When talking about teacher morale, it’s easy to feel victimized by factors beyond our control: crowded classrooms, student poverty, lack of resources, one-size-fits-all curriculum, emphasis on testing… I could go on, but that would be counter to my point here, which is to shift one’s focus to factors one can control. After all, what good does it do to shrug our shoulders, point to all the reasons we suffer low morale, and continue in a state of sad impotence?
First, though, before you call me naive: I know that no amount of positive thinking will move my students out of poverty. Thinking happy thoughts won’t reduce the number of young teenagers crowded into my classroom. Wishing on a star won’t make irrelevant testing go away. But after more than two decades of teaching in public middle schools, I do know that I make choices every day that either add to or push back against the low morale so prevalent in my profession. Here are a couple choices that have helped me keep the glass half full:
- Honor and celebrate one another. You would be hard pressed to find anyone at my school who looks forward to staff meetings, but if you joined us, you would see teachers tossing chocolates across the room, cheering and clapping for one another before settling down to the business of education. When I first came to this school, I was so impressed and so happy to be there, that I asked the principal if I could thank some people at the next staff meeting. I brought a bag of chocolate kisses to offer as tokens of gratitude and stood nervously before my new colleagues. I thanked a few people, tossed chocolate to them, and sat down. After a brief silence, another teacher stood up and thanked a peer. A few more followed, and then we moved on to our meeting.
Thirteen years later, “Staff Appreciations” is item #1 on every staff meeting agenda. Our principal provides the chocolate, and we set a positive, supportive tone by sharing the great ways our staff supports one another, in big and small ways, as we labor together for our kids.
We don’t have to rely on the administation to shift to a positive, affirming school culture. Staff appreciations are also valuable at smaller meetings, like with departments or teams, and in passing as we rush from one teaching duty to another. We are so isolated in our classrooms, it’s too easy to adopt a Lone Ranger attitude when it comes to our work. But this is our choice: we can focus on what makes our job harder, or we can acknowledge and appreciate the people who make it easier.
- Find the silver linings. We can boost our own morale (and that of others) if we make an effort to find the good in situations that may not be all good. We may not be able to fix the bigger issues that affect our morale, but teaching is full of many small moments and opportunities to either dwell in the negative or rejoice in the positive. For instance, it looks like our class size will be reduced this year from 33 to 32, and in my mind, that’s still too many 8th graders in a classroom. But can I change that by drowning in self-pity? No. Instead, as I set up my room last week, I enjoyed a tiny celebration that now my students will fit at eight tables of four students each. No more fifth student crowding a table. Small victory, I know, but one that actually does affect my kids each day in my classroom.
On a sillier note, I rejoiced recently when our toilet paper and paper towel dispensers were replaced. The old dispensers didn’t match the paper products that had been bought in bulk, so whenever one tried to pull the paper off the roll, it ripped. Not a big deal, you think? Ha! It becomes pretty significant in certain cricital moments. But now, not only does the paper roll smoothly from our new dispensers, but the TP is actually two-ply. TWO-PLY, people! When I mentioned this to a colleague, she said, “Yeah, but the new paper towels are too thin!”
So, there you go. We can find the cloud or we can ride that silver lining for a tiny celebration that just might bring a smile to our day, which just might bring smiles to our students’ faces, which just might bring a positive environment to our classroom, which just might bring…
How do you keep a silver-lining focus in the face of so many clouds? How do you take some control over your (and your colleagues’) morale? As we head into a new school year, let’s share ideas for keepin’ it positive!
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