Sunday, November 16, 2008

Job descriptions

Periodically one or another of the independent school teaching listservs and networks will light up with queries about job descriptions. Sometimes these are quite specific; someone at a school will want to know about the title and responsibilities of his or her counterparts at other schools. Occasionally the queries are about structure, accountability, and reporting status.

About once a year, however, the question is more general, relating to the nature of a "full-time job" description--how many classes, how many students, how many hours, how many extracurricular responsibilities? The inquirer may have been commissioned to survey the field, or perhaps he or she is taking it upon himself or herself to find answers.

Those who have been through a full-blown discussion of this at their own schools will recognize in the question a generalized anxiety that goes well beyond "job descriptions." No one asks this question out of idle curiosity; there is almost always something deeper, and more difficult at stake.

Working from a fairly small sample of schools I've worked in, colleagues' schools, and schools where I've been asked to speak about professional culture, my observation is that these discussions grow out of a certain sense or undefined worry that responsibilities and rewards at the school are not evenly distributed. Often, it seems that conversations about these issues arise fairly early in a time of institutional transition: a change of leadership, the announcement of a new initiative, or a sudden economic downturn.

Even the most carefully managed and comprehensible changes in many schools create uncertainty. Whether teachers are inherently skittish and conservative or whether the traditional isolation of classroom teaching creates its own kind of solipsistic anxiety--I tend to favor the latter explanation--teachers, like cubicle dwellers or prairie dogs (the comparison has been around for a while), react to the winds of change by popping their heads up and nervously sniffing the air to assess their own situation vis-a-vis their peers.

Concern in the face of change is not unreasonable. Will the new leaders appreciate me? Will they favor someone else? Will they understand what I do, and why? Will they recognize and reward my work as has been done in the past? Will I be able to adapt and fit into the new kind of work I am being asked to do? Will my position survive in hard times?

What begins as individual concern, however, can snowball into something corrosive in the presence of more serious concerns. Has the previous administration played favorites in a way that is likely to be undone or--worse--sustained by the new arrivals? Are there unspoken rivalries and resentments within the school community--between divisions, or departments, for example--that have people suddenly asking those "will I be valued" questions in terms of "them versus us"? Are there real or imagined systemic inequities that are part of the shared experience of the teaching faculty? Are their programs or positions that don't appear to justify their existence as programmatic "value added"?

The change, whatever its nature, thus creates an environment in which faculties may display some of their least admirable traits: mistrust, self-protection, and resistance. Even with relatively cool and rational teacher-leaders in the vanguard, the pressure to explore "job description" in an atmosphere of fear or mistrust is generally too strong to be resisted, and thus the queries begin.

Of course, the real question at the heart of the matter is, Are all teachers at our school acknowledged and valued equally for the hard work they have been doing, and will equity be a hallmark of the new regime or new system? Corollaries include, Will existing areas of relative unfairness be corrected? and, Is my continued employment, assuming I continue to do all that I am asked to do, going to be assured?

For administrators, these conversations, vexing and acrimonious as they can be, should be regarded as golden opportunities to respond to teachers' concerns proactively. If salaries and their determination have historically been a mystery or a closely guarded secret, there might never be a better time to engage faculty in developing a scale of some sort. If a new administration discovers inequities, a rapid effort to remedy these will be much appreciated. If a new initiative might conceivably have serious repercussions for some teachers, then serious efforts must be made to mitigate these where possible, perhaps through professional development, or at least to make clear the real nature of the issue. If tough times may indeed force cutbacks, make clear the risks and the ways in which staff reductions will be determined.

The trick, I think, is for administrators to help faculties get beyond issues like class loads and minutes spent leading clubs or coaching teams. I like to think that at most schools, and certainly virtually all good and happy ones, there is essentially just one "job description": teachers arrive in the morning, work hard all day in the service of students and the school's mission, and go home in the evening, even when home is a dormitory; dorm work is part of the job description for many independent school teachers, and they are compensated for this work in some way. Good and happy schools make certain that equal contribution is rewarded by equal compensation. (Schools are not rich, and sometimes the coin of the realm in faculty compensation is not take-home cash but rather benefits--housing, insurance, and even time.)

I would observe here that there is a slippery slope for schools in the establishment of compensation programs that use elaborate systems of points or stipends to "reward" teachers. Along with headaches for those charged with managing such systems, they also create and enshrine invidious comparisons. My suspicion is that not a few of such programs were born of "job description" kerfluffles in times of institutional stress or change; whether there is a way to reel them in to be replaced by more globally systems, I do not know, but I think it would be hard, even if the end result would be a more congenial professional culture.

In 2007 NAIS undertook a survey on teacher satisfaction. In the results (available to members here) there is a strong correlation in the areas of both compensation and professional culture that is based on a few basic things that make teachers happy. Key factors, not surprisingly, are

  • Transparency in decision-making
  • Involvement of teachers in both general decision-making and the design of compensation and benefit programs
  • Clear communication within the school, including of course but not limited to that between administration and teachers
  • Visibility of the school's leadership in the professional world of faculty
  • Recognition and appreciation of effective work
  • Opportunities for authentic growth
Administrators focused on creating or maintaining the "good and happy school" to which I have made reference understand these matters, and not just in the abstract. This school will already have in place a clear and consistently applied system of professional evaluation based on clear and well understood standards for effective teaching. It will be clear and consistent in the way that decisions are made and communicated, and there will be great opportunities for all teachers to learn and grow as professionals and as adults. Everyone will appreciate the efforts of everyone else and understand that each colleague, peer and administrator alike, is doing his or her best work, all the time, in a positive and productive atmosphere. It's not about job descriptions, but about the work.

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