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February 2014 | Volume 71 | Number 5
Building School Morale
If you want to know something about school morale, ask the people in the trenches.
When Educational Leadership asked me to write an article for this issue, I almost said no.
I surprised myself. I'm a writer, a blogger, and an English teacher by trade, and I never say no to a request to write. I hadn't realized how painfully I felt that the trajectory of U.S. education had skewed in the past 10 years.
In the face of the failure of funding for public schools, damaging teacher evaluation policies, stultifying infatuation with high-stakes testing, and continued national myopia regarding the influence of economic inequity on our students, to write about how to help teachers "put on a happy face" felt ludicrously peripheral.
I believed, finally, there was only one way to do this with integrity, and that was to test my own experiences and ideas in fire. I recruited seven administrators and teachers and interviewed them in person and over e-mail. Most were from New York's Rochester City School District, where poverty rates are through the roof and attendance rates are in the gutter. This is one of the districts for which our governor intended the threat when he stated that poor-performing schools needed "a death penalty."
Word of mouth had indicated that despite their district's deeply challenging conditions, these teachers and administrators had succeeded in maintaining morale. I asked them, What do you do, and what do you need, to stay sane?
What follows is a list of recommendations for administrators that resulted from those conversations, informed by my own experiences as a public educator. Here's what these educators told me builds—and sustains—school morale.
"If a teacher asks for a refrigerator, and you say to yourself, 'Why does this person need a refrigerator?' still get them the refrigerator," said one administrator. These Rochester educators understand that teachers work in woefully underfunded, undersupplied conditions, even in the districts with the strongest tax bases. If they're asking for something—one administrator wistfully listed "books" as one of those items—chances are they need it.
The best Rochester administrators don't give teachers the runaround. They give them instead the benefit of the doubt. They follow through, and they move heaven and earth to get teachers what they want, even if they're not quite sure why the teachers want those things in the first place. If they don't succeed, they work directly with teachers to find a viable alternative. This is an often overlooked but crucial way an administrator builds trust.
One principal I spoke to made it a priority to have at least one administrator—herself or a vice principal—step into each classroom in her building every single day. "It guts my schedule, but it's so important," she said. "That way, I can acknowledge the true work going on in the building, and no one feels like I'm trying to 'gotcha' them. People walking in and out [of classrooms] are part of the culture." If there's a purpose to the classroom check, make it completely transparent—as in, "Today, I'm going to run around and make sure everyone's learning targets are posted."
These Rochester administrators and teachers don't wait for a situation to resolve itself before communicating about it to their staff, nor do they entertain fears that communicating openly with teachers about the complexity of school issues somehow diminishes their position as leaders. "I tell my teachers all about what's happening to me within the new evaluation system, as well as what's happening to them," one principal said. "They have to know that we're absolutely in this together."
The Rochester educators spoke admiringly of colleagues who could remember the names and ages of all the children of their staff members. One administrator poignantly spoke of supporting teachers who struggled with various health issues. These types of communication, which acknowledge deeply personal situations and struggles, count the most. Every other conversation with teachers, whether it's about curriculum, testing, or evaluation, needs to be driven by the knowledge of the teacher as an individual, and not the other way around.
Number 3 leads naturally from Number 2. In particular, a true leader, as my Rochester educators stated time and time again, doesn't put his or her staff on surveillance. Buildings where lesson plans, e-mail, sick time, arrivals and departures from campus, and even custodial orders are centrally examined, assessed, and debated create what philosopher Michel Foucault called the panopticon—a place where order is maintained through fear of constant and unpredictable monitoring. The panopticon, it's interesting to note, was first conceived by English social theorist Jeremy Bentham as a method of designing prisons.
This approach simply doesn't work. It breeds cynicism and resentment in teachers who already believe they are considered unworthy of, say, more than one working copier in a building or a phone that isn't permanently attached to the wall. Instead, the educators I spoke to took great pains to give teachers respectful autonomy, even to the point of moving past their initial impulses to the contrary.
