some of which are out of our control. For instance, there are times when we need to protect sensitive information related to financial or budgetary restrictions that are involved in big decisions like hiring, contracting, or building maintenance. Other times, the information we are working with is changing rapidly; sharing incomplete information is both inefficient and disconcerting.
When it comes to fairness, we try to be as open and consistent as possible in the ways in which we solicit feedback. Our office doors are open for you to voice your opinions. Other methods, like sending out frequent surveys or asking for input at faculty meetings, have proved to frustrate some faculty as it seems not all faculty want to be involved in decisions. Some are passionate about being in the know, while others give us the clear message that they want to focus on their teaching. This makes knowing how to be transparent and fair in the solicitation and inclusion of faculty voice even more challenging.
° Issues indeed matter. We know that you like to be involved when decisions impact your daily lives in the classroom. However, anticipating which issues outside of the classroom that faculty care about having a voice in is hard. In all things, we are trying to balance inclusivity with efficiency. Frustration arises when we assume faculty would not care about a non-classroom related decision, only to find out that many of you are frustrated for not having been consulted. Teacher personalities, tenure at the school, individual interests, and other reasons all vary from one teacher to another.
Tying it Together
Although these conversations present groups that still appear to be at odds, both sets of focus groups had constructive ideas for how leaders can bridge the communication gap and allow for faculty to have active roles in decision-making.
1 Communicate, communicate, communicate. Faculty advise leaders to analyze their intent before asking faculty for input: Do they actually want to include teacher opinions? If leaders don’t want—or cannot—include teacher input into certain decisions such as legal, personnel, or admissions, they would be better served by not asking and by communicating clearly with faculty up front as to why their input would not be included.
When faculty input is needed, administrators should have a clear process for soliciting it. The idea of being able to speak up when someone has an idea can be intimidating, especially for teachers who are new to a school or when there are more “powerful” presences in the room. Take the attendance policy change from the beginning of this article for example. Administrators might consider introducing the proposed changes in a meeting, explain why the changes seem necessary and allow time for questions. Before closing the meeting, administrators could inform faculty that a survey will be sent to gather their input and state how they will be making the decision: Will the input merely influence the choice or will it drive the choice? Once input is gathered, administrators need to give updates on the process, possibly through an email or quick announcement in a faculty meeting about where administration stands on the decision. Administrators might want to share with faculty in person the reasons behind the decision as well so that the faculty will not create their own narrative as to why the decision was made. Even better, administrators can offer faculty trainings on the new attendance procedures.
2 Provide opportunities for faculty to have meaningful impact. When an issue directly relates to the day-to-day life of faculty, it is essential to allow faculty to have a say, regardless of the scale of the decision. For example, faculty can be enlisted to test out new attendance procedures and report back their findings. Or if the school is considering a larger change, such as changing learning management systems, it might be beneficial to form small faculty subcommittees who will present their research and findings to the faculty as a whole. By enlisting volunteers to research options, administrators welcome voice and provide an avenue for faculty to have a visible impact. While prototyping and forming subcommittees will take more time, increasing faculty understanding and buy-in will make the extra time worthwhile.
3 Build trust. Leaders who empower teachers to participate in school decisions are likely to be perceived as inclusive and collaborative. Accessible leaders may visit teachers and departments, have regular town hall meetings, or send regular feedback surveys—this way, school leaders will foster the culture that promotes honest feedback and encourages faculty to communicate.
Administrators cannot approach faculty only when they need their opinion. Rather, administrators will learn more about how their faculty feel if they keep learning as their daily goal, even when not faced with a decision. Administrators might consider conducting consistent, casual interviews, to ask open-ended questions like “How are things going?” By taking the time to listen and discover how faculty are feeling, they will create a natural, regular flow of communication. Leaders who are present make faculty feel more comfortable to share ideas and give genuine feedback without the fear of being judged. Proactive visits with aculty, in addition to a passive
open door policy, will go a long way to build trusting relationships with faculty members.
These trusting relationships have another helpful effect: Faculty will be more likely to understand if decisions don’t reflect their voice, and administrators will have a clear picture of faculty mindsets and accordingly, the climate of the school.
Speaking as new school leaders, we found that conducting this research was formative. Collecting data, both quantitative and qualitative, not only confirmed the importance of faculty voice theoretically, but also imprinted upon our future adminstrator paths. Our recent experiences as faculty yearning to be included in decisions is still fresh. Thus hearing the experiences of other faculty members felt familiar and confirmed our desire to study faculty voice. On the other hand, it was just as important for us to hear the administrator experience. As we begin our leadership journeys, we will have a rich, balanced data set to draw upon: the faculty perspective blended with the experience of seasoned administrators. We also learned that a leader’s ability to effectively facilitate faculty voice impacts school climate. Overall our research experience outlined a leadership mantra: A consistent flow of communication fosters trust between faculty and administrators, and that trust facilitates faculty voice and a positive school culture.