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Education Trends, Mindset & Motivation, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Apr 20, 2022

I’ve worked at 2 schools with high teacher morale. Here’s what they do differently.

By Katie McGrath

Middle School Instructional Coach

I’ve worked at 2 schools with high teacher morale. Here’s what they do differently.

By Katie McGrath

The last two years have been hard.

I can’t engage in a conversation or scroll through social media without recognizing the pain, burden, and hardship educators are facing. Every day teachers share stories of stress, burnout, and moral injury.

Daily scrolling brings on feelings of guilt. Why?

For the past two years, I have worked in two different school systems, in two different states, as an instructional coach. I’ve got to work in not just one, but two schools, that have maintained positive morale during pandemic teaching.

At times I feel I have hit the jackpot. However, when you work in a school with positive morale, you realize quickly that it isn’t luck. It is through commitment, visionary, brave leadership, and honest conversations that these schools have protected and maintained the well-being of their staff.

Is it hard? Yes. Can it be done? Yes.

There are no silver bullets or simple solutions. Sharing ways to support staff and build morale does not diminish the pain educators have endured in the years of high-stakes assessments and accountability coupled with pandemic teaching and mandates. Acknowledgment and honest dialogue around these challenges are essential to building morale. When we talk openly about the hardest parts and work to address them together, we have the best chance to reinvigorate our staff morale.

#1 Build psychological safety

Amy Edmondson, Harvard Professor, created the term “psychological safety” to describe organizations with open and honest communication that allow employees to have a sense of comfort about their ideas and identities at work. People feel safe to bring their whole self to work and the ability to share their feelings without repercussion, judgment, or fear of retaliation.

Psychological safety is essential to maintaining a positive school culture. Here are some ways my schools have built psychologically safe environments that align with Dr. Timothy Clark’s book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

Prioritize inclusion for teachers

Provide opportunities for your staff to connect and feel like they belong in your learning community. At the beginning of every meeting, we have a Connection Before Content. This brief connection can range from light-hearted to serious.

At times, we ask which cat meme best represents how you feel today or other times we share what is causing us the most struggle and some strategies to manage these challenges. Prioritizing time to connect during already scheduled meeting time (not adding extra!) helps the ever-present feeling of isolation in schools.

Prioritize inclusion for learners

The “one more thing” phenomena is real. Educators feel constant pressure to institute a new initiative or try new instructional strategies from our district and division offices. We add “one more thing” to our job description all-too-often.

How do we fulfill the basic human need to learn and grow while being realistic with what teachers can manage right now? How do we balance continuing the professional learning of our building, while maintaining the well-being of our staff? We focus on one priority and keep that one priority at the center.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear discusses the origin of the word priority and how it was intended to be a singular focus. It’s when a group or a person cares about one thing over all others. School leaders support morale by focusing on one-single priority. When a leader decides on a singular focus for a year, or even across multiple years, it provides clarity for the staff.

For one building it was building SEL competencies into instruction across content areas. For another, it was deeper learning — engaging students in authentic learning experiences where they see relevancy in the material being learned.

Whatever the focus, visionary leaders gather input from their staff and focus solely on the community goal — no extra, no more. Grow and strengthen in one, singular area. Once our one priority is set, we can incorporate learner-centered models of professional learning.

Use learning walks

Learning Walks support learner safety while also building community and connection. Many schools have set collaboration time for teams, whether it’s PLC structures or grade/content level meetings. My school encourages teams to go on a learning walk once a month for 15-minutes during this time. The small window is key, because it still honors the team’s planning time, while also allowing them the opportunity to see the instruction happening in their building.

Our learning community wholeheartedly believes that one of the best forms of professional learning is seeing our colleagues teach. The admin team sets a culture of collaboration — our doors are open, we learn alongside one another.

