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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Guest Blog: Boosting Teacher Morale

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Much big news in the education world of late. While fifteen Race to the Top finalists were just announced, both higher ed and K-12 educators across California and other cities are protesting layoffs, fee hikes, cuts, and the re-segregation of schools in March 4 Strike and Day of Action To Defend Public Education. Meanwhile, many teachers continue to be cut, with more to come.

It's a rough time for teachers, to say the least. Which is why this week's #edchat on teacher morale was particularly timely. Our guest blogger, Matt Guthrie (@mattguthrie) summarized the inspirational discussion.

--Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty) and Elana Leoni, Social Media Marketing Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

It's that time of the school year when teacher morale begins to drop. It seems like forever ago that the semester ended (or we celebrated Presidents Day for some lucky folks). Spring break is an eternity away. Our return from spring break begins the dreaded testing season. Last minute efforts of remediation and cramming will commence. None of this is good for morale. If you teach in a struggling school, chances are you started the year with low teacher morale anyway, so this time of year is even worse.

This week's #edchat (March 2) was timely. The question was "What effect does low teacher morale have on student learning? How do we boost low teacher morale?" (summary @jasontbedell: Low morale affects teacher interest, enthusiasm, and motivation, all of which are reflected in students.

@pammoran asked this insightful question early in the chat, "What effects do student learning have on low teacher morale?" I have definitely experienced those times of depression when faced with continual low student performance. Low student learning does not have to lead to low teacher morale if we become reflective practitioners. To increase learning, we must look for other solutions and be willing to change our approach. It's never easy to get those final results after working so hard and still have some who didn't get it. But I believe if we honestly do all we can, some growth will be seen and low morale can be curbed. It is not acceptable to remain unchanging and expect things to get better, including your morale.

We must avoid being our own worst enemies by staying away from pits of complaining. These two tweets would be much more humorous if they were not so true.

@spedteacher: Best advice I got re: morale-- stay out of the teacher lounge!

@KDSR: The teachers' lounge is much more damaging to morale than is the classroom

There is a difference between venting and perpetuating a negative atmosphere. We do not live in bubbles. Our actions and emotions affect those around us.

From my vantage point, there is one aspect of our profession that regularly leads to low teacher morale. It is the lack of autonomy in the classroom. Policy and law are set by personnel outside of the classroom, usually by people without classroom experience. The burden of accountability and implementation of policy is then placed upon the teacher without her or his input.

Teachers are expected to exert quality control on a product with too many variables beyond their control. We know our students have no support at home. We know our students began the year several years behind grade level. We know our students have problems that are far more pressing than a test score on a math test, problems that are literally life or death. And throughout the year, many feel like no one cares about us as people, recognizes the efforts we are making, or is concerned about anything but that list of scores when the test is done.

For the record, I have been blessed enough to work in a school where my administration is very supportive. Like all humans, they are not perfect but I feel they do a pretty good job of letting us know as teachers when we are doing something right. This fact does not exempt us from low morale however. Low morale can strike the first year teacher and the almost-retired teacher. There are some simple things we all can do to boost the morale of our schools.

* Find something positive to celebrate and showcase, no matter how small.

* Sometimes the best thing you can do is walk up to a colleague and tell them they are doing a great job.

* Remind yourself why you became a teacher in the first place.

* Look for something new to do in the classroom - a technique, lesson plan, technology, strategy - novelty can sometimes help morale.

* Find someone besides yourself to boost.

* Get input from the students. Things might not be as bad as they seem.

@bjnichols had this to say. "Morale is similar to achievement. It goes up the more we differentiate our practices to fit individual needs." There is no silver bullet, no magical formula. We can, however, look at the situations around us and respond in ways that boost the morale. Being sensitive to morale can do much to turn around a lot of things in your school. Student achievement is adversely affected by low teacher morale. Boosting morale will do more than save a teacher. It will save a student. It will save a school.

Matt Guthrie is a middle school math and science teacher. He is always looking for a different way to do things, looking for any improvement he can find, no matter how small. Besides integrating technology in his classroom and helping others do the same, Matt works with a group of at-risk male students. His greatest pleasure as a teacher is seeing students like them succeed. His blog Listen, Learn, Share encourages readers to learn from all sources, even those they teach. He can be reached on Twitter at @mattguthrie.

