Saturday, August 14, 2010

Teachers' Hierarchy of Needs

If you’ve been around education for very long or ever taken an educational psychology course, you’ve probably heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His theory, in a nutshell, contends that human beings have levels of basic needs, and until the needs at the lower levels are met, we don’t even feel the needs at the next level.

Teachers in my school district report back to duty for the new school year on Monday morning. As we have been making preparations for their return, I’ve been struck by the thought that educators also have a hierarchy of needs, and meeting the needs at certain levels is important if we want to set up teachers, and ultimately their students, for a successful school year. Certain basic needs must be met before teachers are even “aware of” or ready to move to the next level of planning for student learning.

Class Schedules, Rosters, and Gradebooks

Take, for example, class schedules, rosters, and gradebooks. Now, this might seem pretty obvious as a basic need. But you might not have a real idea of how having access to those lists is truly, truly essential for teachers to be able to mentally “move on” in preparing for the upcoming school year. You’ll catch an idea of that if you're ever involved in a new student information system implementation as we are now. The number one questions in my school district at the moment are “When will I get access to my gradebook?” and “Is the new gradebook/attendance/student information system easy to use?” Teachers need to know their schedules, the number of students they are going to have, and they just want to see the names of the young people who are going to be in their charge for the next year. Having those basic facts in front of them, and knowing they are going to be able to easily access data on their students, provides a sense of grounding. Once they have access to the information, they can focus more effectively on their next stage of planning.


When I was a classroom teacher you probably could not have given me enough time in the world to really get ready for the school year. And because I knew I wouldn’t have enough time, I spent “my own” time in the week prior to the official report-back date as well as late into the evenings during that first inservice week getting my classroom ready for my kids. It got even more complicated when Open House was moved to before the start of school. My classroom had to be ready for learning (or at least look ready for learning) before parents and students came to see it for the first time. So my focus in any unscheduled time I had was on the physical classroom with no brain cells free to think about the quality learning experiences I wanted to have with my students in those critical first days and weeks.

Sitting through meetings under those circumstances was torture. I tried my best to focus on the important information that was being communicated to me usually by my principal or department chair. Hard as I tried, I’m fairly certain I discovered the backchannel before I even knew there was a name for it. I had a “backchannel” conversation going on in my own head with myself for much of the time I was in those meetings, thinking of all the things I still needed to get done in the little precious time I had before the kids came. Later, when I became a campus technology facilitator and was given an hour each year of the teacher’s time to update them on technology resources on our campus, I tried really hard to keep things simple and to the point, giving them only the most important information – and handouts which covered in detail everything I was saying. I was fully aware that everyone in that room had a backchannel going on in their heads as well, even if they were making eye contact and nodding. The handout could be referenced later when they had settled into the year a bit. And I gave my best effort to not get frustrated when they came back later and asked me about something I knew I had covered in that meeting.

Those of us who are charged with sharing back-to-school information with teachers should keep all of this in mind. Yes we have agendas and important information, but does all of it have to be communicated NOW? Or in two solid days of meetings? Could we give teachers work time in the morning and meet in the afternoon? (They might listen better if they can knock some things off of their lists first.) Can some of it wait for the first few faculty meetings? Can some of it be communicated through email or a website or blog? If you think about it, you are wasting your own precious time as well if 50% of what you are covering isn’t making an impact because your audience is distracted. Be mindful of your teacher’s needs, focus only on what is of critical importance for getting school started, and then give them the valuable time they need to plan for quality instruction.

Being Valued and Encouraged as Professionals

“I am a professional educator and I am good at what I do.” I do not think we can reinforce this for teachers often enough. Teachers who are confident in themselves as professionals are going to approach teaching with more enthusiasm and be more open to new ideas that will help them grow in their practices. Teachers have plenty of opportunities to hear that they are not good enough – “The test scores were not where they needed to be at the end of last year.” “Here’s a new program/lesson delivery method/planning system and if you aren’t using it you are short-changing your students.” Implied in both of those types of messages is “You aren’t good enough because you aren’t doing ____________.”

I’m going to point the finger a bit at my own educational technology community and say that we can be very guilty of this whether we mean to or not in our excitement over the latest new technology tool or research. When sharing this information with teachers, we can easily come across as “If you aren’t using this tool/method/etc you are not giving students a quality education.” Do we honestly think they are not educating their students at all? I don’t think that. I know teachers who are behind the curve when it comes to technology but who are still giving their students excellent skills in their subject areas. Teachers whom those students love despite the reports that kids are turned off by having to “unplug” at school. I am, of course, an educational technology advocate. I recognize, however, that quality teaching existed before technology hit the classroom and as a result quality teachers from “BC” (before computers) still exist in our schools. And I’ll venture to say that just because you are using computers doesn’t mean you are teaching in a quality manner.

The bottom line is this: If you want to take those quality teachers, or even those ones who aren’t so “quality”, and help them develop into better teachers, you should to give them some strokes for the things they are doing well. And you should present your new idea/strategy/program as an opportunity to add a tool to their pedagogical tool belt to increase the learning that is already going on in their classrooms. Couching it this way helps increase the receptivity of the teachers to new approaches. The old saying “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” should be applied far more often in teacher professional development.

New Possibilities

In education we are fortunate to be able to make a new beginning every year. The start of school is the best time of the year in my opinion, because the possibilities are wide open. As administrators, department or grade level chairs, technology specialists, providers of professional development, or anyone who has anything to do with helping teachers launch a school year, I hope these thoughts on basic needs will help us frame the first experiences we are planning for our educators. Let's set them and their students up for success! Here’s to the possibilities that are before us…

All photos used with permission under Creative Commons License Agreements:
Teacher & Gradebook
Teacher & Student