Teaching K-12 is Brutally Hard. Here's How CZI Is Offering Support

photo:  DGLimages/shutterstock

photo:  DGLimages/shutterstock

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 5, 2018. 

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is placing the professional, social and emotional support of teachers near the forefront of its work with the latest round of education grants. The stance marks a stark contrast to the anti-teacher rhetoric that's often associated with education reform circles.

“Our strategy is to help teachers do the work of their lives, and by doing so, transform kids' lives,” Jim Shelton, the head of CZI’s education division, told Inside Philanthropy. “When we start talking about how you actually improve teaching and learning, people always assume we’re actually talking about the students, but if we don’t focus as much on how we improve the teaching and learning of our teachers then the likelihood that they can do that for our students is pretty low.”

This is not the first time that CZI has invested in teachers. It's previously made grants to the New Teacher Center and TNTP, as well as Teach for America. But these grants signal a larger commitment to this area and come at a time that the teaching profession faces major challenges. Even as reports abound of teacher shortages, many of those already in the profession are struggling with their jobs. A survey by the American Federation Teachers found 78 percent of educators and para-educators said that they are often physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. Any number of other surveys have found low morale among teachers. Often, though, these problems have gotten little attention amid polarized K-12 battles pitting teachers unions against the charter school movement and its funders. As we've noted in the past, CZI seems determined not to get sucked into the ed wars. It's made a point of engaging a wide range of stakeholders and avoiding divisive language. 

Related: Fresh Start: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the New Era of K-12 Philanthropy

Shelton said: “One of the things we’re trying to do with all of our work is to make sure that we’re listening—that we’re listening to the communities where we’re doing our work, that we’re listening to the students about experiences they want to have and that we’re listening to teachers about what their needs are. One of the things that made us do the work on teacher stress is that no one is talking about it, except the teachers who are feeling it every single day.”

The new grants vary in scope and focus, but all center on supporting teachers. Some go to the things you’d expect like training and professional development. A grant for $1.5 million will support professional development, including one-on-one mentorship for young teachers in the Ravenswood City School District in San Mateo, California. 

In another bid to help young teachers, $3 million funds personalizing the learning experience for masters students training to be teachers at the Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning. Personalized learning for children has become a signature cause for CZI lately, so it’s no surprise that they would want to apply the principle to teaching for teachers.

Related: Is Personalized Learning the Next Big Thing in K-12 Philanthropy?

About $1.1 million will focus on veteran teachers who want to incorporate social and emotional learning into their classrooms, something that may not have been emphasized earlier in their careers, Shelton noted. That grant will go to Stephanie Jones at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for research and development into strategies and tools to facilitate social and emotional learning.

Another grant for $75,000 will focus on teaching’s emotional toll. It will support a pilot program that will provide 160 new public school teachers with techniques that promote self-care, stress management and emotional well-being. Matthew Biel, a doctor at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, will run the lead the pilot.

“This work is a hard press. It takes a lot of energy and emotion from someone who’s doing it well,” Shelton said of teaching. “For a teacher to be able to do that work well, they need to basically be able to take care of themselves.”

Grants of relatively small size from a funder with CZI’s deep pockets are worth examining in terms of how they fit into long-term strategies. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are worth $70 billion and have pledged to give away 99 percent of their wealth, so small grants like these can hint at much bigger payouts later.

“I’d be shocked if you didn’t see many more grants of this nature and others that are focused specifically on supporting educators,” Shelton said.

More broadly, CZI is focused on the recent research that points to the importance of context, environment and relationships on student development, Shelton said. “You’re going to see a lot more from us on how to help school leaders, teachers and district leaders think about how they create that context, those environments and those relationships that enable powerful learning.” 

Listening to Shelton, it's almost hard to remember that he works for the same philanthropist who made a controversial $100 million gift to improve Newark's public schools in 2010—an effort widely criticized for its top-down approach. And, in fact, Shelton really doesn't—like so many major donors, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have learned on the job and evolved considerably over recent years. These latest grants to support teachers further underscore that shift.