Thursday, February 22, 2018
Education

Teachers' survey details climate in Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — At MacFarlane Park Elementary, an international studies school where students are chosen by lottery, teachers feel empowered and parents are engaged.

At Van Buren Middle School, which serves low-income east Tampa, teachers don't believe the community supports them or that kids will behave.

At Plant City's Trapnell Elementary School, morale is terrific even though more than 90 percent of the children are poor enough to get free lunch.

These are among thousands of statistics found in Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning, a survey conducted for the first time this year at all Hillsborough public schools.

Done in collaboration with the California-based New Teacher Center, TELL measured attitudes on a wide range of issues, including how much time teachers have for planning and training and whether all those student test scores are put to good use.

More than 10,000 employees, mostly teachers, took the anonymous survey this spring. Results were closely held until principals could be shown how to interpret and explain the numbers to their staffs.

New Teacher Center, which has run similar surveys in other school districts, found the results impressive. When it came to teacher training and encouragement, "the district is doing phenomenally well," chief external affairs officer Eric Hirsch said.

For example:

• Ninety percent agreed teachers are encouraged to try new things to improve instruction.

• Eighty-five percent said the help they get improves teaching.

• Ninety-four percent felt teachers are held to high professional standards.

The less flattering results were not unlike those in other districts:

• Fifty percent said teachers have enough time to meet the needs of all students.

• Fifty-three percent said efforts are made to minimize the demands of routine paperwork.

• Fifty-two percent said teachers get enough non-teaching time in their work day.

The numbers, for some principals, came as a wake-up call.

Barbara Mercer of Philip Shore Elementary, a magnet school just south of Ybor City, was pleased that a higher-than-average number of her teachers felt they had enough noninstructional time.

"I do make it a priority to make sure they have time to plan together," she said.

She's addressing issues where the numbers were not so favorable. She's already working on ways to give teachers a more consistent schedule, and consistent training in how to manage classroom behavior.

Only 51 percent of her staff responded — just over the threshold for the results to be included. "But I still take the results seriously," she said.

Derrick Gaines, the new principal at Van Buren, said there is no hiding from negative numbers concerning morale and student discipline, and he intends to face those issues head-on.

"Obviously as leader of the school, everyone's input is important," Gaines said. "I've always been taught that what someone perceives you can't change."

He's setting aside time during the summer preplanning to discuss teachers' concerns. If they do not feel comfortable speaking in a large group, he'll meet with them one-on-one.

A major challenge is how to keep a close watch on suspensions without undermining teachers' need to maintain order. "There has to be that happy balance in the middle," he said, although he added, "at the end of the day, I am going to make sure that my teachers have the opportunities to teach."

Principals with favorable numbers described a variety of strategies that might have helped.

At MacFarlane Park, Denyse Riveiro plans her calendars well in advance to minimize the time teachers are taken away from their core duties.

She's a firm believer in bringing teachers, parents and students into the decision making process, and rewarding creativity.

"When you are hovering and micromanaging, teachers cannot do what they are trained to do and it interferes with children's learning," she said, "We've really worked on respecting each other as professionals."

At Trapnell, where 98 percent agreed that "my school is a good place to work and learn," principal Alan Black refused to take credit, as he is new to the job.

His office staff sets a positive and nurturing tone, he said.

"We're not an affluent community, but there is a lot of community buy-in," he said, "A lot of our PTA is our staff because a lot of our parents are not able to come during the day."

Black also said teachers respond to gestures of appreciation that can be as simple as administrators delivering coffee and doughnuts to them on a cart.

"It's a place where we don't have a lot of turnover," he said. "People are happy to be here. It's definitely got a great family feel."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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