By Danny Steele, EdD and Todd Whitaker, PhD
Teacher Morale Is Not Tricky. Involve Them. Support Them. Recognize Them. Value Them.
You may have heard it said, “We’re here for the kids, not the teachers.” You may have even said it. It’s true. We are here for the kids. Students are the reason schools exist, and every decision should be driven by the needs and interests of the children. However, do not make the mistake of thinking student needs and teacher interests are mutually exclusive. I would actually argue 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.
Here is the good news: It is not that hard to raise the morale of your teachers! But it usually does not happen by accident—you must be intentional about it.
5 ways you can raise the morale of your teachers:
- Keep your teachers focused on the difference they are making for kids. Being a teacher is a profoundly gratifying career. It is easy to get bogged down in the administrivia though. The daily grind of planning lessons, grading papers, and dealing with the more challenging students can sap the energy and joy from teachers. We need to remind our teachers why we come to work each day. We keep the focus on our students and not the “hassles” of the job. We remind our teachers about the difference they make in the lives of their students. Our teachers are heroes in the classroom every day, and we never want to overlook that. When we help teachers keep their eye on the ball, they are more likely to keep their head in the game. When teachers remember their “why,” it can carry them through the stresses of their day.
- Involve your teachers in the decisions of the school. In my experience, teachers are more motivated when their administration leads collaboratively. When teachers are involved in the decisions of the school, they are more invested in the process. When their opinions are valued, they feel valued. Listen to the feedback of your teachers…and take it seriously. When teachers feel included in the decision making process, they will take ownership of the entire school, not just their classroom.
- Trust the judgment of your teachers. Teachers are professionals. Treat them like professionals. Respect their experiences, and respect their expertise. Of course principals are responsible for the entire school and are ultimately accountable for everything that happens. But micromanagement is the quickest way to destroy the morale of a faculty. Give your teachers an opportunity to prove themselves. Good leaders will quickly learn which staff members require closer supervision.
- Give your teachers the benefit of the doubt. Trust is foundational to any healthy school culture. When you are frustrated with something a teacher said or did, assume that they had good intentions. Do not start off being judgmental. When your default setting is to give teachers the benefit of the doubt, it will not go unnoticed. Your teachers will feel supported, respected, and valued.
- Notice the little things your teachers do… and recognize them for it. It is not enough to think your team members are valuable; it is important to tell them. People need to know their work is appreciated, so praise your teachers often. Give them shout-outs in front of their colleagues. Thank them for the little things they do that make a difference for their students, for their colleagues, and for the school. Never underestimate the value of encouragement. Be specific, and be genuine. Never take your teachers, or the important work they do, for granted.
As teacher morale increases, so will the positive energy in the building. Students will notice it; parents will notice it; and anyone who visits the building will notice it. In my world, there is never a time when teacher morale is irrelevant. I strongly believe teachers who feel good about coming to work, and who feel good about the work they do, will be more effective employees. They will bring a higher level of energy into the classroom, and they will demonstrate greater resiliency when confronted with adversity.
Great Principals Do Not Act Important; They Make Their Teachers Feel Important.
The role of the principal can never be overstated. Their impact is like a rock hitting a pond. The ripples continue endlessly. They have a tremendous influence on the culture and climate of the school. They can affect the morale of the students but they always directly affect the morale of the teachers.
Great principals treat their teachers the same way the best teachers treat their students. They make everyone feel important and valued. They do not treat everyone the same but they treat them all fairly. They listen, they laugh, and they build them up.
When a principal makes the teachers feel important, the teachers make the students feel important. Principals know the key to the quality of the school is directly related to the quality of the teachers. The teachers are the most precious commodity in a school. Great principals know it and show it every day.
If a Principal Wants to Lose Their Teachers Quickly, They Should Brag About Themselves. If They Want to Build Relationships with Their Teachers, They Should Brag About Them.
The very best teachers have a consistent focus on their students. They make decisions based on what is best for the students and for the class. They never lose sight of that. Even if state standards, testing, and other mandates seem to take us down a different path, the best teachers quickly refocus on what is best for the students They make everything they do about supporting, encouraging, and helping the young people in their class maximize their potential. They do not just do it for some of the students—they do it for all of the students.
The parallel between teachers and their students is incredibly similar to that of principals and their teachers. The very best principals have a consistent focus on their teachers. This does not mean they lose sight of being student centered. Instead, it is because they know the best way to take care of their students is to take care of their teachers.
