Happiness in Teaching | Steve Barkley

Happiness in Teaching

The title of this study caught my attention when it showed up in an email feed: Effect of Teachers’ Happiness on Teachers’ Health. The Mediating Role of Happiness at Work. It was one of a list of articles under the topic Well-Being of School Teachers in Their Work Environment. A quick look illustrates why teacher (educator) well-being should be an important focus for school leaders, especially now.

A U.S.News report highlights that while teaching has always been a stressful job, the pandemic could be driving even more teachers from the profession. It cites a RAND Corp study: “This raises the concern that more teachers may decide to quit this year than in past years if nothing is done to address challenging working conditions and support teacher well-being.”

An Education Week article reports that only about one-third of U.S. teachers in a large international study based on data collected prior to the pandemic identified feeling appreciated. The article shares these current examples:

  • Brian White, Executive Director of Human Resources and Operations for Auburn-Washburn Unified School District 437 in Topeka, KS, has been conducting “stay interviews.” Employees are asked why they stay in their jobs and what would cause them to leave. Feeling undervalued is a response he’s hearing increasingly from teachers. White believes that routinely checking in with employees via stay interviews, engagement surveys, and other efforts that gauge employee morale can help districts avoid later conversations with dissatisfied employees on the verge of quitting.
  • Rodney Lewis, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources at Missouri’s City of St. Charles School District, cited one teacher who recently resigned, saying that she felt like her best days teaching were over. “People are just tired,” Lewis said. While some states are offering grants for incentives for teacher recruitment and retention, Lewis highlighted, “We’re talking about someone’s heart. There’s no amount of money that can change that.”

The Effect of Teachers’ Happiness on Teachers’ Health study identified the main factors leading to a higher degree of happiness at work as positive interpersonal relationships, both with colleagues and superiors; performing activities perceived as meaningful and fruitful; recognition for the achievements; fair treatment; and a positive family and work-life balance. The study cites international surveys showing that teachers at a lower risk for burnout and dissatisfaction receive positive, valuable feedback from colleagues and mentors, have a satisfied supervisor, and feel they can improve students’ ways of learning and thinking.

This list of findings is certainly reinforcing for me. For school leaders to have a sense of well-being, they need reinforcement that their actions support teachers and students. The findings certainly provide areas for leaders to assess current practices and plan for the best ways to invest leadership and instructional coaching energies. Here are some that triggered me:

  • Positive interpersonal relationships – I’ve promoted for many years that teaching is a team sport. Functioning as team members, teacher relationships are built around shared responsibilities for student success. In too many schools what we call team meetings are franchise meetings. Strong interpersonal relationships may emerge in franchise meetings; in team meetings, those relationships are a necessity. How invested are your leaders in creating and supporting teams? (Team or Franchise?)
  • Improve students’ ways of learning and thinking – To what extent are teachers confident that what they are teaching and assessing is making a difference in students’ lives now and in the future? Are leaders engaging teachers in this conversation and providing teachers some autonomy to focus on what they see as important. In a podcast with Jeff Utecht from Shifting Schools, titled Stop Worrying About Getting Through Stuff, Jeff highlights that his focus is having teachers look at a lesson plan and ask, “ Is my focus on building a skill that a kid can take forward, or is my focus on some content? If the focus is on content because we need to focus on it, how can you switch the task so that students have to use some type of skill to get to that content?”
  • Receive positive, valuable feedback from colleagues and mentors – Creating a culture of coaching within our school may be of greater importance today than at any other recent time. This is a time for instructional coaches to seriously take on the role of being the “coach of coaching.” For teachers to receive the empathy, recognition, approval, and feedback that will support well-being, they need opportunities for substantial collegial engagement that will lead to collective efficacy. What leadership steps are you taking in generating a coaching culture? Peer coaching isn’t one-more-thing. Peer coaching is an investment in well-being.

Members of your leadership team need the same attention to happiness at work as do teachers. Consider identifying “leaders happiness” as the agenda topic for an upcoming leadership team meeting. I’d be happy to discuss your thoughts on the topic. Drop me a note.

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