What schools can learn from Google (Spoiler: It’s not what you’d expect)

 

It’s Management 101 that employees need to be inspired to create services and products that are relevant and effective. Identifying the workplaces that do the best job of keeping employees inspired, motivated, and productive has become a cottage industry. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just to give out blue ribbons. It’s because places that are great to work in return the greatest value to their shareholders, employees, customers, and communities. Feeling fulfilled and supported at work leads employees to go the extra mile to deliver on their mission, whatever it may be, and that translates into great outcomes.

Yet, one of the American workplaces with the most to learn is, ironically, public schools themselves. Too few schools prioritize employee satisfaction, failing to recognize the link between it and customer value. In other words, they fail to see how fulfilled and supported teachers lead to better student learning and growth. In too many schools, teachers don’t get the right kind of support to flourish. If the teachers at your kids’ school aren’t flourishing, you can bet that your kids aren’t either.

There’s a lot that schools can learn from the companies that do this best, and Google regularly ranks at the top. One of us runs a national network focused on STEM education, and the other is a 12-year veteran at Google and was a public school assistant principal and teacher for four years. Together we thought we might share some lessons from Google that schools can adapt and put into place to improve student learning by focusing on the experience of teachers.

Leadership matters
Google ran an “uncontrolled experiment” in 2002 that offers insights for those hoping to foster strong school culture. They got rid of all managers. But like a conductor-less orchestra that slowly veers off-beat, it turned out that teams needed managers, because they set the culture, decide who comes into the organization to be part of that culture, and determine who and what is prized or valued within that culture.

Within schools, principals play a similar role. But in too many places, principals are treated like middle managers with too many direct reports and too many responsibilities in too many domains, and what little flexibility or support they get is rarely devoted to nourishing healthy cultures for the professionals under their wings. Leading non-profits like New Leaders understand this, as does USHCA, a non-profit advising districts on their talent portfolios. The most important support principals can get isn’t pedagogic, and it isn’t in business practice: It’s in creating environments in which the experts—teachers—can thrive.

There is already strong evidence that support from principals is one of the most important factors in predicting whether teachers stay, and it’s especially important for minority teachers. Laszlo Bock, former SVP of Google’s People Operations, details the eight essential attributes of what makes a good manager in his book Work Rules!, including the ability to be a good coach and empower teams. School leaders who co-create the school environment and culture alongside their teachers will have the highest chance of achieving a successful outcome.

Empower teachers to experiment in the classroom
What does thriving look like in the 21st-century economy? The most attractive and successful workplaces don’t tolerate failure. They encourage it. Astro Teller, CEO of X (formerly Google X), who has led efforts from balloon-powered internet services to self-driving cars, often talks about innovation and improvement being reliant on the ability to fail fast. Google also support the culture of 20% projects, where engineers have the opportunity to tinker with projects that are not core to their daily roles, but may lead to greater innovation—case in point: This was how Gmail was born.

Granted, when it comes to students, we need to be able to experiment and fail by creating safe spaces to carry out those experiments – understanding our risk tolerance and when to stop if the outcomes are not producing great results. But neuroscience has long shown that the brain is elastic, and simply believing that improvement is possible yields greater growth. We should encourage our teachers to change—or adjust—their mindsets, as studies have shown that when math teachers change their mindset about which students can succeed, student grades increase dramatically.

Authentic growth demands experimentation, and experimentation goes hand in hand with failure. Yet schools are not places where teachers are empowered to experiment or encouraged to fail and learn. Celebrate failure, for students and teachers alike. Chandra Byrd-Wright, a principal at a Chicago-area school, speaks here about the importance of fostering such a “growth mindset”—and there are useful tools developed by Achievement Network that can help schools rethink their approach to learning and continuous improvement.

Give teachers the time to collaborate and improve their craft
At Google, a hallmark of the company culture is the level of collaboration. Even the buildings and workspace layout are set up to facilitate chance conversations and increase opportunities for “water cooler” encounters. The décor is bright and colorful full of whiteboards and long tables that invite everyone to gather around and brainstorm together. Each conference room is outfitted with video conferencing units and projectors so there can be real-time discussion and document editing. It only takes a few minutes to generate and start refining ideas. Even without the expensive gadgetry, schools can embrace similar approaches.

100Kin10’s analysis of the biggest reasons people leave teaching, or don’t choose to teach in the first place, found that time for collaboration and professional growth during the work day are among the most critical issues. Indeed, teachers confirm that they lack time for their own professional development and do not have sufficient opportunities to collaborate with other teachers.

Making time for collaboration and professional growth isn’t something reserved just for Fortune 50 companies like Google. Schools in Japan and Sweden build time for teacher collaboration into the school day and put budgets and time behind teachers’ professional growth. Public Impact has created a model they call Opportunity Culture that helps any school create teacher leadership and growth within existing budgets. Creating a collaborative environment has even been shown to help lower teachers’ elevated stress levels. The models are there, and our schools and school systems can choose to make this a priority and allocate the necessary resources to make it happen.

Give teachers the tools to succeed
If you work in a high-performing environment, you don’t even think about having the tools you need to do your work. Phones, laptops, and tech-enhanced meeting spaces are the floor, not the ceiling. But if you’re a teacher, those kinds of perks are practically unheard of, and too many lack even fundamental supplies. Only one third of adults believe teachers currently have the resources they need to provide a quality STEM education, and for good reason: Ninety-four percent of public school teachers in the United States reported paying for supplies without reimbursement in the 2014-2015 school year.

At the end of August, DonorsChoose.org, a crowd-funding platform that helps teachers nationwide buy supplies, tallied nearly 14,000 projects requesting basic classroom supplies like copy paper, notebooks, pens, and pencils. Last year, there were 70,000 of these projects, coming in at about $9 million. That number might seem big, but it’s a rounding error on the $620 billion spent annually on public education. The lack of these basic supplies stings, and it’s a one of the primary reason teachers leave. It’s no surprise that pictures of shoddy textbooks or broken school chairs went viral on social media during this spring’s teacher protests. Considering that each time a teacher leaves, school districts spend more than $20,000 on average to bring on a new one, it’s clear that the return on investment for adequately resourcing teachers is very high and would pay for itself even if it only slowed the rate of teacher attrition.

It goes without saying that there are many key differences between working at Google and helming a classroom or school. But we believe that all organizations can foster an environment that supports and champions everyone’s learning, creativity, and collaborative spirit. That alone will yield dividends for students.

We can’t just wave a magic wand and make schools a great place to work. Ingrained structural barriers may seem insurmountable, but parents, advocates, funders and administrators all have a role to play in changing a school’s environment and operations and addressing unexpected and complex challenges. Finding common ground starts with asking the simple question, “How we can make schools more supportive and compelling environments for the adults who work there?” The evidence suggests that once those elements are in place, a cascade of benefits for teachers and students will follow—the proverbial snowball down the mountain.

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