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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.

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