During these learning walks, teams choose a singular focus, connected to our school priority to observe during the learning walk. We capture our thinking on a simple noticings & wonderings chart. The team observing shares a thank you note with the teacher, naming a specific practice they observed and the impact it had on students. The team then goes back and debriefs their noticings and wonderings together. This shared reflection allows each team to think about instructional practices, while also opening up dialogue around cross-curricular opportunities and vertical alignment.

These brief learning walks have opened up teachers’ eyes to new strategies to build classroom community, strategies to support student-to-student collaboration, and even ways to facilitate conferences. We don’t need to sit and get PD sessions to learn. Often 10 minutes in a colleague’s classroom can spark inspiration and innovation.

Provide choice-based PD

Incorporating choice is essential for learning. We ask teachers to provide students opportunities to choose goals, choose products, choose texts to read, but are we giving our teachers the same choice?

Another way my schools have built positive morale is by offering choice-based PD options. The choice is two-fold — it is a choice of which session you want to attend AND it is also a choice if you attend a session at all. We need to respect the different needs of teachers and some just don’t have the capacity for anything new at this point. What point is there in having a teacher sit through professional learning that is going to cause more anxiety and stress?

Here’s a snapshot of our planning process:

  1. Send out a survey asking for staff input on their professional learning goals for the year. Emphasize alignment to our building priority.
  2. Analyze data and plan sessions that match the highest priority of the staff.
  3. Capitalize on staff—teacher leaders, coaches, admin, counselors — to design quick drop-in sessions (maximum 30 minutes).
  4. Offer sessions to staff across multiple weeks at different times (before, during, and after school is ideal). Invite staff members to sign-up.
  5. Run the sessions, even if there is 1 participant, and enjoy learning together.

We repeated these choice-based cycles 3 times a year — fall, winter, spring — so it was just enough to keep a culture of learning in our building while still respecting teachers’ time and autonomy to make the best decision for themselves.

Learning walks and choice-based PD support positive morale because we are meeting teachers where they are. Providing opportunities to see their colleagues teach and to learn strategies most relevant to their goals and students is essential to honoring the experience and needs of educators. Support the human desire to learn and grow in a way that is safe, supported, and manageable.

5 things teachers wish their principals knew

#2 Protect teachers time

Ask teachers what is one thing we want more of, but can never get — time. Our need for planning and grading time is imperative to delivering effective instruction. Yet, now more than ever, teachers’ time isn’t being valued. Leaders must protect the time of their staff to build positive morale. But what does that look like?

Prioritize, pause, or cancel meetings

Starting last year, we had to think as a team which meetings were really necessary. We prioritized the importance of PLC/team meetings to collaborate, plan, discuss data, and go on learning walks. Our community zoomed in on whole-staff meetings and reflected on their impact and effectiveness.

Ultimately we decided any administrative information and announcements now goes into the weekly Friday Newsletter. There are no more meetings that don’t involve either dialogue or discussion among our colleagues. Whole staff meetings are opportunities to learn, grow, share and/or celebrate. No more sit-and-get meetings — any day, any time.

Beyond restructuring meetings, you also might need to press pause when the circumstances dictate the need. During the Omicron surge of January 2022, my principal recognized the additional load on teachers. For this month everything was put on pause — all meetings rescheduled.

Teachers were encouraged to focus on themselves and their students. While some might think that this sends a message: if we don’t need to meet, then what’s the purpose? However, this community knows the purpose of our time together because every meeting we always start with our “why”.

Pausing meetings doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable, but rather responding humanely and showing grace to your staff at a time when it is needed the most, is essential to maintaining positive morale.

Offer self-paced professional learning

Another way we protect teachers’ time is by offering asynchronous professional learning options. We read about the two-fold benefits of blended learning and flipped models. Let’s use those models for our staff. Teachers get to choose when and where they are engaging in their learning while also experiencing blended learning first hand. If we ask teachers to re-see their instruction, we have to be willing to re-see how we are supporting teachers.

