While keen to emphasise his utmost respect for teachers, prominent US school leader Dr Zach Groshell tells EducationHQ the culture around what it means to be a teacher has shifted significantly since he first entered the profession.
Back then, spurred on by great aspirations of being a ‘change agent’, Groshell would beat himself up if his students’ test scores weren’t as high as he thought they should be.
“I would put in extra hours on the weekend, in the evenings, to make sure that they were the way they were,” he says.
“We got into teaching because this was our calling. You know, we came in here to change lives.”
Post COVID, and in the midst of a chronic teacher shortage crisis, Groshell says that leaders are often afraid to place any more demands on their teachers.
“For us working in highly disadvantaged schools, it feels like a miracle to be able to fully staff a school. Every year, we start with five fewer teachers than we need … so it’s easy for leaders to develop an attitude that, ‘We’re just happy you’re here. We’re happy you made it. We’re happy we got someone’.”
Groshell recently shared this observation in a post on X:
I don't think we should allow the teaching shortage to be used as an excuse to lower expectations for ourselves. But it happens all the time: We can't ask teachers to use a new resource/monitor students/collaboratively plan, etc. because we should just be grateful anyone's here.— Zach Groshell (@MrZachG) February 4, 2024
He says it’s important to recognise, even when he hasn’t personally experienced it, that many teachers share serious concerns about being micromanaged in their role.
“It’s a terrible feeling to be micromanaged. Teachers want to be able to teach without feeling like their every move is being scrutinised,” he acknowledges.
“Of course, it’s equally clear to me that to be a professional means working together as a team. No definition of ‘professional’ means you have the right to do everything that you want to do.
“The best schools row the boat in the same direction. So, if we’re like, ‘at this school, we all have to stand in the hallways during transitions or the kids are going to punch each other,’ and 25 per cent of teachers say, ‘yeah, I’d rather be inside doing [something else]’ that will make it harder for the rest of us to maintain the safe hallways that kids deserve.
“But is that being micromanaged? Not by my definition.”
Putting off improvement
Groshell wants school leaders to put students at the centre of their decisions, which he says means accepting responsibility for student learning.
He worries that, in the backdrop of teacher shortages and challenging behaviour, that leaders are not doing what they are hired to do.
“I think it’s easy to say, ‘look, we’re all doing our best, we’re in a teacher shortage – making a move now is not a good idea. Putting a little bit of pressure on ourselves is not a good idea’.
“There’s always like a postponing of initiatives, postponing change, and people don’t like change in the first instance. But the kids can’t wait for us to be ready for them,” he explains.
Working together as a team and striving for better outcomes is not something that’s turning teachers away from the job, the educator warned.
“Student behaviour is driving us out of the profession, or silly initiatives that cause unnecessary workload … but the teachers who enjoy coming to work do so because they feel successful.
“So the leadership has to put in place measures that make everybody successful.”
‘Teachers do not feel safe’
Groshell says that in his context, poor student behaviour was the number one factor fuelling the teacher shortage.
“Until recently, teachers did not feel safe working in the school that I work at. Until we had an administrative change, a leadership change, they didn’t feel like they could expect [an intervention] response.
“Now we guarantee that any student that demonstrates unsafe or persistently disruptive behaviour can expect to be taken out of that environment and not returned with a pat on the back and a lollypop.
“When leaders support teachers by allowing them to teach, teachers are happier, teachers feel more effective, people feel more collegial.”
Even substitute teachers have returned to work at the school after avoiding it “for the longest time”, Groshell reports.
“We’ve made big, big, big changes. But if anyone leaves, it’s because they can go to an easier school where they can be certain they won’t have a pencil thrown at them while they’re talking, or expect a kid to film their teaching and put it on TikTok…”
“The first thing I think media could change right away would be to actually talk to teachers and ask them what they think,” Groshell says.
A strong supporter of Tom Bennett’s view on how schools should best tackle problem behaviour and create calm and orderly classrooms, Groshell says initiatives such as a national behaviour curriculum are a long way off from taking effect in the US.
“I don’t think [Bennett’s work] has reached here in the same way it’s reached Australia,” he says.
"And, of course, they have behaviour hubs in the UK, they have schools like Michaela and so on that are really being innovative.
“They’re pushing the boundaries of how strict or traditional or orderly can a school be. I don’t see that happening here at all. It’s just like the wild, wild west over here.”
Media coverage is worsening the situation
The media also bears some responsibility for their part in worsening the teacher shortfall, Groshell contends.
He says too many journalists seek out the views of academics in ivory towers which perpetuate a ‘romantic’ view of childhood – one that’s completely at odds with the day-to-day reality in classrooms.
“The first thing I think media could change right away would be to actually talk to teachers and ask them what they think, and that their voices are centred.
“Because really, the people who are best positioned to comment on how things are going in schools are those who work in them, right?”
Journalists themselves don’t ever have to face the consequences of their misguided and biased reporting either, the educator notes.
Rather, they avoid taking a ‘class-eye view’ of issues, and given they don’t work with children, they can easily harbour “luxury beliefs of what behaviour and discipline should be like,” he adds.
“They can believe that if you just gave Johnny a pencil, he won’t just throw it directly in the toilet – that if you briefly take a kid out of a classroom, it’s going to destroy them, but they don’t even give a passing thought to the 29 other kids that might have actually been deterred to not [behave poorly], but also can actually learn in peace inside of a classroom for a small amount of time.
“And so they can advocate for those things unintentionally, maybe their bias seeps into their work, and school leaders begin to feel pressured to create loose, non-punitive policies that ultimately end up making classrooms horrible for children, as well as for teachers.”
Where to from here?
As for the future of the teaching profession, Groshell says at least in the US the scene will remain a grim one unless evidence about what works best is cared about and behaviour is made a top priority.
Big change on the curriculum front is also crucial, he says.
“[We need] a curriculum that actually exists, and it’s not a slap job from a bunch of Pinterest and Google nonsense.
“Until we actually put together real curriculum resources or adopt ones that have already been proven to be effective, the US is going to continue to be whatever negative word you want – we’re not in the same place as Australia and the UK.”