Research provides a guide on how schools can do a better job of creating campuses that support the needs and aspirations of teachers.
The teacher crisis in the United States is escalating. Fading working conditions, high stress levels and low pay were taking toll their toll, even before the pandemic.
Nationwide, the annual teacher turnover rate is an estimated 16 percent, according to a 2019 study, up from 12 percent in the 1990s. Schools are spending more than $8 billion a year replacing teachers — including recruiting, hiring and training. Moreover, this annual cost does not take into account additional resources spent on the credentialing process. (Darling-Hammond & Carver-Thomas, 2019; Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). In California, replacing a teacher in an urban district costs an estimated $21,000 (Learning Policy Institute, 2017).
LPA researchers and designers recently took a deep dive into teacher-retention issues, focusing on available research that can help develop facilities that attract and retain teachers, reduce stress and support the aspirations of educators. LPA has worked with schools for decades to design supportive spaces for teachers, but the goal was to look further into how data might guide the process and identify opportunities and priorities. The analysis took a holistic approach, moving beyond classrooms to look at collaborative spaces, workplace design and health and wellness issues.
“We always talk about designing with the student in mind and we wanted to take the same approach to exploring teachers’ needs and challenges,” LPA Design Director Kate Mraw says.
For teachers, the school is a workplace. Many of the same factors influencing staff in the private sector are true for teachers. And the elements affecting teachers apply across all educational settings, from K-12 to the highest university levels.
But there has been little academic focus on the campus as a workplace environment. “I was surprised to find there is not much research about how educators are professionals and the effects of their professional workplace,” Mraw says. “But there is a lot of associated research that teachers are aware of their facility and recognize its impact on their work.”
Menchaca Elementary School in Austin, Texas provides teachers meeting and work space.
Focusing on elements that improve satisfaction and decrease dissatisfaction provides a strong foundation for design discussions. Responding to core individual needs is part of any successful workplace.
The School as Workplace
Teachers are facing a complicated array of issues these days as they pursue their mission. In many cases, they must serve as counselor, facilitator and tech support expert, as they attempt to coordinate hybrid forms of learning. But most of the issues facing teachers are not new.
Several factors connected to teacher attrition and turnover are out of school districts’ control. These include teachers’ personal life choices and commute times. But the quality of the working conditions is the one aspect that school administrators can control, and it may be the biggest factor in teachers’ choices. Recent reports echo a 2002 study by Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor, which found that working conditions, facilities and space problems “are strong and significant predictors of these measures of turnover.”
New research refutes the assumption that community demographics are the primary reason why teachers leave schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. While the turnover rate is higher in challenged neighborhoods, the latest studies overwhelmingly point to working conditions, not demographics or poverty, as the main source of dissatisfaction. In one study, 40 percent of teachers who graded their facilities with a C or below said that poor conditions led them to changing schools.
“Poor working conditions in America’s neediest schools explain away most, if not all, of the relationship between student characteristics and teacher attrition,” says education researcher and strategist Dr. Julie Zoellin Cramer, founder of Wayfind Education and an LPA consultant.
In many ways, the factors that spur teachers to change jobs are similar to those influencing employees in a corporate environment. Herzberg’s two-factor theory (also known as Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory) spells out the main reasons for employee satisfaction and dissatisfaction and can also provide a guide for schools, Cramer says. Negative triggers focus on tangible, basic needs, such as status, job security, salary and benefits; positive intrinsic motivators consist of less-tangible, more personal needs, such as challenging work, recognition and professional and personal growth.
“Focusing on the elements that improve satisfaction and decrease dissatisfaction provides a strong foundation for design discussions,” Cramer says. “Responding to core individual needs is part of any successful workplace.”
Teachers are overwhelmingly motivated by their desire to do good work and support their students, studies show. Any focus on teacher satisfaction must start with supporting their larger mission.
“For both faculty and staff, it is really about creating workplaces and learning environments that are impactful for pedagogy as well as providing services for students,” says LPA Director of Programming Winston Bao, who often works on higher-education campuses. “If you don’t have the right environment and the right settings, how can you actually make meaningful changes in a way that serves students better?
Spaces should support educators' mission to support students.
When we think about teachers' workplace, we always want to look at the other support spaces that they need and how their classroom spaces support their professional industry.
Designing with Teachers in Mind
Teachers spend most of their time in the classroom, but their professional workplace environment extends throughout the campus. Respite areas, professional development spaces and active outdoor environments all play important roles. “When we think about the teachers’ workplace, we always want to look at the other support spaces that they need and how their classroom spaces support their professional industry,” Mraw says. “What are the resources that they have for themselves? How do they align with the pedagogy? How do they support relationships, and how do teachers own that space?”
