Monday, December 17, 2012

What about teacher engagement?

In Todd Whitaker's parable, The Ball, teacher Annie Erickson realizes she has forgotten what is most important to her in her work. She realizes she is not connecting with her students, and she recognizes the students are not invested in the work she creates for them.
"When I first started teaching," she began, "I loved coming to school every day. Every aspect of my work was fun. I especially loved teaching students about life, and I tried to bring that into the  classroom whenever I could. We had some wonderful lessons. 
"But the best part of the day for me didn't take place in the classroom at all. It was recess! It wasn't that I wanted a break from teaching. I just loved going outside with the children to play...I loved interacting with my students."
While participating in a discussion about this book with colleagues recently, I recognized that what Annie was describing in the parable relates to the psychological needs we all have to feel autonomous, competent, and emotionally connected to others in our work. Ms. Erickson was talking about the elements of self-determination that predict engagement, especially the need for relatedness. Ms. Erickson seemed to no longer be engaged. 

While Annie Erickson's description of her problem reflected issues related to all the needs addressed by self-determination theory (the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness), her greatest regret seemed to be what she perceived as a diminishing personal relationship between herself and her students.

A study published this year in the Journal of Educational Psychology sought to understand the influence of relatedness with colleagues and relatedness with students on teacher engagement. The authors, believing that teaching is unique among professions due to its reliance on the establishment of "long-term, meaningful connections with the 'clients' of the work environment" because of the amount time they spend with students each day, conducted three related experiments analyzing teachers' relatedness with their colleagues and teachers' relatedness with their students.

The authors found that autonomy support (climates in which principals encourage teacher empowerment) was positively related to teacher's relatedness with colleagues and students. Furthermore, all three experiments, using three different measures, found relatedness with students was a significant predictor of workplace engagement among teachers and facilitated higher levels of enjoyment and lower levels of anxiety, anger, and emotional exhaustion among teachers. Also, it was the connection with students rather than with colleagues that was more strongly associated with teacher engagement. These results were true among both elementary and secondary teachers.

The idea that teacher engagement can be enhanced by their connections with students is not surprising and is found throughout the research. However, in addition to losing focus on connecting with her students, Annie Erickson expressed frustration with greater demands on her time due to school, district, and state mandates. She had lost a sense of autonomy in her work. The idea that autonomy support is strongly correlated with relatedness between teachers and students is new in the research and, if true, has implications for those designing the various systems of educational workplace environments, since the research also shows that the relationship between teachers and students is the most significant factor in student learning once students enter the school building.

  • Klassen, R., Frenzle, A., & Perry, N. (2012). Teachers' relatedness with students: An underemphasized component of teacher' basic psychological needs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(1), 150-165.
  • Whitaker, T. (2010). The Ball. Bloomington, IN: Triple Nickle Press.

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