"Say I'm in a meeting with a concerned parent and a teacher, and the parent has a valid point about the teacher's work," said one principal. "I will not criticize the teacher in front of the parent. Instead, I work hard to make sure everyone feels validated in that meeting, and then I have a private conversation with the teacher later if I have to."
Rochester administrators also spoke of involving teachers at the ground level regarding a basic element: their schedules. They take their role as leaders seriously in this regard and wield much of their decision-making power to create and approve working schedules that meet teachers' personal needs. Start and end times are flexed to give teachers time to pick up their kids from school or drop them off at day care, and administrators don't question teachers about how they spend their time.
The result is something closer to a "results only" workplace rather than the panopticon. As long as the work gets done, and done well, everything else is up to the teacher. As a former Rochester city superintendent wrote me, "When teachers are consistently told what to do (given scripted lessons, for example) and are not able to design the structure of their classes, gauge student achievement based on their own training and experience, or manage student behavior according to their strengths, then one can expect low morale." Conversely, high teacher morale is the result of teacher empowerment.
"The teachers have to know that they're my number one," said one Rochester principal. Stated another principal bluntly, "And you never know how close a teacher is to walking out."
So how do you get refrigerators, conduct respectful evaluations, provide flexible schedules, and convince teachers that they're your number one?
As one administrator put it, you "play with the gray." You navigate the system to get the things done that you need to get done.
The Rochester educators spoke of this tension between doing what their systems asked them to do and doing what they believed was ethical and humane. Each and every educator cast these dilemmas firmly in the light of maintaining a moral stance in the context of a system that often seemed to work against them.
For example, administrators often stepped in to mitigate the harsher consequences of district policy. Deadlines were quietly extended. Mandatory meetings were held but truncated in an effort to protect teachers' time. It was the administrators' way of breaking the tyrannical grip of the panopticon.
Yet did they break it? These educators' experiences raise the age-old question: Is massaging the internal workings of the system enough to truly reform the system? When does it become necessary to let the public know, for example, that you're opting out your own children from standardized tests? Or that you struggle with the idea of suggesting to the parents in your school that they investigate that same course of action? That you're forced to make choices between following the rules and following your conscience?
At some point, principals, administrators, and teachers may choose to shift the responsibility of reform to levels beyond the personal by participating in public protests, such as those represented at www.newyorkprincipals.org (see "Letter to Parents about Testing" and the APPR paper). As a former superintendent wrote to me, "As administrators, we have a moral obligation to stand tall with teachers to do what's right for kids."
Henry David Thoreau seconded this thought in his essay Civil Disobedience. "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law," he wrote, "so much as for the right." Yet such actions come at great personal risk. My interviewees struggle with this choice every day.
In the end, it was abundantly clear in these interviews that the administrators who fought for their teachers—however silently—earned ultimate respect.
"So you save the teachers?" I asked one administrator.
The Rochester administrator smiled a humble but resolute smile. "I'd like to call it doing the right thing," he said quietly.
An e-mail from a former city superintendent helped me put to rest my initial fears that morale is a peripheral issue by pointing out, ironically, that I was correct. Morale, it turns out, is peripheral.
"Teacher morale, in my experience, is not a function of practices designed to maintain or create it," the superintendent wrote. "It's a by-product of being treated as leaders and being treated with respect. Teacher morale is the end product of empowering teachers to make decisions that affect their lives."
Readers, I hope something on this list inspires and supports you. I also hope that at least one item on this list—this real list, written by real people in the deepest education trenches—makes you frustrated, even angry. Angry that such measures are necessary for the survival of the hearts and minds of educators. Angry that educators are being driven to make such choices. And angry that our education system is broken so badly—and broken, ironically, by ostensible efforts to fix it—that it results in such a list.
If you're angry, ask yourself why. And then do something about it.
Dina Strasser teaches 7th grade English at Roth Middle School in Henrietta, New York. She blogs at http://theline.edublogs.org.
Copyright © 2014 by ASCD
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