Low Morale in Your School? Nothing a Little Teacher Empowerment Can’t Fix
Pick up a newspaper or spend a few moments watching the evening news and you will find evidence that many schools across the country are in the midst of a morale crisis. In many states, revised standards for Common Core State Standards implementation are taking a toll on teachers who feel as if they are losing the autonomy to plan lessons as they see fit. In some communities, budget difficulties are leading to job loss and stagnant pay. Increased accountability and new methods of evaluating teachers are also discussed as problems facing educators today. Often what frustrates teachers the most is the perception that their voice is not heard in public discussions about these issues. In describing this state of mind, a friend of mine quips, "Teachers are like France. We know that we don't have any real power but we want to be treated as if we do." In some ways, my friend is right, but I don't think the solution to today's morale problem will be found in treating teachers as if they have power, but rather in truly empowering them to be leaders in and out of the school and contributing members of education policy discussions.
Despite the difficulties facing teachers today, many still love the classroom. Building relationships with students and helping them to maximize their potential is a very rewarding pursuit, yet many teachers suggest they become disillusioned by a lack of respect from students, administrators, and society at large. One teacher described the reasons for his low morale and subsequent exodus from the profession, saying "Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They're told what to do; it's a very disempowered line of work." While many teachers who feel this way may follow suit and leave the classroom, those who remain have the potential to ruin attempts to improve morale and build a positive school climate.
Teachers are not the only ones hurt by a lack of empowerment. We are fooling ourselves if we think students aren't aware and affected when teachers feel disempowered and disrespected. A discouraged teacher is less likely to be innovative and students will rarely perform to expectations for teachers in whom they perceive a low-status. Students need teachers are who are highly competent role models, whose talents and expertise are leveraged both inside and outside of the classroom, and when possible, away from school in the community. When students recognize their teachers are leaders, their natural response will be to follow. School morale can only improve in this type of environment.
True empowerment will look different in each school, but should result in teachers having an opportunity to connect directly with stakeholders and decision-makers. School leaders, because of their position, have the opportunity to promote teacher voice by ensuring that quality teachers are collaborating with decision-makers in the community and at the state level. School leaders also need to identify talented teachers that can lead community outreach initiatives and display their full range of talents to stakeholders. During my tenure I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with district and building level leaders who recognize that empowered teachers are happier and more effective. I've witnessed marginal teachers become great when given the opportunity to utilize their skills outside the classroom, and I've watched students blossom under the tutelage of empowered teacher leaders. In alleviating the problem of low school morale, empowering teachers is a great first step.
Rich McKinney, PhD, is an assistant principal for a middle school in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the 2012 Outstanding Social Studies Teacher for the state of Tennessee. His passion is improving student outcomes by helping teachers reach their fullest potential. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he also serves as a professional development specialist for Knox County Schools and a Common Core coach for the state of Tennessee. Connect with McKinney by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @richmckinney1.