This guest post comes from Jon and Teresa Alfuth, who both teach math at The Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, TN.

We both began our teaching careers at the same school. Half way through our second year teaching, we felt like we needed a change. We started searching Memphis for schools that offered something radically different–a place where good teachers stayed. We crossed off school after school until only one was left: A place called The Soulsville Charter School.

When we applied, we didn’t know why Soulsville had its reputation for attracting and retaining good teachers. We just knew it was there. But one year later, it’s become abundantly clear to us why teachers fight to be here and why teachers typically stay once they start working.

Soulsville is a place that truly lives up to the original idea of a charter school as a laboratory of teacher-led and teacher-centered innovation.

Building a Collaborative Culture

As teachers at Soulsville, we don’t just work at the school. We actively contribute to building and refining the culture of the entire school community. This collaboration is built into the very DNA of the school. In our view, the school’s success stems from three key practices.

First, Soulsville has created a culture where teachers are encouraged to share their voice and feel comfortable doing so.

At many schools, teachers feel apprehensive about sharing their perspectives. At Soulsville, we are encouraged to share our thoughts and suggestions about how to improve our school. We never worry that our jobs will be at stake if we share our thoughts and opinions on how to make the school better. In fact, we view sharing our thoughts as a part of our job!

One clear instance of this supportive environment occurred early on when Teresa approached our principal with feedback about the school’s merit/demerit system. We both struggled with the system well into our first year, and we felt it was important for our administration to hear about our difficulties. Teresa shared her struggles with our principal and advocated for more training for new teachers. Her suggestion was put in place the following summer as a part of our new teacher orientation program.

We hear anecdotally that teachers in charter schools often feel uncomfortable admitting that they struggle and making suggestions about changing the way the school runs. But Teresa felt comfortable doing this because our school has built a culture where active teacher participation is both encouraged and welcomed.

This culture is the result of intentional practices that build personal connections between leadership and teachers. Administrators visit classrooms frequently and have an open door policy.

And our school has actively worked to recruit our administrators from the teaching staff within our school. All but one of our current administrators have worked as teachers at Soulsville, and every single one of them spent multiple years teaching in a classroom. Because of this, we know that when we go to our administrators with a concern, they understand where we’re coming from and are just as invested in seeing our school succeed as we are.

Second, we have a great teacher-driven culture in which we feel treated like the professionals that we are.

Our administration goes to great lengths to include teachers in every major decision made regarding the school, whether through directly crafting the policies or contributing our thoughts in formal settings.

One way our  school communicates this is through respect for our professional time during the week.

To those outside of teaching this may sound strange, but too often this is not the case. For example, in many places “planning time”–that sacred couple of hours teachers have to work on grading, lesson crafting or professional development– disappears as teachers are forced to cover lunches, perform clerical functions or attend to non-teaching tasks.

At Soulsville, we’ve protected planning time by building in an early release program on Fridays. The kids leave at 2:15, freeing up teachers for the sorts of administrative tasks that might otherwise eat into planning time. Importantly, this Friday block includes built-in time with our colleagues to ensure we are able to collaborate in a professional setting with grade and content level teams.

Third, this is all possible because we’ve systemically woven teacher voice opportunities into the fabric of the school year.

We actively and regularly set aside time for groups of teachers to come together to discuss school policy and make recommendations to our administrative team. And unlike at many schools, these suggestions aren’t heard and buried. Our administrative team actually acts upon these recommendations.

We collect this feedback through a number of different mechanisms. Every week we have the chance to pass our suggestions for school improvement to a designated teacher leader as part of grade-level team meetings. Our grade level team leader then takes them directly to our administrators.

In addition, at the end of the year, each teacher participates in at least two focus groups to give feedback on a number of school policies, covering topics from the merit/demerit system to how we run our advisory class. Our administrative team also actively asks for feedback in formal one-on-one meetings where we can give feedback.

From Voice to Action

These policies for encouraging teacher voices have become ingrained in our school culture. But voice alone is meaningless if it does not come with the power to influence decisions and  actually result in changes–as is so often the case with teacher feedback.

Turning voice into action is the most vital component because if teachers don’t see things changing as a result of their advice, they’ll stop giving it. And if that happens, schools will lose out.

Administrators have much to learn from the people who are in classrooms with students every day. And giving teachers pathways for meaningful input is an important strategy for attracting and retaining good teachers.

Fortunately our leadership team is very open to making changes based our recommendations. We’ve changes to systems–everything from tweaks to complete overhauls–based on teacher feedback. And that’s just in the year we’ve been at Soulsville. And when our leaders don’t believe a change is in the best interest of the school, they are always open about explaining why they kept the system the way they did.

Some might ask, well that’s all well and good, but what if an administrator leaves? How can we ensure this system continues? That’s where recruiting leadership from inside the school comes into play. Once we’ve set that culture of teacher-voice and influence, it will naturally continue as a part of the school as we move more teachers up into leadership roles. 

Good teachers are attracted to places, like Soulsville, where they have active, effective voices in shaping the future of the school.  That’s why at Soulsville we’ve made teacher-led innovation essential to who we are as a school and community. 

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.