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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teacher morale isn't a popular topic, and that makes sense on the surface. Teachers are professionals, like engineers, doctors, farmers or business leaders, and no one is going out of their way to make sure that engineers are "keeping their head up" or that farmers "feel good about their craft."

Further complicating matters, teachers "get summers off," and are at the helm of one of the most visibly struggling industries in the United States. Sympathy doesn't come naturally under these circumstances.

It should be abundantly clear to anyone with experience around classrooms, teachers or students (which is to say almost all of us), that teaching is a highly emotional craft, loaded with possibility and expectation, importance and scale. It's troubling when the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future says that 46 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. And even worse, this turnover is also impacting the whole public education machine -- learning, teacher education, teacher training, funding, public perception, and so on -- in a dizzying cause-effect pattern stuck on repeat.

Fixing this issue is an illusion, as it's not a single issue but rather a product of countless factors. However, there are six ways we can address it here and now.

1. Replace a Tone of Accountability with One of Innovation

Schools -- especially low-performing schools -- often seek relief from pressure through alignment, adherence and compliance with a certain program, curriculum, set of standards, approach to faculty meetings, and so on. While there is nothing wrong with having standards and expecting teachers to stick to them, when this is done wrong it can create a climate of "accountability" and "non-negotiables" that requires all teachers to prove they are in compliance on a daily basis. And this is not an atmosphere of innovation or creativity.

2. "Brand" Content, Classrooms and Teachers -- Not Districts, Curriculum and Schools

Today, it is generally the district, a selected curriculum or the school itself that gets the "branding," and is thus what parents and students discuss. To increase teacher morale, why not put the content areas (or unique classes based on those content areas), classrooms and teachers at the center of attention? This goes against tradition, where teachers shy away from acclaim and spotlight, but maybe that -- in one way or another -- can change?

3. Replace Forced Collaboration with Reasons for Collaboration

Teacher collaboration -- in person or in professional learning communities and networks online -- is a huge catalyst for teacher improvement. But forcing teachers to collaborate works about as well as forcing students to learn. Just as project-based learning works best under the duress of an authentic need-to-know, teacher collaboration works best under a similar need-to-collaborate, not through forced and externally driven "data teams."

4. Use PBL to Embed within Local Communities

This would help with the branding mentioned above, but more importantly, it would put teachers in contact with the stakeholders they are most accountable to: the local community.

5. Replace Teacher of the Year with a Teacher Awards Ceremony

Teacher of the Year ceremonies celebrate teaching by celebrating one teacher. Why not celebrate all teachers -- and do so in some merit-based way rather than the "everybody gets a ribbon" model?

6. Replace "Non-Negotiables" with Evidence of Success

There's a clear need for school districts to document those rules and regulations that are "non-negotiable." Autonomy is one thing, but teachers doing whatever they want whenever they want is a pathway to failure. So what if we replaced the goals of said rules (academic success in most cases) with something else? Let's try evidence of success with a focus on the persistent visibility of student work, and let's train those who do "walk-throughs" to more efficiently navigate that work.

The Way Forward

Teacher morale is not a hot-button topic, but it matters. Teachers -- great teachers, anyway -- touch every part of the learning process. Bearing down on them with out-of-proportion expectations and accountability hasn't led to particularly sterling results. But here's what can lead to such outcomes:

  • Rebranding teachers as passionate mediators of exciting content
  • Reconnecting with local communities in substantive ways
  • Seeking -- and supporting -- innovation rather than compliance from teachers

Rediscovering the human elements of teaching and learning is among the most powerful pathways forward.

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

I think there are a couple of important clarifications I'd want to make. First, you write, "Teachers are professionals, like engineers, doctors, farmers or business leaders, and no one is going out of their way to make sure that engineers are "keeping their head up" or that farmers "feel good about their craft."

I'd say teachers are more like human service professionals- therapists, social workers, and psychologists all participate in required support networks designed to help them maintain emotional and psychological balance. What we do is closer to the work of these folks than to farmers, business people or engineers. (And I wouldn't want to be cared for by a doctor who wasn't intentional about caring for herself!)

I think you raise some interesting points. Not sure I agree with all of them, but I think they can provide some interesting fodder for discussion.

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education

A point that must be added to this discussion is that, to some extent, teachers must take ownership of their own morale. No amount of teacher awards, or pats on the back will change a teacher's morale if s/he continues to look on the dark side of things.

I learned this quite some time ago from a marvelous principal, Sr. Karen Krahenbuhl. She pointed out to me that I looked on the negative side of things, that I seemed to only notice what students did wrong, or what we didn't have. She suggested I think about what the kids did right and about what we can do with what we have. Taking her advice improved my attitude and my morale.

