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February 2014 | Volume 71 | Number 5
Building School Morale
At a time when U.S. teachers' morale is historically low and, as Rafe Esquith ("Can't Wait for Monday,") claims, teachers in the United States seem to be scapegoats, how can teachers and administrators keep a hopeful, even joyful, feeling about coming to school every day? Teachers are heroic because they daily practice "optimism in the face of daunting reality," Esquith says. Articles in this issue discuss both the reality that educators feel underappreciated (see "Why Does the Public Hate Us?" by Deborah Lynch) and the small–or radical—changes everyone connected to schools can make to give educators reasons for optimism.
Exercising creativity and feeling empowered are two musts for high morale. Nel Noddings ("High Morale in a Good Cause,") points out a paradox: policymakers insist that creativity is an essential skill for students, yet enforce teaching methods that deprive teachers of the chance to wield creativity. Teachers shouldn't let this impulse be squelched. Even lesson planning, Noddings insists, can be a chance to get creative—to come at material from a new angle or connect it innovatively to other disciplines or to stimulating books, vocabulary, or historical events. Noddings notes:
[Planning] presents an opportunity to review and extend my own knowledge and to reformulate it more articulately. Everything is possible at the first delightful stage of planning–all the material that is prescribed, all the material we already know and enjoy, all the new things we plan to introduce.
Many reforms designed to improve teacher and instructional quality involve prescribing—or judging—teachers' every move, an approach that teacher Dina Strasser ("An Open Letter on Teacher Morale,") insists torpedoes both teaching and morale. The educators from the New York schools that Strasser surveyed recommend practices that empower teachers and respect their needs (her first suggestions is "give teachers what they ask for") and trust their judgment.
Do you agree with this remark that Strasser quotes: "Teacher morale is the end product of empowering teachers to make decisions that affect their lives?" Why or why not?
Read Strasser's third suggestion for raising morale ("treat teachers like adults"). Have you experienced a teaching situation in which you weren't treated this way, in which most aspects of your work at school was scrutinized and subject to orders–what Strasser calls the "Panopticon"? What practices gave you this feeling? How did it affect your morale? How did you cope?
In Deborah Lynch's recent survey of Chicago public school teachers ("Why Does the Public Hate Us?,"), teachers vented about serious challenges affecting their teaching lives and at times their well-being. Teachers were intensely stressed about the public's negative perception of teachers in general these days: They rated the problem of public disparagement of K-12 teachers in general as their top challenge, more serious than student behavior or school safety.
If teachers feel unappreciated by the surrounding culture, it's important that they feel valued by their administrators. Yet if appreciation programs aren't sensitively done, and individualized, the message may not get through. As Paul White notes in "Learning the Languages of Appreciation," not everyone feels appreciated by the same actions. White's work identifies different ways people prefer to receive affirming messages: such as through verbal praise, quality time, or helpful acts (see www.appreciationatwork.com for more information and suggestions about identifying your own preference). If you try to show affirmation in a "language" other than a teacher's preference, it may misfire.
Copyright © 2014 by ASCD
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