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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

How District Communities Do and Do Not Foster Teacher Pride

Research describes the distinct influence of a district-level professional community on teacher attitudes and commitment to the profession.

The teachers in the Oak Valley School District speak of themselves as respected professionals. Their comments underscore the trust and authority they feel the district places in them through various policies and practices. They emphasize that they are proud to be teachers in their district.
The teachers in the Mostaza School District use fundamentally different language. They speak of being “infantalized” by district actions. They describe being “treated as automatons,” not professionals. They voice concerns of not being trusted or respected, and a number of them say they would not recommend Mostaza as a place to teach (see fig.1).

Figure 1. Survey: How Do Teachers Feel About Their Districts?

The Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching has carried out survey and field-based research in 16 public and independent secondary schools in 8 different districts in 2 states. The two districts cited throughout this article were part of those studies. Teachers in Mostaza schools assigned extraordinarily negative ratings to their district's community (–.76). Teachers in Oak Valley were very positive about their district context (+.70). These numbers are standardized z-scores computed from the mean and standard deviation of all CRC teacher responses on a given item.

We asked teachers to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with six statements about their district:

  • I would accept almost any class or school assignment in order to keep working for this district.

  • It would take very little change in my present circumstances to cause me to leave this district.

  • I feel that this district inspires the very best in the job performance of its teachers.

  • Often I find it difficult to agree with this district's policies on important matters relating to its teachers.

  • I am proud to tell others that I work for this district.

  • The district is a source of considerable dissatisfaction with my teaching job.

Teachers' responses to these items were combined to create a district community scale. Despite significant and important school-level variation on the teacher attitudes, teachers working in different schools expressed a high level of agreement about the character of their district as a workplace.


What accounts for the fundamentally different perceptions of teachers in these districts? Research carried out by Stanford's Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching finds that districts play a central and distinct function in teachers' lives. Although conditions at individual schools greatly influence teacher attitudes and actions, a district-level professional community makes an important and particular contribution to teachers' work lives.

School Site Influence

  • innovativeness, energy, and enthusiasm for teaching;
  • commitment to students and subject area;
  • perceived support for professional learning; and
  • sense of control over classroom instruction.
The up-close community provided the occasion for (or did not support) examination of practice, change of practice, and constructive challenge to views about subject matter and students. District policies or mandates in these areas had little systematic or consistent effect on teachers. The daily workplace interpreted the significance of district (and state) policies and shaped the norms that most influenced classroom practices.
In mission schools (magnet schools, or schools with a clear charter), the school-level community was most important to teachers. However, we found that in most “typical” secondary schools, the department most influenced teacher norms and practices. (And principals' leadership was felt primarily in how they supported the role of the department chair in the department community.)
Expectations, routines, and collegiality in the departments determined teachers' norms of innovativeness, conceptions of students (especially the academic abilities and futures of non-traditional students), sense of subject area, willingness to collaborate, and enthusiasm about teaching and students. Variation among departments within a school on these important factors was as great as it was among schools. Without principal support, department communities varied depending on the chair's commitment to community, investment in the task, and conception of the chair role as more than a management burden. Teachers who worked next door to one another, but were members of different departments, experienced substantively different workplaces.

District Influence

Other critical teacher attitudes, including commitment to the profession and pride in being a teacher, primarily are products of district-level influences. The chief influence is a teacher's perception of the district-level professional community.
There is no visible structure for the district community; it has no guidelines. Teachers give the community its power and significance when they act out the norms and beliefs they perceive as coming from the district. A district-level professional community is fragile and difficult to achieve because of the distance between district offices and classrooms. But it is the district community that fosters an overarching sense of professional identity, inclusion, influence, and pride.
In our sample, teachers' judgments of district-level professional community ranged from hostile and demoralizing to strong and integrated. These perceptions in turn affected the school (or department) community. A strong district-level community bolstered teacher motivation in a weak school; a weak district community detracted from the positive influences of a solid site-level community.
These different views of professional identity and worth influence much more than teachers' “happiness quotient”; they shape practice, morale, and commitment. The Oak Valley School District's vital sense of professionalism and trust translated into pride of practice, willingness to go the extra bit, and extraordinary commitment to district and job. Many of the demoralized teachers in the Mostaza School District ignored messages or mandates from the district level as much as possible, approached new agreements with debilitating cynicism, worked-to-rule, and framed their work in terms of “job” rather than “career.” A principal in a Mostaza high school, for example, told us he was unable to find a teacher willing to take on the role of freshman advisor.

