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Blog, Tips for School & District Administrators

When Your School Staff’s Morale Drops

By Jennifer Gunn

The spring stretch is the final push of the year where tensions can run high and patience can wear thin in schools. Students and teachers are tired, testing season is upon us, and the school year’s issues may hit their peak. Here are some leadership ideas to help boost your school’s morale when things get down or downright toxic.

Teacher Morale Matters

As a leader, it can be frustrating and wearing to constantly manage the complaints, opinions, and requests of both students and teachers. Leaders may ask, “What more do they want from me?” The truth is, morale matters. One study found that “sinking teacher morale generally accompanies sinking student achievement. Time constraints, excessive workloads, and insufficient classroom resources take their toll.” It may not seem like the school leader’s job to also be the staff cheerleader, but “teacher morale is higher in schools where principals create a positive school culture and climate,” the study says. “You may have heard it said, “We’re here for the kids, not the teachers. You may even have said it. It’s true. We are here for the kids…. However, do not make the mistake of thinking that student needs and teacher interests are mutually exclusive,” says Danny Steele and Todd Whitaker in their book Essential Truths for Principals. “I would actually argue that they are inextricably linked. To put it simply, happy teachers are more effective teachers. In fact, the morale of your faculty is an important component of a strong school culture.”

Culture of Recognition and Respect

When people feel seen and appreciated, they are more likely to do their best work. As a school leader, this means getting out of your office and making yourself a visible and welcoming presence. Greet your staff each morning, ask about their lives, and visit classrooms in a non-evaluative capacity. Recognize the successes of your staff — leave a kind note in their mailbox or shout them out in a meeting. Remember that classroom teaching is exhausting and often thankless, so know that teachers may regularly feel overwhelmed, tired, and frustrated.

While part of your job may involve being the instructional leader, that doesn’t mean you have to be the all-knowing expert. In fact, “Instructional leadership is not about being an expert, though; it is about cultivating the expertise in your building. It’s about creating a culture of collaboration where teachers learn from one another and inspire one another.” says Steele and Whitaker. “Teaching is hard work and, when it is done right, can be absolutely draining. It is imperative that school leaders provide support and encouragement all year long.”

Remember that your recognition and respect should extend to everyone. “Seek out and thank the ‘invisible’ people within our schools who quietly do their work without much acknowledgment or attention,” says Dr. Justin Tarte. “These team members are often the ‘linchpin’ holding everything together & without them, we’d struggle mightily.”

Need some creative ideas for keeping things upbeat all year? Check out the book Morale Magic by Stephanie McConnell and Christine Bedre. It features month-by-month ideas to keep school morale high throughout the year.

Culture of Trust

One of the biggest culture and morale killers is a lack of trust between admin and other staff members. When an us against them dynamic takes hold, it can be difficult to escape its toxicity. The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory says that “while there are probably endless grievances we could list here that have led to low levels of trust in different schools, the most common barriers to developing and maintaining trusting relationships among teachers, principals, and other school staff members include the following:

  • Top-down decision-making that is perceived as arbitrary, misinformed, or not in the best interests of the school
  • Ineffective communication
  • Lack of follow-through on or support for school improvement efforts and other projects
  • Unstable or inadequate school funding
  • Failure to remove teachers or principals who are widely viewed to be ineffective
  • Frequent turnover in school leadership
  • High teacher turnover
  • Teacher isolation”

How can leaders build trust and improve morale? Communicate well and often. Recognize and trust teachers to experiment and innovate. Be accessible, available, and present. Truly listen and demonstrate a genuine sense of care. Stay true to your word, and be honest and consistent. Involve your staff in decision-making and empower teachers to take on leadership roles. Have your teachers’ backs when things get tough. And, in periods of change, be patient and steadfast, so that when things get uncertain, your staff can look to your integrity and strength. “Principals, your teachers must first trust in you before trusting in the change itself,” says Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad. “Our school culture is the overall summary of the various conversations about students and attitudes about learning happening daily. Every interaction can build a more positive environment.”

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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