Providing asynchronous options through PD playlists or PearDeck sessions allows staff to select what best meets their needs while also honoring their professional knowledge and expertise. Public school systems require a certain amount of professional hours for our yearly plans.

When we open up the options for teachers as to how they can earn these hours (maybe it’s connecting with a professional learning network on Twitter and sharing resources, maybe it’s attending a webinar, maybe it’s engaging in a learning walk, maybe it’s attending a choice-based PD session) we are honoring their autonomy to make the best decision for them which again contributes to positive morale.

#3 Engage in continuous feedback loops

One of my coaches always said, “feedback is a gift”. We can choose to accept it, use it, and grow from it. Or we can choose to put it to the side if it doesn’t support our needs. When we engage in feedback loops with our staff, it allows the community the opportunity to dialogue with one another and get multiple voices and perspectives in the space. This is essential to both contributor and challenger safety.

Both of my schools use continuous feedback loops when making decisions. The loops often follow this cycle:

When we share feedback with the whole staff and take action based on that feedback, it’s yet another way we build positive morale. For example, our building engaged in a feedback loop around discipline practices. A survey was sent to staff and data revealed that effective discipline was an area of opportunity for our building. We shared this feedback with our school and asked for input: “What would we see, hear, feel in school with responsive discipline?” This input was visible to all stakeholder groups.

After reviewing the thinking of our staff, the culture and climate team made an action plan. Our staff received training with restorative circles, we read excerpts of the book, Hacking School Discipline, during staff meetings, and we revised the code of conduct to reflect restorative measures instead of punitive consequences.

After these practices were implemented we asked our team to reflect and refine the action plan with our new-found data. Engaging in a feedback loop provides opportunities for your staff to contribute their thinking, while also holding space to challenge and question building initiatives.

It’s important to be strategic in deciding when to engage in feedback loops. Choice overload and decision fatigue is real. Teachers and leaders are making hundreds of decisions a day.

Intentional feedback loops help alleviate choice overload by using targeted feedback and action plans to address some of the concerns in the building. The process happens one or two times a school year, so it’s critical to choose the most important issues or concerns to discuss with staff. With this process leaders are equipped to make the best choices for their community with contributions from all valued stakeholders.

#4 Celebrate together

While it might not be a revolutionary idea, I would be remiss if I didn’t close with the importance of celebrating your team. Humans want to feel connected and valued. How do we let our staff know we value them and how do we build systems where our staff shares appreciation for one another?

At first, we tried a Staff Shout-Out Board. This was well-intentioned, but ultimately it did not gain traction with only a handful of teachers contributing. Engaging in a feedback loop opened up the dialogue around why the Shout-Out Board wasn’t connecting with the staff. Part of the issue was accessibility and the other capacity — it felt like another thing. So we asked for other ways to recognize staff that felt manageable and authentic for our community. This led to our monthly nominations.

Our school selects 2-3 departments/areas of focus each month. For example, September might be our math, music, and custodial teams. Peers nominate and share a brief write-up as to why their colleagues deserve recognition, specifically how they exhibit our values in their work. We share the nominations aloud and recognize these individuals.

Dr. Laure Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University and creator of the Happiness Lab podcast, shares that part of finding our own happiness is bringing happiness to others — this new system accomplishes just that. The applause, smiles, and genuine support our staff show to one another during these shout-outs make filling out the five-minute form worth every bit of effort.

Educators are at a crossroads. We are losing caring, loving educators. Our leaders are trying to balance the needs of their students, staff, and families under immense pressure. There isn’t one magic fix to maintain, or even lift morale, but with intentional effort, an open mind, a listening ear, and a willingness to rethink the way we support teachers, we might come out the other side.

Katie McGrath

Middle School Instructional Coach

Katie McGrath is a middle school instructional coach in the Paramus Public Schools. Prior to coaching, she taught middle school language arts for 12 years. Katie has written literacy curriculum for middle school, and coaches in classrooms regularly. She had...
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