Let’s Listen to Teacher Voices

Recently, some teachers shared on Twitter that they are still reluctant and uncomfortable about speaking up in meetings for fear of being called a troublemaker. Those words surprised and saddened me because these are teacher leaders who are respected and publicly acknowledged for their voices and their views. I could understand how they felt, though.

I know that as a teacher, I was not someone who spoke up in faculty meetings. If I had a question or a comment, I contemplated whether I should raise my hand. Often, as I looked around, I saw faces that told me the teachers were anxious to be out of there; they had other things to do, and if I asked a question or made a comment, it might mean another ten minutes or so before the meeting ended. So more often than not, I stayed silent. 

I realized, though, that if I had a question, my colleagues might have a similar question. Yet we were reluctant to speak up. We encourage our students to speak up if they have questions or concerns, but as teachers, we are often hesitant to do so ourselves. We are more likely to be honest in smaller venues, or as is often the case, in the parking lot after the meeting is over.

When I became a principal, I knew that I wanted teachers to feel comfortable about asking questions or sharing their thoughts. Here are some strategies I used to get them to feel comfortable:

  • Build relationships first; know your teachers so you can have casual conversations with them. They will feel more comfortable telling you what they really think of an idea or a proposal if they know you will understand their point of view. Our teachers knew that there were decisions we could not change, but sometimes, their concerns helped us to make revisions that would make implementation smoother.
  • Give teachers opportunities to meet and work with others who are not in their department or grade level. This is especially important with large faculties. We tried to start our meetings with an icebreaker or team building activity where teachers were able to talk story or work with someone they normally didn’t interact with. Starting out a meeting with a fun activity put people in a better mood after a sometimes-hectic day. 
  • We gave our staff an opportunity to share their viewpoints in small groups. We often started by having them discuss the same or similar questions before reconvening in the large group. There are many different ways to share ideas that are generated; we don’t have to take up time to have each group share out. Perhaps a spokesperson can share one big idea or concern they had. We could have groups write down ideas or responses to questions on Post-its which are then sorted into similar ideas. We could collect the group notes, summarize, and share with everyone. Or we could use a shared Google document where everyone recorded their ideas had access to. We can hear from more voices via small groups. 
  • Often when we go to workshops, meetings, or conferences, we are asked for feedback, but how honest are we? Do we add comments so the presenters could reflect on how they might improve their presentation? Or are we just checking off ratings that really don’t provide much information about how the audience truly felt? Whenever I asked teachers for feedback, I added a space for them to write their name and I asked open-ended questions. This was an opportunity for them to share any concerns or questions they had. If I wanted more feedback about their comment, they knew that I could have a conversation with them. The result was that our teachers were honest with their responses. I think they realized that we truly wanted to hear from them, and we took those questions and opinions into consideration when a final decision was made. 
As a principal, I wanted our staff to feel comfortable when discussing issues, especially those that could be controversial. I remember when we proposed going for accreditation at a time when it was not required for elementary schools in Hawaii. We knew it would take a lot of time and commitment, but after much sometimes-heated discussion, we decided to go for it. Everyone was visibly  proud  when we received a 6-year accreditation term. This would not have been possible without everyone’s buy-in and active participation, and even those who had been reluctant at first were visibly proud that they contributed to the  process. 

Much has been written recently about listening to student voices. We need to make time to listen to teacher voices as well.