Concerns raised about teacher, administrator relationships after survey

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One Whitefish Schools parents is raising concerns about the relationship between teachers and administrators, but school district officials say they are already working to improve relationships.

During a presentation of teacher and parent surveys at the Whitefish School Board meeting on Sept. 11, community member and parent Rachel Phillips said she worried about teachers’ inability to voice their concerns to administrators in the district.

The survey, conducted in January and February, gives the schools a chance to take the pulse of students, parents and teachers and address different areas of concern on a yearly basis, according to the school district. The survey has been part of the district for the past three years and is conducted by Quaglia School Voice.

Speaking during public comment, Phillips claimed she’s noticed a culture of fear among teachers in the schools, which she said was visible in the anonymous surveys.

At Muldown, the survey results showed that 42 percent of teachers said they feel confident voicing their honest opinions and concerns, while only 51 percent said they feel they have a voice in the school’s decision-making.

At the middle school, 84 percent of teachers felt confident voicing their opinions and at WHS 47 percent felt that way.

At both Muldown and the high school, only 35 percent said the central office understands their school’s unique culture.

“I’m here because after looking through the teacher surveys, I think we have a problem,” Phillips said. “Teachers should not be afraid of the administration, and the administration should be wary of influencing teachers through fear. In my time that I’ve been lucky enough to volunteer at the school, I have been aware that teachers are uneasy, there is an unspoken anxiousness among our educators. And last year I tried to figure out systematically what is going on — why they feel anxious — and the truth is I could not get a single person to discuss it.”

Whitefish Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt disagreed with Phillips’ assessment of the environment within Whitefish Schools, and pointed to the variety of support mechanisms for teachers that exist outside of the administrators, such as union-based mediation tools.

“There are many outlets in terms of staff to present their viewpoints or ideas that are not specifically directed to the administration, so there are lots of opportunities,” Davis Schmidt said. “I’m not going to deny that there’s always challenges, but I don’t have the same perception as you do that the problem rests where it rests.”

“I would encourage parents and board members to try to find out more,” Phillips replied.

In the survey, the percentage of teachers who say they enjoy working at Muldown was 85, while 98 percent say they enjoy working at the middle school, and 77 percent of teachers said they enjoy working at the high school.

Earlier in the meeting, the district’s three principals presented on some data points from the surveys and plans to for their schools as a result.

Muldown Principal Linda Whitright pointed to a finding that 30 percent of the building’s teachers thought there was effective communication at Muldown, as well as a finding that only half of the teachers felt that staff respect one another.

“Ultimately their voice said that their expectation [is that] people give their all in the building, and that we have a growth mindset, and that things can get better. Along with that, administratively both John [Coyne] and I are going to be working together with smaller groups, and going to them and asking for direct communication and feedback for us to help us grow,” Whitright said. “We can always grow. We’re never perfect, and we want to grow and do what we can do to help them and to make that communication that much stronger and that much closer.”

In addition, 17 percent of teachers said they think bullying is a problem at the school involving students, and 45 percent said they feel comfortable in the staff room. Also, 54 percent said they are recognized when they try their best while 11 percent said they’ve never been recognized for something positive at school.

Whitright also noted a parent survey result where 25 percent of respondents said their children give up when school is difficult. Working with parents to help their kids as well as working with teachers to help students develop a growth mindset will be one way Muldown will attempt to lower that percentage, she said.

Twenty-five percent of parents also said they thought their child is bored at school and 67 percent said they understand the goals their students are working on during the school year.

At Whitefish Middle School, Principal Josh Branstetter pointed to two teacher survey items, one that stated “I know my students’ hopes and dreams” and another saying “Students care about me as an individual,” that received agreement at 83 and 86 percent respectively.

“They felt that was really low, and they really desire to raise those percentages,” Branstetter said.

He said the surveys also indicated a need for stable spaces for seventh- and eighth-grade students.

To address that, Branstetter said every grade now has small home room teams that meet every day to work on various subjects or have group discussions.

Half of parents said they feel their opinions and input are valued at the school, but nearly 90 percent said they feel comfortable at the school and in parent-teacher conferences. Compared to 67 percent at Muldown, where only 43 percent of parents said they understood their students’ academic goals.

At the high school, Principal Kerry Drown said the survey process was valuable for seeing where he needs to improve to better assist his teachers.

“I sat with teachers after this survey and after I saw these results and I wanted to dig in a little deeper so I called it a listening tour last spring, and I sat with every single teacher in small groups and probed on some of these a little deeper — I had to bring out the big boy britches and ask some tough questions and be prepared to understand and feel vulnerable in the process,” Drown said.

“It was a really valuable experience, I really walked away better understanding and stronger and it informed me for things that we can be doing as a school and me as an individual.”

Parents responding to the survey showed only 50 percent agreeing their thoughts and opinions are valued at WHS, and only 60 percent agreed that teachers care about their child’s problems and feelings.

Thirty percent of teachers indicated they feel bullying is a problem at the school involving students, and 44 percent agreed that the school celebrates staff’s achievements and that they’re recognized when they try their best.

At WHS, 39 percent of teachers agreed that there are meaningful professional development opportunities in the district.

In addition, 76 percent of teachers at WHS said they see themselves as a leader, but 40 percent said they feel they have a voice in decision-making at school.

Full survey results are available as part of the school board meeting packet on the district’s website at www.wsd44.org. Click on School Board and then click on the business meeting packet for Sept. 11, 2018.

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