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Principals Own the Morale of Teachers

When I was the executive director of the National Education Association, I often said to the staff that I took full responsibility for their morale. I thought about it every day and with every decision I made. I appointed a design team to assist me with ideas and activities to drive a positive culture and work environment. I periodically conducted surveys called "temperature checks" to assess our success. This work of improving staff morale was not easy and took time, but I firmly believed that, as their manager, I had a lot of responsibility for assuring the work satisfaction of my colleagues.

I learned that a "collegial/collaborative" management style was more productive in a professional environment than one of "command and control." I learned that managers get to decide "who and what" but that we should trust staff to decide "how." I learned that recognition of staff matters but that it must be sincere and timely. I learned that the family and health of employees must and should come first and when managers honor that, staff will be more productive, more loyal, and more involved in the success of the mission and vision of the organization. I learned that managers who do not pay attention to the morale of the staff risk their own success.

Given that background, I found the results of the latest teacher attrition study conducted by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) to be of no surprise. The study listed three main causes of "negligent retention issues." This one stood out for me: "poor school culture and working conditions drive away great teachers." Great teachers will walk away from a school where the leadership does not respect or trust them, not to mention empower them. Conversely, great teachers will follow a principal to the most challenging school if that principal has demonstrated trust and respect as well as a willingness to allow great teachers the freedom to select and implement the best instructional methods for their students. Teachers thrive in a culture of high expectations, creativity, collaboration, and collegiality. Principals have the most impact on creating that environment.

I would be remiss if I did not salute those states that have embraced the New Teacher Center's Teacher Working Conditions Survey. This survey gathers information on time, facilities and resources, community support and involvement, management of student conduct, teacher leadership, school leadership, professional development, instructional practices and support, and new teacher support. Interestingly, the better the results on working conditions, the better the student achievement. Kentucky, Maryland, and North Carolina have had tremendous success in using the Working Conditions Survey results to create as well as assess positive cultures in their schools. That success has translated to improved staff morale in those three states.

A positive school culture makes a huge difference to staff and, consequently, to students. As the New Teacher Center points out, teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Ignoring staff morale in the push for increased test scores will improve neither of those. The principal must be the leader of this effort to boost morale and must do so in collaboration with staff. Our kids will be better served by a staff that cannot wait to get to work.

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