Design elements that support teachers can take many forms. The design for the professional learning center for the Eastvale STEM Academy (eSTEM) in Eastvale, California, includes a small café-like setting off a classroom, which is popular with the teachers. “It’s almost like a residential kitchen,” Mraw says. “It feels like a very friendly, comfortable, adult-like space.”
At e3 Civic High School in San Diego, California, teachers use a flexible space for professional development.
LPA research identified five key strategies for improving working conditions —baseline needs, learning resources, support for work, peer relationships and teacher agency (see sidebar). There are other approaches, but these five are repeatedly discussed in research, Cramer says.
Focusing on these five strategies can lead the design process to address many specific areas that improve the teachers’ work environment. Basic needs for learning include elements such as acoustic comfort, air quality and daylighting. Responsive spaces, access to resources and opportunities to collaborate with peers can improve teachers’ connections to the school. Flexible learning environments that support teachers’ pedagogy will also make them more satisfied employees.
California State University, Northridge's Extended Learning Buildings features a variety of meeting and study areas, recognizing that a new generation of faculty won't always work in an office.
The connection to peers is often overlooked. Teachers are eager for the same type of collaboration and peer interaction found in the corporate world. On higher-ed campuses “We always think about those sticky spaces,” Bao says. “Spaces that encourage people to come together, No. 1, but also be together, collaborate and socialize.”
Educators and staff at the university level are looking for choice and amenities, Bao says. They need flexibility in their work environments that suits their specific workflow and lifestyle. Amenities can come in the form of workspaces to grade papers, areas for part-time faculty to work or respite areas. “We often explore settings, such as outdoor environments, to disconnect and perhaps re-center,” he says.
At eSTEM Academy, a small kitchen area off a classroom has proven popular with teachers.
For California State University, Northridge, LPA designed the Oasis Wellness Center, which, as the name implies, is an area where students can find serenity and relaxation. But the space is for faculty, too. “It is a place to recharge and maybe just take a break in your day in the same way that we create those opportunities for students,” Bao says.
Demands on faculty are changing. Part-time teachers — sometimes referred to as “freeway flyers” — require their own spaces.
A new generation of faculty won’t always work in an office, Bao says. “They’re more than happy to sit out in the student lounge, grade papers, see some of their students and socialize in that way,” Bao says. “Being visible and immersed in that community empowers them to interact.”
The CSUN Extended Learning Building includes an area for faculty, staff and students to interact.
The ROI on Teacher Retention
At the college level, design is often seen as an extension of the school’s brand, designed to attract and retain students. Teachers are often overlooked. “Innovation comes from teachers who feel more connected to the institution and experience a sense of belonging that is not dissimilar to student retention,” Bao says.
Teacher attraction and retention certainly played a role in the design of American Career College, a nursing school alongside the I-10 freeway in Ontario, California. With its active learning spaces and indoor quad, the facility became a recruiting tool, despite its location in an industrial park near the Ontario International Airport.
“Architecture and design have a big influence in terms of creating not just the space, but the experience,” Bao says. “People saw the school and simply said that they wanted to be a part of that.”
In K-12 environments, design can play a similar role in creating a brand and identity that make teachers feel bigger than themselves. The research makes that connection clear. “Teachers’ perceptions of facilities are related to both their decision to transfer and their decisions to leave teaching,” concluded a study in the American Educational Research Journal (Boyd, et al., 2011).
Facilities that respond holistically to the needs of teachers are also more likely to connect with students, which leads to better outcomes, as well as happier teachers.
They're more than happy to sit out in the student lounge, grade papers, see some of their students and socialize in that way.
A teacher planning space at Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, California
School facilities can support five key strategies for improving working conditions for teachers.
1) Baseline Conditions for Learning: Acoustic comfort is a huge factor and tops the list in many studies. Cleanliness, daylighting, safety and air quality are all part of the basic conditions that have been directly linked to teacher health and workplace performance.
2) Learning Resources: Adequate, well-located spaces and access to tangible resources rank as priorities. Use of flexible furniture, adjacencies, multiuse spaces and activated outdoor spaces help give educators the feeling that the facility is supporting their workflow and goals. It is also important not to put classrooms in spaces that are not meant for classrooms.
3) Support the Work: Spaces designed to match a school’s educational approaches and innovative pedagogies align with teachers’ goals. Flexible, collaborative environments that are open, visible and connected to the campus all contribute to supporting how teachers work.
4) Peer Relationships: The sense of collective responsibility and peer collaboration is important for educators. Purposeful spaces support professional development and a climate of learning.
5: Teacher Agency: Choice and control over spaces are essential to give teachers the agency to feel they are fulfilling their needs and roles. This includes mastery in the use of spaces, as well as the ability to reconfigure spaces to their specific criteria. Engagement with teachers in the design process can provide additional agency.