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Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing School for Success

reviewed by Mari E. Koerner - August 08, 2019

coverTitle: Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing School for Success
Author(s): Susan Moore Johnson
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682533581, Pages: 304, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

Susan Moore Johnson has spent a lifetime studying teachers in their workplaces. In her new book, Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success, she helps us understand more about how context matters. To emphasize the central importance of the environment of schools for teachers, when the research team “compared schools demographically similar, we found higher rates of student growth in the schools rated more favorably by their teachers” (p. 10). As in her 2004 book, Finders and Keepers, Dr. Johnson sees these settings as crucial factors in teachers’ recruitment and retention. Santoro (2018) talks about the demoralization of teachers (and the subsequent negative impact on retention) that can occur because of their institutional environment. Professor Johnson also sees that the major source of teachers’ challenges stem from the “outdated, inefficient, compartmentalized school organization that rarely provides teachers with the resources and support they need…” (p.3). In this book, Dr. Johnson hammers this point home in her reporting on the Second-Stage Teacher (SST) Study.

The SST study continues her prior six-year study (1998-2004) of new teachers in low-income schools and uses some of the same teachers from that cohort as participants. This time the inquiry is extended to learn how these novice teachers, who now have between four to ten years of experience, have fared. This group is significant because they make up at least one third of the teaching force (pp. 253–254). The researchers thought that “once they (the teachers) had overcome the challenges that all new teachers face and had achieved a level of competence and confidence in their work,” (p. 253) they were probably ready to take additional out-of-classroom responsibilities, assume leadership roles, make decisions about how they use their non-teaching time, take opportunities to learn their practice, and make judgments about the value of their experiences. The goal was to move away from the individual participant, which was the focus of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers study, and look at teachers in relationship to their school context and other teachers. In the nested design of this study, groups of teachers, all located in three urban and low-income districts in Massachusetts, were interviewed (along with an examination of curriculum, other documents, and evidence like bulletin boards) with the data analyses leading to the description of both problematic and promising practices.

There is a clear organization in the book wherein each chapter presents a theme followed by an engaging narrative about how different schools deal with challenges and how teachers experience the schools’ approaches. Because both problematic and promising practices are presented, there are myriad examples acknowledging the many ways to solve problems, some more successful than others. This avoids the format of a recipe book, instead presenting these complicated environments with multiple variables. Not having to read in a specific sequence, you can jump in at any point. However, in order to understand the whole of the teachers’ work experiences, every theme should be read. It is fun to skip around trying to find which chapter to read first.

The first chapter, “Making a Match in Hiring,” may be the most important. How a teacher matches a school’s mission and goals and the necessity for the hiring processes to result in a mutual selection are paramount for any organization or system. This debunks the idea that intelligence and content knowledge are sufficient for a good teacher. Hiring is labor-intensive and centrally important. Continued success requires relevant professional development along with rigorous observations and feedback.

Chapter Two, “Deciding What and How to Teach,” deals with curriculum content and highlights that, surprisingly, there are huge voids. Even in this age of accountability, the state standards are often vague and, for untested subjects like science and social studies, there is little to no support. As one new teacher admitted, she just kind of makes up lessons. How does a teacher know the stuff to teach and accompanying instructional strategies? is a very good question at all levels of education. More often than not, textbooks are not in alignment with standards and curriculum is not in alignment with assessments.

Other chapters deal with student conduct in school and in the community, supervision and evaluation, team teaching, assessments, leadership, and resources available to teachers (e.g., pay and time). These are overlapping and interdependent issues requiring complementary efforts. In the end, it is pretty understandable why teachers leave and stay. It is less clear how kids are being served well consistently by adults in this system.

A powerful fact is that while teachers may be the most important school-based factor in students’ learning, the individual pieces do not make the whole better. The “theory of action goes, as a school swaps out weak teachers for strong ones, the overall human capital of the school will increase and students will be better educated” (p. 233). But this reform idea and action did not and does not work. If organizational issues are not taken into consideration, students do not experience a sustained positive learning environment. Students and teachers (along with parents and especially administrators) need to be in a coherent place, addressing adaptive problems together, having a unified strategy and learning from one another while still retaining autonomy. Dr. Johnson summarizes, “Let there be no question: the school is the place that warrants sustained attention and effort from policy makers, researchers, administrators, and teachers” (p. 247).

I once read a book by a critical theorist who said, in the introduction, that she intentionally wrote the book to be very difficult to read and understand, her reasoning being that the harder the reader had to work to understand it, the more she would learn. I added in the margin “Or the greater chance she’ll put it down and never pick it up again.” In contrast, Susan Moore Johnson’s book is written by a good teacher who provides explanations, insights, examples, accessible language, and engaging text. It is supremely common, sensible, and clearly written by a scholar who has deep experiences with teachers and schools.

This is good educational research clearly presented. As in much educational research, I am not sure of the audience. While I understand individual teachers, graduate students, and teacher educators will read the book, it remains mind-boggling to consider who can actually make broad and systemic changes to schools’ practices. Who conveys these ideas, proposes and implements changes, improves hiring practices, and introduces these practices into specific schools or districts? You could confidently say that it is individuals ,but the very basis of this book is that it requires teams of colleagues working together to make things better, with principals being the lynchpin. While true, it remains to be seen how this happens in everyday practice.


Johnson, S. M. (2004). Finders and keepers: Helping new teachers survive and thrive in our schools (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Santoro, D.A. (2018). Demoralized: Why teachers leave the profession they love and how they can stay. Boston, MA: Harvard Education Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 08, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23029, Date Accessed: 8/20/2019 1:43:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Mari Koerner
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    MARI KOERNER is currently the Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University where she had been Dean for 10 years. Her doctoral work was completed at the University of Illinois at Chicago specializing in curriculum and teacher education. Beginning her career in the Chicago Public Schools as a second grade teacher 50+ years ago, her interests started with and remained focused on teachers and their success in classrooms. She is working on a book about being a dean, for Teachers College Press, which is perhaps the most difficult teaching job in education!
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