Teaching can be a lonely, thankless job. Frustration, isolation and insecurity can lead to low teacher morale. Unlike other careers where sales quotas, bonuses, and title enhancements can remind employees of the quality of the work, teachers, especially those working in more demanding areas like special education or alternative education, often feel frustrated and unappreciated. The media and government attack teachers. Angry parents berate teachers when their children don't meet their expectations. The pay is low, the chances for advancement are limited, and the frustrations and demands are overwhelming; as a result, 70% of the new teachers hired in Utah, my state, leave the profession in five years according to the Deseret News. Even though the low pay is a major contributing factor to the retention problem, teacher morale is also a problem. Principals and teachers can do little to improve the salary. (That one is on the legislatures and the school boards.) They can, however, address teacher morale. After all no one became a teacher expecting to get rich, but they all expect some respect. Three simple ways to improve moral are:
Because of the size of the faculty in high schools, teachers often feel invisible, unappreciated and unrecognized by the administration.These teachers often become less productive. To alleviate this, one of my former principals met each staff member and interviewed and photographed each person. He used the information he obtain to learn the staff's names and something interesting that he could stop and chat with on a personal level. By regularly visiting each teacher's classroom, he had a feel for who in his staff were competent leaders and who needed extra help. Each morning he stood in the office and greeted his staff and often asked advice from individual teachers. His efforts built strong relationships with his teachers and; as a result, teachers felt more compelled to work harder for him. Another principal identified struggling students and had each teacher select three students that each could provide positive interactions. Teachers and students perform better when they feel someone cares about them. By identifying the students who were falling through the cracks many students were salvaged, but teachers actually increased their positive interaction with all students and it made their job more enjoyable. Thus, increasing moral in the entire school.
Empower Teachers To Solve Problems
When the administration tries to solve all of the school's problems alone, the teacher feel alienated. When teachers feel part of solutions they have more buy-in and feel more respected. When teachers see one of their own suggestions implemented, it empowers them and provides a sense of pride. For example, one of my principals implemented one of my suggestions of focusing on the positive instead of the negative by printing out business cards that we called Paws Cards: Catch Kids Doing the Right Thing. When a student was discovered behaving appropriately or getting a good score, the teacher presented him with a Paws Card. He took the card to the office and the secretaries recorded his name, gave him praise and small piece of candy. Later, the school added the students' names into a weekly drawing. The winner of the drawing won a fabulous prize donated by a local company. The concept is teachers spend too much time focusing on students who misbehave and ignore those who behave. If teacher spend more time rewarding good behavior, those who misbehave might learn that by behaving they earn even more attention than by misbehaving. Fifteen years later, the school was still using the Paw's Card. The same idea can apply to teachers: Catch kids doing something right can be catch teachers doing something right.
If administrators put teaches into teams to brainstorm solutions to problems every school faces: truancy, tardiness, vandalism, poor attendance, unproductive attitudes, or alienation, teachers may develop an effective solution and feel more connected to the school. At one high school where I taught, students gathered in small groups in corners of halls and in staircases to smoke and exchange drugs during class time. The faculty was so frustrated that one science teacher grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed a group of students smoking in a staircase adjacent to his room. The faculty met in small problem solving groups to develop a plan. The solution was simple. Each faculty member sacrificed one consultation period a week. Each teacher was assigned a partner and wandered the halls on hall patrol. The high visible patrol made most students return to class without issue. The more defiant elements were either written up by the team to be counseled and discipline by a vice principal at a later time, or escorted to the vice principal's office for immediate action. An unintended consequence of the highly effective solution was faculty members who may have never collaborated were working together. I, an English teacher was paired with Keith Tolstrup, a tall shop teacher. We remained friends until his death and I even became friends with his daughter who was about my age. He served not only as a deterrent to wandering students, but a fatherly mentor to me.
Good solutions develop when teachers work together with administrators to solve problems and morale improves. Furthermore, some of the burdens of the administration are spread to the willing minds of the teachers. It takes an entire community to raise a child.
Behavior issues often drive inexperience teachers from the classroom; however if teachers met with other teachers to discuss discipline techniques and students problems, the inexperienced teachers would feel less isolated and develop positive skills when dealing with difficult students or communicating with difficult parents. These support teams would be more effective use of faculty meeting since most of the information disseminated in faculty meeting could be presented in an email or a memo.Frequent Fun Faculty Social Interactions
Finally teachers need a break from the drudgery and need to interact socially. Frequent social interaction is important. Have your faculty create a Faculty Follies, the students will love it and the teachers will be forced to work together at something silly while enjoying themselves. Create pot luck lunches. When I taught at one high school, a group of us regularly went to dinner,out to cocktails, to movies or even cross-country skiing. Venting or just doing something unrelated to school releases pressure in a faculty. Cook breakfast for your staff like my last principal or bring in a photographer for some crazy shots of the staff barbequing or playing tug-of-war with the kids.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.