Keeping a Pulse on Staff Morale

teacher and student

I have been reflecting on and pondering this question over the past month: “How can administrators and staff keep a pulse on morale?” I remembered reading an article in Principal magazine about two years ago and pulled it out for a re-read. The article did not focus explicitly on morale per se, but it focused on hope, which I believe plays a role in high or low morale. The article cited a student convocation speech, recorded and shared on YouTube, called “Dalton’s Speech” (Principal magazine, March/April 2012). Hope plays a role in morale because it is so tightly connected to caring. Caring is so tightly connected to relationships. It is human nature to desire to have our environment be responsive to our actions. And when the environment responds to a person’s actions, it shifts morale. I also recently pulled a book off of my bookshelf that I had not read in over eight years. It is related to language and its impact on student learning and is entitled, Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter H. Johnston. I started to picture each chapter and how language is a part of staff morale. Language is at the core of human interactions, or should I say, affects the core of individuals because it is one of the most powerful learning tools. How we speak and the words we choose are pivotal to the environment in which we create and the relationships we develop. As I shared in my first blog, I really took the time to think about how I was going to word my introduction to the staff. I was thoughtful in the words that I chose, such as family, support, collaboration, shared, and goals, because those are cornerstones of my leadership beliefs. That was the beginning of the year, and we are now nine weeks through the school year and other questions and wonderings have come to mind.

Am I Using the Language of “We”?

As a leader, I had to figure out the right language. I had to ensure that use of the language of “we,” “us,” and “with” aligned with my core leadership beliefs. So I started to wonder, “What is the language of “we,” and what does this look like for adults?” We are in the midst of the first mini-classroom observation cycle since I returned to school-level leadership. This process has been occurring over the past two months, and I am wondering how this process has been affecting the morale of the staff. Is the process-and explicitly my feedback-helping or hindering morale? Am I supporting hope? Am I supporting risk-taking for our diverse learners? Am I supporting the social and emotional needs of the 60 human beings I work with every day? I reflect on this because what an administrator says and does has an impact on the morale of the building. Am I exhibiting the behaviors of curiosity and discovery? Is the experience a collaborative conversation for learning? In short, am I using the language of “we” during these learning opportunities?

So during the last few months’ mini-classroom observation cycle, I have begun to have informal conversations with teachers about the learning taking place in their classrooms. The meetings have become shared-inquiry based. I start by asking them how they felt the lesson went. What did they think went well in the lesson for students, and what is the evidence? I ask them where they feel like the students struggled and what was the evidence? How did the design of the lesson affect their successes and struggles? They also ask questions. They share, I listen. I share, they listen. I will then provide my insight to support their thinking and deepen their thinking with evidence from the students’ behaviors during the lesson. Furthermore, every discussion concludes when both participants feel the conversation is over. Just like in Peter Johnston’s book (cited above), how do both partners know the conversation is complete? I like to end with a positive comment on their students’ learning or their positive impact on the building, but I am wondering if the staff is feeling like this is me trying to get the last word.

teacher at whiteboard

I have grown during this process in many ways. I am still wondering about certain things. And as this process of observation and feedback continues throughout the year, I will work to answer some of these questions with the staff. This has been and must be a shared learning experience if hope and growth are the culture of our building.

We are currently at report-card time, and I have noticed some additional strain on the teachers. Teachers know they are going to be held accountable for their students’ grades, and they must be able to explain clearly the scoring to parents and guardians. This is a time when teachers sometimes start to question themselves. Questioning is a great form of reflection, and they should feel okay about questioning themselves. However, teachers sometimes see this as doubt, not reflection. As I have shared before, a stressed teacher is a stressed classroom. This impacts morale. Therefore, at this time a truly present administrator would know this and use language to support staff. Even just expressing the simple words that it is okay to question yourself during this time because you are reflecting on your practice is helpful. For example, “You might be questioning if you have enough summative grades to provide the standards-based proficiency for this student. So knowing that you have this question is going to help you in the next quarter in terms of thinking about your assessment process and making the needed adjustments. I can see in your classroom that you took the time to know your students’ strengths and needs, and I know you will be able to share with the parents all that you know about their child.” Sometimes simple words can relieve some of the stress teachers/staff are feeling at different times of the year.

As you work with your staff to build morale and community/hope, think about what times of the year might be more stressful for teachers and consider how this knowledge could shift your practice as a leader.