In recent weeks several of my conversations with school leadership teams, instructional coaches and building principals have hit the topic of teacher morale.
One of the areas of concern revolved around the approaching testing that their students would be taking. Leaders described a frenetic environment as teachers pushed to cover material included on the test that their classroom instruction had not yet met.
I suggested that leaders facilitate a conversation with staff around these questions:
What message would you want your students to receive from you as the test date approaches?
What have you been doing? How do you imagine students interrupt those actions?
What purposeful actions might you want to add to send the message you want students to internalize?
My thought is that a “push” to cover last minute material sends a message that “we are not ready.” When I ask what message teachers wanted to send it was usually a message of confidence. Something like: “You’ve worked hard and learned a lot that you will be able to demonstrate on the test.”
I’m thinking that I might spend some time, showing students difficult material and demonstrating how they can use what they know and have learned to tackle these problems. (Doing this in an environment of “problem-solving is fun”).
In researching teacher morale for another client, I found this article by Nel Noddings: High Morale in a Good Cause,
Educational Leadership February 2014 | Volume 71 | Number 5
Noddings identifies the importance of addressing teacher morale but cautions being clear of the purpose.
….. educators may be suspicious of superficial efforts to boost morale if they perceive that their school is using such efforts in a bad cause—to ensure compliance and rally uncritical teacher support for a new program imposed by the district or state, for instance. History is loaded with cases of groups being manipulated to exercise great enthusiasm for bad causes.
He suggests that the good cause to raise teacher morale is improved student learning and that we can address morale with a focus on collegiality, creativity, and continuity. Working with a team of instructional coaches I explored looking at the end of the year with these three focus areas.
Noddings discusses building teacher collegiality around agreed upon learner outcomes that extended beyond single discipline outcomes, such as: to produce people who are morally good, intellectually competent, socially sensitive, spiritually inquisitive, and committed to living full and satisfying lives.
The ending weeks of school strike me as a great time for teachers to explore providing students with experiences that build outcomes that aren’t being measured by standardized test. Teachers as a community deciding what outcomes are most important for their students and community and deciding how collaboratively to make it happen creates a morale building opportunity.
Andy Hargraves in a presentation for Learningforward asked this questions which I thought fit here well. “What is a higher place that all of us can find together….where opposites attract and we do something new?”
Noddings states,” Education policymakers today tout creativity, critical thinking, and collaborative problem solving as major aims of education for students—yet they institute methods that deprive teachers of opportunities to exercise their own creativity”. “Freedom to plan and teach creatively is conducive to both higher morale and a deeper sense of responsibility.”
The end of the school year could be well spent by opening the door to teacher and student creativity; Problem Based Learning that had students tackle authentic problems in their community or from around the world. Every time I hear a story about students doing amazing things in a project, I find that the teacher never set out to do the “amazing “thing. At the core of each story there is a creative teacher who got kids engaged and then had the courage to support the students’ thinking, creativity, and enthusiasm.
That seems a great way to close out a school year.
Noddings describes the value of continuity in staff positively impacting teacher morale. He states that while stability and long- term relationships are valuable, continuity even more important might be continuity of curriculum and purpose.
I have recently conducted vertical PLC conversations where teachers built students’ goals and programs collaboratively across grade levels. The sense of team as teachers unite around student success provides morale boosts during the sometimes draining work and at times “too slow” student progress. Building that continuity across school levels is another purposeful leadership focus that I believe supports teacher morale.
As school leaders, what are you planning, promoting, and facilitating in the closing months of the school year? What message do you want teachers to receive from your choices?