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

starsgirl9's picture

I'm a teacher assistant, and the teacher I work with in the morning came out of the blue and told me that I'm working very hard in the back of the room with a foursome of kids that need a little extra help... they came to me for help; I didn't round them up and pull them to the back of the room with me. To be told that I was doing a great job and working hard with those kids really gave me a self-esteem boost not only for the day, but for the week.

So when I saw that listed in your blog, I just had to drop you a comment.

Amanda... Assistant in South Florida

Mike Morgan's picture

I think that's the irresponsible approach. We are cooped up on our own most of the day and we should be encouraging each other to do the opposite. Go to the lounge. Share your good ideas. Share your positive experiences. Tell a joke. Ask someone about their kids. Ask them about their dog. People who say "Stay out of the lounge" are really the ones who often aren't really supportive of their colleagues. They're more often the ones who think they do the job better than their colleagues yet they're not willing to take the steps to help their colleagues improve.

We're expected to model our the best behavior for our students. Do the same for your colleagues. If their venting is too negative for you, model what positive interaction looks like. Others will follow the lead. The big negative will fade into the background. I know there are a few occasions where this doesn't work but it will never work if you don't try.

Gerald Ott's picture
Gerald Ott
Grandfather of six youngsters

Visited grandkids public elementary school in rural Iowa. School children attended to their work, lined up when necessary, didn't bully or make fun of others, seemed to understand and follow a routine, helped their peers, displayed joy in their work, took individual instruction well (including correction) and seemed to be learning and understanding more. This kind of schoolwide "environment" seems to be baseline to reform.

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

There is a level of compexity in a school culture. While we hope as professionals that all educators should strive to be lifelong learners, the reality is that most of our colleagues in the lounge are not. As M. Fullan puts it, what happens in an unhealthy culture is that there may be a couple of teachers that come back from a workshop and are excited to share. But, the culture is so that they are turned away and the great idea or strategy is kicked back. Another issue is the lack of cultural knowledge of school leaders. If leaders are not able to assess the culture of the school and established sub-cultures then they can be swallowed up.

K. Henry's picture

Our school morale among teachers is down right now. Love the idea of the thank you notes to each other.
As for the teacher's lounge we should be role models for our students and it should carry over into all areas including the lounge. Some do use it to vent, but it can be a positive place where ideas and experiences are shared. You're right, you never what will work until you try.

K. Henry's picture

Another way to boost teacher morale is through simple thank you cards. Thank you cards can come from fellow teachers, administrators and even the kids. I have 3 children in the school I teach and it is amazing how a simple thank you can boost someone's day! Teachers work so hard and sometimes feel under-appreciated, let's teach our kids some simple manners by saying thank you!

Homerlly's picture

As an observer in a NJ district with an excellent reputation I see terrible things going down now in our state. A new Governor with his eyes set on undermining the NJEA and blaiming teacher salaries for the stat'e fiscal crisis teachers here are dismayed and sad. Public employees have little defense against a governor determined to break the back of pensions and tenure. Taxpayers are being led on a witch hunt to balance an out of balance economy while the richest earners in NJ are getting back their tax surcharge( those who make $400000 plus). It is sad to see and it reminds me of President Nixon's 5.5% freeze of the 1970's during which he promised all would share the burden. Teachers went along and later learned that many other wage earners got wavers off the 5.5% agreement. Deja vu! It's about time the teachers in NJ stood up against this tyranny. Unless all public employees take the pay freeze in 2011 in NJ then none should agree to it.

Jessica's picture

I really enjoyed all of the tips to boost morale of teachers. This is a tough time for all teachers. In my district alone this year, they are talking about cutting 37 jobs with more to come. Morale is at an all time low! I agree that teacher lounges are negative a lot of the time. Many teachers go in there to complain about what is going on when we really need to be focusing on something positive to keep us going.

Ofelia Lopez's picture

At my school we stated a Thank You board in the teacher's lounge where teachers could publicly acknowledge one another for an act of kindness or something inspirational they did. Within a week the board had become a joke and teachers were literally posting jokes on it. I believe administrators have the ability to boost teacher morale with simple thank yous, smiles, or kind words. Often times administrators are so busy and have so much on their minds that they walk past smiling teachers who are eager to say hello or ask for advice and simply walk past them without a thought. When teachers begin to feel as if administrators don't care they stop caring themselves. I am not suggesting that administrators are solely responsible for teacher morale, but I have heard of principals who walk into classrooms after school and leave notes for teachers acknowledging their hard work and dedication. Just imagine how pleasant it would be to work at a school where thank yous are an everyday occurrence.

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