An expert opinion piece by Tom Cragg, Education Specialist at ProgressTeaching
Having worked in schools full-time for the last 22 years, I am left with no doubt that teachers and school leaders are an extraordinary group of people.
The difference teachers make to pupils’ lives is immense, so often setting young people on a course that will shape their professional and personal lives for the better.
The importance of teachers
Just in case we needed any convincing about why teachers are so important, here are nine reasons taken from the build-up to the Global Teacher Prize awards in 2016:
- They help under-achievers to fly and keep over-achievers grounded
- They listen, coach and mentor
- They make the mundane extraordinary
- They simplify the complex
- They help us reveal our skills
- They teach us life skills
- They are quiet heroes
- They educate us
- They inspire us
In addition to this global acknowledgement of the vital role that teachers play, I also recall, in the various lockdowns we experienced during the pandemic, how many parents felt compelled to praise the work of teachers as it dawned on them just how challenging a task it is to keep a child engaged for a day.
This quote from The Guardian journalist, Emma Brockes, sums up how many parents felt at the time:
“Going into this period I already loved my girls’ teachers, but along with a lot of other parents this week, trying to teach my own kids has filled me with an unparalleled sense of amazement.”
Why is morale low right now?
Why then, when I read articles and talk to colleagues in many different schools about morale, does the profession seem to be at such a low ebb right now?
Aside from the ever-present pressures of fitting a complex job into a healthy number of working hours, exam results and other personal performance targets, Covid remains a factor in pushing the profession beyond its usual limits.
Such is the current cover crisis being caused by the virus that the CEO of one Multi-Academy Trust has even made himself available for supply work this term.
Concerningly, many teachers have found it a real challenge to readjust to the rigours of full-time, face-to-face teaching and school life following the second school closure in 2021 and are consequently asking themselves searching questions about their work-life balance and personal priorities.
What can we do?
What can be done to restore teachers’ love for what they do and ensure that great people remain in this great profession?
In the six ‘drivers for lifting and maintaining teacher morale’ below, I have pulled together ideas and reflections from a range of sources so that school leaders and teachers can look after each other and apply some simple strategies to make their lives more manageable in these challenging times.
Six drivers for lifting and maintaining teacher morale:
1 – Go back to the bigger picture
- What we do makes a real difference and remembering that can give us a boost. I recently saw some LinkedIn profiles of my ex-students who have now graduated and are embarking on their careers. I allowed myself a moment of pride.
- Revisit the school’s vision to remind colleagues of your collective purpose and that they are a vital part of a bigger picture.
- Providing colleagues with clarity around their roles and setting them clear goals can be a motivational force. If we know exactly what we are doing and how we are going to achieve our aims, we are more likely to feel confident and able to succeed in our roles.
2 – Use time well
- Improve the efficiencies of school systems to save time. Using a platform like ProgressTeaching can significantly reduce workload in terms of collecting, collating and analysing information.
- Ensure that meetings are relevant, well-planned and purposeful. If there are not enough items to fill an agenda, do not search too hard to justify the meeting’s slot on the calendar. Instead, make a quick win and give teachers additional time to plan and mark.
- Wherever possible, give teachers time for individual and co-planning.
- Allow staff the option of working from home where they have blocks of PPA time.
3 – Create opportunities for collaboration and professional learning at all levels
- Observe each other and be inspired by the passion, joy and creativity of colleagues around us.
- Retain a strong focus on whole school CPD and bespoke, career stage-related pathways.
- Network with like-minded, empathetic colleagues in other schools.
- Give teachers regular, developmental, low-stakes feedback on their teaching with clear action steps, so they can see how their practice is improving over time. The lesson observation module on ProgressTeaching can help to track and maximise the use of this vital information.
- Create a culture of collaboration with teachers leading motivational reflections and sharing good practice to begin staff meetings.
- Link new staff up with ‘induction buddies’ (colleagues at a similar level of experience are preferable) so they feel like part of the community from day one.
- Give staff a voice and respond swiftly to questionnaires with a ‘you said, we did’ approach. Build a sense that ‘we are in this together’.
4 – Create a ‘Recognition Culture’
- Thank staff verbally in briefings, in writing through informal cards and emails, and for successes on a grander scale, with more formal letters of gratitude.
- Ask pupils to write or record messages of thanks to their teachers. Messages from pupils often mean the most to their teachers.
- There are times when a financial reward is appropriate, so consider putting in place an ‘excellence award’ for outstanding performance.
5 – Consider the What? When? How? of communication
- What is being communicated?
- If the information in an all-staff email is also going to be mentioned in a meeting and/or shared on meeting notes anyway, the email doesn’t need to be sent. Look carefully at what duplication may exist in what is being communicated to staff. On a face-to-face level of what you are communicating, the power of a simple “Good morning” or “How are you?” cannot be underestimated and all staff should go out of their way to ensure this is how they welcome new starters.
- When is it being communicated?
- Avoid sending emails outside of working hours. Messages can be saved as drafts, then sent. Alternatively, messages can be ‘delay delivered’. Encourage staff to un-synch email from their phones out of hours or set up the ‘do not disturb’ feature on their email account, allowing them time to switch off. We need to disengage so we can positively re-engage. Applying the ‘when’ to meeting agendas, it is also good practice to share agendas, including any pre-reading, a minimum of 3 working days in advance of a meeting. This prepares colleagues for meetings, avoids last-minute stress and maximises meeting time.
- How is it being communicated?
- Consider how email tone comes across. There is nothing wrong with being formal and to the point, but when emails are topped and tailed in a positive, collegiate way, it gives colleagues the impression that they are receiving feedback rather than being told off. Some messages can’t be sugar-coated, but where there is the opportunity, offer someone a ‘praise sandwich’, for example, “Thank you for always being on time for duty. Please could you engage with the pupils more proactively to avoid some of the issues we have been experiencing in this area. Thanks as ever for taking changes on board.”
6 – Well-being
- Celebrate successes, birthdays and other important occasions in staff meetings with a chocolate bar. Confectionary is a powerful currency!
- Introduce a ‘random acts of kindness week’, where colleagues are asked to do something nice for each other. Examples I have seen include taking someone’s duty, handing them a cup of tea or leaving them a note in their pigeonhole telling them why they are brilliant.
- Spend extra time on staff who are experiencing difficulties. If you drop what you are doing at the time and prioritise colleagues who are experiencing particular hardship, it is never forgotten.
- Create a staff association so that everyone is looked after or recognised at key moments and nobody slips the net.
- The staff association can take on the organisation of staff activities such as Friday afternoon sports, a book club and off-site social events. This is a particularly good way of building community across a larger organisation.
- Little gestures count for a lot: catering for meetings, food and drink at parents’ evenings, ‘lunch is on us days’ and weekly ‘room service’ are all ways that appreciation can be shown to staff.
Lifting teacher morale should be a priority because we need to look after our ‘quiet heroes’. After all, happy and successful teachers mean happy and successful pupils.
One or two of these actions alone won’t lift morale when it is low, but working on the principle of marginal gains, putting a lot of these strategies into practice simultaneously could lead to a positive change.