Teacher wages, workload, morale and student attitude have been identified as major challenges for Tennessee’s educational system.
A September survey by Professional Educators of Tennessee received hundreds of responses from educators rating 28 specific issues as either very challenging, challenging, somewhat challenging, not challenging or unsure.
Workload and wages were at the top of the list of very challenging concerns, coming in at 92.3% and 83.2%, respectively.
“For a lot of teachers, the increased workload is becoming unmanageable,” J.C. Bowman, executive director of the nonprofit representing teachers, said.
Teacher morale was also at the top with 77.5% of respondents rating the issue challenging or very challenging. Teacher morale was listed as the top concern in 2021. Student family environment was rated challenging or very challenging by 77.4%.
Loudon County Schools is addressing the issues rated as very challenging, Mike Garren, director of schools, said.
Teacher pay has long been an issue in Tennessee and across the country. Schools have had to make adjustments to attract and retain the best teachers, Garren said.
Salary compensation has been a top priority for the district and will continue to be, he said.
“The prior two years we have given 2% raises to teachers and last year we were able to give a 4% raise,” he said.
Teachers are in high demand, which makes staffing schools difficult, Garren said.
“I don’t foresee our ability to staff schools in the near future improving, so salary increases are a necessity,” he said.
Increases in pay are needed to be competitive with other districts in the region.
“There are several higher-paying districts in our area, and we will need to continue to work on our salary schedule in order to be competitive,” Garren said.
Concerns about workload seem to go hand in hand with concerns about pay.
“As far as teacher workload, the district tries to limit as much as possible external requirements on teachers,” Garren said. “I believe our school system has developed a family like environment where everyone knows they are appreciated and valued.”
A lot of the burden for maintaining teacher morale falls on principals and administrators, he said.
“Our principals are constantly providing reinforcement and incentives to teachers to show their appreciation for their hard work,” Garren said.
Most schools have a social committee that organizes activities for teachers to create a sense of family.
“As a district, we try to recognize teachers for their dedication and value their contribution to the system,” he said.
Special events are also a part of maintaining and improving morale. Following the pandemic, district leadership made a targeted effort to reach out to teachers and staff at every school.
“We began traveling from school to school and doing cookouts for the staff in the fall and spring, which is a small token, but allows us to show our appreciation,” Garren said. “I believe we have the most professional, caring and dedicated staff in the state.”
Melissa Browder, who represents District 5 on the Loudon County Board of Education, said the school system is working to build morale.
“(Parent Teacher Organization) groups plan several events per year to show appreciation for teachers and staff,” Browder said. “My observation during these events has been such a positive experience. I have watched teachers, parents and students work together as a team and more like a family who respect and enjoy each other.
“I participated in the ‘appreciation’ cookouts that were provided for teachers and staff by our leadership team,” she added. “Every person who came by to get a hot dog or hamburger looked us in the eye and commented on how much they appreciated it.”
Browder said those types of gestures coupled with raises for teachers, hiring additional staff, classroom support for student behavior and a sense of family/team spirit all help boost morale.
“The recruitment and retention of teachers is a primary focus as we strive for Loudon County Schools to have the brightest, best and more caring teachers,” she said. “I am encouraged by the foundation that is already established in our great schools and look forward to building on that success.”
Bowman said smaller districts seem to do better with teacher morale. Larger districts, such as those in Nashville, are experiencing such rapid growth it is difficult to maintain contact between the teachers and district, he said.
Student attitude and student discipline were near the top of challenges in the survey, with 82.9% and 79%, respectively, listing the issue as very challenging.
Student attitude is also an area the local district identified. More staff — primarily social workers — has been added to help address student attitude and assist families.
“In general though, if students feel they are cared for by their teachers and we have engaging instruction then students will rise to the challenge,” Bowman said.
Bowman said much of the responsibility for student attitude and discipline has to go back to parents and home environment.
“A lot of it is about learning to respect teachers,” he said.
He emphasized the importance of administration backing up teachers when suspending students or taking other disciplinary action.
Other issues educators described as challenging included time management, class size, federal rules and regulations, literacy, student poverty, learning differences, school funding, getting sufficient resources, curriculum, state standards, bullying, school safety, district support and student health.
Compared to previous surveys, there appears to be much less concern regarding technology available to students and teachers. There has been a lot of federal funding for hardware and software in the classroom, particularly in connection with the pandemic, Bowman said.
An area of continued concern is access to the internet, he said, where rural areas are particularly disadvantaged regarding access.