There are highly effective teachers who have larger than life personalities. There are highly effective teachers who work hard to stay out of the spotlight. Yet, regardless of their personal traits, all of the most effective teachers consistently center on the students.
This same thing is true for the best principals. Some are more outgoing than others, but all still work to make sure their teachers are “the main thing.” They give credit and take blame. They protect the teachers from outside influences as much as possible, while simultaneously supporting them in their individual efforts.
The characteristics between the best teachers and the best principals have tremendous overlap. They both know what the ultimate goal is and are highly aware they are only one piece of the puzzle. The best teachers know it is all about the students, and the best principals are highly aware of the essential role the teachers play in the success of any school. And in the best schools, the teachers and the administration are invested in the success of one another. They respect each other, and they appreciate each other, because they realize they are all in it for the same reason: The KIDS!
Our Goal Should Be to Catch Teachers Being Awesome… and Celebrate It. What Gets Validated Is What Gets Replicated.
Managers stop by to make sure teachers are working. Leaders stop by to encourage teachers in their work. Principals who adopt a “gotcha” mentality while they walk through their school undermine trust with faculty members and destroy the morale of teachers. Principals should spend far more energy catching their teachers doing the right thing than doing the wrong thing. Never miss an opportunity to brag about your colleagues to the visitors in the building—and preferably do so in front of the colleagues. Positive reinforcement goes a long way in promoting the professional behaviors that characterize great schools.
These “shout-outs” don’t have to be for big things. Teachers make our schools great when they do the little things. Recognize these teachers:
- The teacher who works tirelessly to prepare students for the real world.
- The teacher who is committed to identifying what is in the best interest of their students.
- The teacher who is passionate about learning new and improved ways of doing their job.
- The teacher who has a passion for supporting their students and does not stop at 3pm.
- The teacher who is willing to talk to students who are struggling.
- The teacher who is willing to implement any strategy or activity in their classroom if it will make learning experiences more meaningful for their students.
- The teacher who takes time to read to their students.
- The teacher who routinely teaches bell to bell.
- The teacher who embraces the challenge of reaching the students who seem the most unreachable.
- The teacher who gets excited when they find a creative way to teach their lesson.
- The teacher who instills pride in their students by consistently showing off their work.
- The teacher who goes the extra mile to help their students be successful.
- The teacher who always stands in the hall between classes.
- The teacher who understands the power of respecting their students.
- The teacher who works hard to be a positive role model for their students.
- The teacher who refuses to let anything get in the way of their students’ learning.
- The teacher who is always committed to rising above adversity.
- The teacher who understands the importance of celebrating the successes of their students.
- The teacher who utilizes every resource possible in pursuit of excellence in their classroom.
- The teacher who is always willing to help out with things that aren’t even in their job description.
- The teacher who takes time to write personal notes on the papers they return to their students.
And it is not just the teachers who are doing great things in our schools! The support staff deserve our recognition as well.
- The registrar who takes the time to show new students around the school.
- The custodian who takes pride in how clean the floors are.
- The cafeteria worker who takes time to talk to the students while they are serving food.
- The secretary who is kind, patient, and helpful to all those who visit the building.
- The paraprofessional who demonstrates extraordinary flexibility as they work to help everyone in the building.
- The School Resource Officer who takes time to get to know the students.
- The bookkeeper who brings extraordinary efficiency to their job to ensure that teachers have the resources they need as quickly as possible.
- The nurse who understands stomach aches are often more about stress than germs.
- The maintenance technician who maintains a positive attitude even when they’re being pulled in a million directions.
- The media center specialist who will drop what they’re doing to go and help a teacher who is having some “technical difficulties.”
- The counselor who goes above and beyond to connect students with resources to meet their needs.
Dr. Danny Steele is in his 27th year of education, and this school year marks his first as an Assistant Professor of Instructional Leadership at the University of Montevallo. Prior to this position, he served as a principal, assistant principal, teacher, and coach. He has presented at numerous state and national conferences and spoken in school districts around the country. He maintains an educational leadership blog and has recently written two books with Todd Whitaker which were released in February.
Dr. Todd Whitaker is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Missouri. He is a leading presenter in the field of education and has written more than 50 books including the national bestsellers “What Great Teachers Do Differently” and “Your First Year: How to Survive and Thrive as a New Teacher,” co-written with Madeline Whitaker Good and Katherine Whitaker.
Reproduced with permission from Essential Truths for Principals by Danny Steele and Todd Whitaker (© Routledge, 2019).
TEPSA Leader, Fall 2019, Vol 32, No 5
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