I am not saying that some things for teachers could not improve, nor that improving those things might positively impact teacher morale. However, I too often talk with teachers who seem to blame students, parents, administration, regulations, standards, etc., for why they are unhappy.

Trojan99's picture
Trojan99
6th Grade ELA Teacher from Wisconsin

The one point that I agree with more than any is the emphasis on accountability over innovation. Einstein once said, "To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science." We, as teachers, are casting aside the projects and creative problem-solving activities we once did because the stakes are high for standardized test accountability. Creativity has always been a signature mark of American schools. We are losing that advantage. Teachers are getting burned out focusing on test preparation. Our job should focus on teaching students how to be life long learners not test takers.

Another morale killer is the implementation of state laws that strip employee rights as Act 10 does in Wisconsin. Contracts were evaporated and school boards stripped their teachers of hard earned benefits and lowered bargained wages. Teachers are leaving the profession at alarming rates. We need to cultivate leaders who respect our profession.

1/2 Grade Teacher's picture
1/2 Grade Teacher
1/2 Grade Teacher from Southwest Michigan

The suggestions that you convey will certainly help to build a school's culture. To expand on your point regarding replacing "non-negotiables" with evidence of success, educators must be given the opportunity to choose teaching methods and strategies that will best ensure student success. Teachers, instead of administrators, should be given the opportunity to create the learning blocks and professional learning communities that help to further their goal of student success and engagement. All too often administrators hand down "one size fits all" mandates.

rsergant's picture

I think that this article fails to address some of the key elements that feed into a statistic of 46% of new teachers leaving the profession within 5 years. I have found many new teachers to be struggling b/c they are not provided with the materials that they need for their students to learn, and for themselves to teach. Often new teachers are overloaded with difficult behavior problems, by their fellow teachers/veterans. They need to teach all day and attend school from 4 to 7. They need to meet with their BTSA support provider almost every week and complete reams of forms.
They need to be STULLED every year by the principal. They need to pay back student loans from salaries that usually start in the mid thirty to low forty thousand range.... and this is after about 7 years of graduate school. They are often told what they are doing wrong, and rarely what they are doing right. Some of them are single parents and/or new parents, or have other challenges that require great emotional and financial investment on their part...after a long day of work and planning and correction at home. And finally... teachers are not "off" in the summer.... they are UNPAID during the summer, with many teachers scrambling to find summer jobs to meet their debts that run on a twelve month cycle. And that is just the tip of the iceberg...

Patricia Mosier's picture
Patricia Mosier
First Grade Teacher, Virginia

I enjoyed reading your suggestions for improving teacher morale. I have been teaching first grade for eight years now, and never realized how demanding being a teacher would be. I feel that most teachers in the US are not treated with respect or regarded as professionals. I can understand how teachers leave the profession within five years of teaching. I am a 'career switcher' and went back to school after 17 years to get my teaching certificate. My original degree was in business, and being a Navy wife, I was only able to substitute teach or be a Spanish tutor. Nothing prepared me for my first year of teaching! Most days I worked until 7 p.m. and then I would come home, eat, and continue to work. These days I do stay until 5 p.m., and there is always something to work on when I get home. Every year we are asked to do more and more, and teachers finally got a small raise this year after 5 years of no pay raises. Morale has been low at my school, and we are getting less and less funding because of budget cuts. Yes, teaching is a tough job, but it is also very rewarding. I love to teach, and knowing that I am making a difference to my 23 awesome first graders makes me want to go to work every day!

Andy XU RUNYUN's picture
Andy XU RUNYUN
From Shanghai, China. A volunteer in Walnut Valley Unified School District.

I just registered Twitter two weeks ago when this course begins. Before, I used Facebook, RenRen (A Chinese version of Facebook) most of the time. However, since my registration on Twitter, I found it really amazing to me for the reason that this platform has already provided me with qualitative and quantitative useful resources which are extremely helpful to me. Moreover, Twitter has also "introduced" me to other numerous platforms which I never knew, e.g.: Edutopia, Teach100, CreativeCommon, HootSuite, and many other platforms for adequate resources as well. From now on, I think I should become a more and more connected educator because the world is changing! :-)

ChenowethRuss's picture

"If something cannot be done to check, or at least modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land." - Oscar Wilde

Soul-crushing...a phrase that's thrown around in hyperbole more often than not these days, but nonetheless an accurate depiction of what it's like to work in a good number of schools. The ideas expressed in your article are excellent remedies to low teacher morale and it all starts with the administrators in the building. It is on them to make sure their staff feels appreciated and valued.

Ironically, the kind of ambition it takes to pursue such positions often comes at the cost of empathy. Thus, many administrators struggle to put themselves in the shoes of the downtrodden & overworked teacher. Instead, their lense is focused squarely on the things you mention as the antithesis of high teacher morale. Where does one find humanity in compliance and data?

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