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The School as a Supportive Workplace

Teachers in a circle illustration
Illustration: iStock

Almost everyone can remember a great teacher who made learning come to life. So how do schools attract and retain the most outstanding teachers? That was the question Susan Moore Johnson and four doctoral students set out to answer in 1998 when they launched the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers (PNGT).

The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers helped to define the kinds of work environments and leadership support that effective teachers need in order to thrive — and stay committed.

Johnson started the project to develop strategies to improve teachers’ experiences and accomplishments, especially those teachers new to the profession.

At the turn of the millennium, research came back to the notion that teachers are the most important school-level factor in students’ learning, and the answer to attracting and retaining quality teachers seemed simple — reward good teachers by paying them more. But after years of costly efforts, schools had not been reformed and what seemed once like a silver bullet proved to be a failure.

“Unquestionably, schools need smart, skilled, and committed teachers. However, by focusing on those individuals while ignoring the schools where they work, reformers failed to address a major source of the problem,” Johnson wrote in the introduction to her 2019 book, Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success.

After starting with a study of 50 first- and second-year teachers in Massachusetts, PNGT expanded to work with new teachers nationwide, then later career teachers who had moved into school leadership roles, before eventually recognizing the importance of the work environment on teacher satisfaction and moving the focus of the study from individual teachers to multiple teachers across districts.

“It’s a body of work that was really designed to understand who wanted to be teachers and what their experience was like, and to inform that process,” says Johnson, noting PGNT’s studies on teacher teams, peer assistance and review, and incentives. “Over the course of 20 years we developed one project after another, usually building directly on the prior work and incorporating new cohorts of doctoral students.”

Today, the former doctoral students, about 20 in all, are in a range of leadership positions — including Matthew Kraft, Ed.D.’13, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University; Heather Peske, Ed.D.’05, senior associate commissioner for instructional support at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Ed Liu, Ed.D.'04, chief improvement officer at Boston Plan for Excellence.

The research of PNGT has helped schools, districts, and state education departments understand the importance of the school workplace for teacher success — and in turn, student success — and introduce strategies like more induction for new teachers, teams for collaboration, and school-based systems for hiring, decision-making, and evaluation for development.

“We’ve come to understand that teachers aren’t independent units that can be swapped in and out,” Johnson says. “A teacher who does really well in one setting might not do well in another, so the quality of performance is at least partly, if not largely, dependent on the place where they teach.” – Andrew Bauld

Learn More and Connect

Read a Usable Knowledge piece on the gift of teacher time, which applies lessons from PNGT work.

Learn more about the Harvard Education Press title, Where Teachers Thrive.

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