Teacher Engagement—How Important Is It To Our Work?

When I lived in D.C., a day did not go by that I didn’t listen to NPR and read the Washington Post.  And I would never think of beginning my week without listening to at least two or three Sunday morning shows. Now that I’m out of the rat race, I rarely find time to read the newspaper, much less listen to news radio. You can tell I’m catching up on my reading because I’m blogging about old New York Times articles. This week on my way to Seattle, I read a commentary in the Sunday Review called Why You Hate Work.  It caught my eye because I love my work. I have worked at the Gates Foundation for five years now, and each year there seems to be a new challenge or a new insight that keeps me engaged.

The article was all about engagement. Only 30 percent of Americans feel engaged at work. They define engagement as “involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort and energy.” When I think of teaching, I can’t imagine anyone who goes into teaching that doesn’t have those words in their mind. But something happens when teachers go to school, and the engagement can die off. What kills it for them?  I would venture to guess it’s something we call the “enabling environment”—a fancy way of saying working conditions. There are so many challenges that teachers deal with outside their classroom that don’t have anything to do with teaching Ariel how to read or Neo how to learn fractions.

I have spent my career trying to figure out how to make good teaching possible—what are the barriers and what are the highest leverage actions? I’ve been through the first standards movement, school-to-work, the accountability and assessment days, and now the relentless focus on college and career readiness. But what does engagement have to do with all these big “reforms?”  Teacher engagement in my view is not this “nice to have” afterthought.  It’s critical to innovation in schools and our only hope if we seek to get dramatic gains in student success. We’ve invested in tools that are designed to engage teachers in their craft and give them the opportunity to get real-time feedback on their teaching.  As the Foundation begins to think about scaling up some of its investments, you can bet that teacher engagement is going to be a core part of our work.

The real question is how to go beyond the places where we make investments and engage all 3.7 million teachers in a genuine conversation about how to improve their practice. While most teachers are always in “learning mode” and happy to talk about their practice, they have little time to connect, collaborate and design with other teachers. Teaching can be so isolating. How can we make it possible for teachers to share what they are doing and how they are doing it on a more regular basis? It’s definitely a problem worth solving if we want to make good on our promise to dramatically improve teaching and learning in our schools. Some of our partners are thinking deeply about this and so are we.

– C.