Dru Tomlin

Staff Morale in the Middle

One of the 16 characteristics of an effective school for students ages 10–15 is that teachers, learners, and building leaders should be using multiple assessments to gauge success. Data is collected to gauge learning and instructional success, but there is one other piece of data that also needs to be assessed, analyzed, and acted upon in the middle level: morale. While sometimes elusive, morale is a critical ingredient in the middle school recipe because it affects every instructional dish that is served to our students. But how do we collect, disaggregate, and then act upon morale? How do we pin down such an enigmatic ingredient?

Assessing staff morale in the middle grades starts with the adult and student relationships in the school house. One structure that is unique to middle schools, which helps forge those relationships and boost morale, is the interdisciplinary team. These teams are based on three key ideals:

  1. All content areas should be working together to build connections for teaching and learning.
  2. All students are better served when they are on smaller, more personal teams.
  3. All relationships are made stronger when teachers and students work collaboratively and closely every day.

When a middle school has high-functioning teams that care about each other and the kids they serve, staff morale will be up because every day teachers build relationships with each other and their students. When a team has common planning time, its members can collect that valuable emotional data about each other and lift themselves up when they need it and inform school administration when they need help along the way.

And middle school administrators should be keenly aware about how relationships—with teachers, staff, and students—affect morale. They should be aware that morale won't reveal itself in an e-mail, can't be found behind their desk, and doesn't manifest itself in a staff meeting. They should understand that in order to assess that morale data, they must first go where morale lives. They have to walk the hallways and see how students are interacting. They should stop by doorways and watch how teachers greet students. They must check out the cafeteria and bus lanes to ascertain how students are treating staff and each other. They must walk by classrooms and listen for the timbre and tone of voices. They must get into classrooms and watch facial expressions and body language. They have to sit down with teachers and students and ask how everything is going, and then listen. All of that qualitative data shows morale. It is just as important—if not more so—as a spreadsheet with test scores.

Once administrators and teachers have the morale data they need, the challenge becomes what to do if it shows that morale is low. While there are countless actions that anyone can take, there are certain steps that are especially effective.

The first step is to anticipate tough times for morale. Teachers and students in the middle grades can be an emotional bunch—especially during specific times of the school year. Testing, long months without a break, report card time, whatever the occasion, note it in your calendar and start raising the praise a couple of weeks before it happens. And then raise the praise again after that event has passed to thank everyone for their effort.

And that, of course, means that you must also be genuine in your praise. That is the second step. Be authentic when trying to boost morale. Middle school teachers and students can smell phony when they hear it, so praise must be early, often, and most importantly, specific.

The third step is to be the example you want. Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." We must model positivity, caring, friendship, compassion, and kindness in our daily actions, so our fellow teachers and our students can see what good morale looks like. A hand-written, well-timed note with a specific accolade—followed up by a face-to-face conversation—can go miles to boost a teacher's or a student's morale.

Finally, the last step is to promote a shared vision of positive morale throughout your middle school. Boosting morale and keeping emotions afloat in the oft tempestuous seas of school is everyone's responsibility, not just the obligation of a "Sunshine Committee" or administrative team. Start the year celebrating the joys of middle level education and keep singing that uplifting song, and soon you'll be joined by a chorus of positive voices.

As the director of middle level services for the Association of Middle Level Education (AMLE), Dru Tomlin, PhD, has a commitment to educational improvement and a passion for teaching, learning, and middle school. A former teacher and administrator, he also has been a school system staff development trainer and a faculty member for AMLE's Leadership Institute, believing firmly in the power of professional learning. For his work, Tomlin has been recognized as a school system Teacher of the Year and as Georgia's Middle School Assistant Principal of the Year. Read more on school culture and staff morale in the middle grades and ways to celebrate

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