Creating a District-Level Community

A professional community is not a static phenomenon; rather, it is a dynamic force that needs strategies to nurture it. The community first requires ongoing attention, support, and priority of district administrators.
A district's sense of professional community is also shaped by policies and goals that embrace diversity. For example, Oak Valley's district-level strategy for curriculum development brings teachers together by subject area to review and develop curriculum; it is designed to give voice to multiple perspectives and forge broad consensus among teachers about district curriculum. This centralized strategy allows teachers to make choices for their classrooms within an agreed-upon structure. Thus, there is a “wholeness” in Oak Valley's policies that acknowledges diverse teacher interests, tastes, and perceptions of student needs.
Strategies that nurture diversity are almost absent in Mostaza. According to teachers, strategies that do exist are typically pro forma and serve primarily political, not substantive, purposes. Teachers complain, for example, that individuals appointed to district subject area committees often are not “the best” in an area or even well informed about recent developments in the field. Mostaza's district-level committees, which may look the same as Oak Valley's on paper, erode the sense of community.
Open, clear lines of communication are another characteristic of a vigorous district-level professional community. The simplicity of Oak Valley's district structure facilitates communication. Administrative responsibilities are evident at the district level, and frequent meetings among district officials and between district and site personnel support an ongoing “conversation” about educational practice in Oak Valley.
In Mostaza, communication has been hindered by inadequate structures, confusion about responsibilities, and general lack of trust. Further, the district appears to pay little heed to the quality of communication with school sites or the messages embodied in the style and form of their communiqués. For example, staff at two Mostaza high schools were deeply offended to learn of the appointment of new principals to their schools via a form letter addressed “Dear Staff and Parents.” Most hurt and affronted of all was the acting principal who had worked hard to make positive changes in one school and hoped for the appointment himself.
District leadership style also signals the presence (or absence) of a vital, cohesive professional community. Officials in districts such as Oak Valley use cultural authority to communicate, reinforce, and monitor district goals and norms of conduct. “The way we do things around here” is powerful for motivation and correction in Oak Valley.
Mostaza's leadership, however, has had to invoke coercive authority to implement district directives and bring a measure of cohesion to instructional practices in the district. The pervasive feeling among Mostaza teachers of paternalism and a “them/us” divisiveness is a predictable consequence that leads to fragmentation of community, work culture, and effective authority.
District-level policies concerning teachers' professional development also convey critical norms, values, and expectations about teachers' professionalism. Professional development and professional community are mutually reinforcing. Professional development activities, and the expectations that surround them, signal a district's professional regard for its teaching staff. Oak Valley pays deliberate attention to these often symbolic concerns and messages. The district presents staff development activities in a “menu,” developed by a committee of teachers. Teachers can select activities that suit their particular classroom demands. Though teachers influence professional development activities, they are not responsible for managing or implementing them. This remains a central district role.

Implications for Practice

Where respect, trust, and professional authority are communicated by district policies and practices, we find that teachers hold substantively different conceptions of professional role and identity than in districts where there is no such coherent, supportive, respectful district message. And, we have seen that the most effective principal or department chair cannot create workplace conditions that compensate for a negative district-level community.
These findings suggest rethinking the district role in a number of ways. One important implication is the need to think strategically about school, or department, functions and district functions. If teacher learning and innovation are influenced most at the site level, for example, then the district role would be to facilitate teachers' efforts in the school to examine practice and implement change. The district would not provide direct services; rather, it would offer support for efforts in the school.
Another and related change would be a move away from “generic” district policies to accommodate differences among subject areas and students in terms of resource requirements, professional development needs, or curriculum demands. District policies in areas such as pupil and teacher assignment, professional development, technical assistance, evaluation, or instruction would be “student sensitive” and subject specific.
A third implication is the need for district officials to initiate and facilitate discussions about how teachers feel about their work and how they see district policies and practices as supporting or inhibiting their practice or sense of professional worth. A district needs to develop criteria to show whether teachers feel supported in their professional lives. What those indicators might be, and how they would be established, would vary by district. But the importance of regular feedback to the central office about teachers' workplace lives and attitudes cannot be overestimated.
“Ping-Pong” is one way to develop and regularize open lines of communication for such feedback. Procedures are set up for school personnel to inform district officials of what they need. The central office responds, and the school in turn informs the district about the consequences at the classroom level.
Another critical element of active district support is the celebration of teachers and their essential role. Much of what a superintendent and school board says or fails to say has great importance. District administrators and trustees need to say, “Our primary resource is our teachers; our goal is to help kids, but the way to achieve that is to enable teachers.” Experienced superintendents often note how easy it is to overlook or miscalculate these important signals and messages.
A strong and supportive district professional community does not just happen; it cannot be commanded or contrived. Managing and nurturing professional community at the district level is, at heart, a problem of managing district-level norms and values of professional excellence, and of providing the material and moral support that enables teachers to do their best. Professional “autonomy” requires centralized support and authority or else it is not “empowering.”
Teacher autonomy without strong district professional community, with its integrating norms and expectations, and without associated centralized authority, risks disintegration into instructional anarchy. The classroom door, as many analyses have shown, is a powerful barrier to organizational influences. The relationships between teacher and district that are powerful influences on teachers and teaching have little to do with hierarchial structure and controls and everything to do with the norms, expectations, and values that shape the district professional community.
End Notes

1 Oak Valley and all other place names in this article are pseudonyms. The schools and districts participating in our research were promised confidentiality.

2 Harry Handler introduced me to the term “Ping-Pong” and this notion of interactive discussion and planning.

Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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