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The overlooked threat to K-12’s pandemic recovery? Low teacher morale

4 myths that prevent high morale and hinder student success

September 24, 2021 , By Olivia Rios, Director

Between the Delta variant, missed learning, a mental health crisis, a national reckoning on racial justice, and continued polarization, fall 2021 is not the relief many had hoped. It’s no wonder that teachers are experiencing record low morale.

District leaders can and must play an integral role in improving teachers’ morale to best address the many challenges facing their schools and students. Implementing initiatives to tackle these unprecedented academic, emotional, and social issues require high-quality, motivated teachers.

Without district investment in teacher morale, burnt-out teachers will be unable to fully support district initiatives and student success at their highest potential. Below we dispel four common myths that prevent district leaders from improving teacher morale and explore how to promote progress instead.

Myth #1: A focus on adults sacrifices service to students

Reality: Cultivating high teacher morale is a service to students and essential to pandemic recovery and student success.

Teacher morale can either make or break a district’s ability to achieve its goals. Teacher quality is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement-and low morale negatively impacts teacher quality.

In a 2021 meta-analysis, nearly 70% of all studies conducted over the last decade concluded that teachers with the lowest morale (or the ones with the highest level of “burnout”) also had the lowest academic student outcomes across core subjects.

Low teacher morale will prevent school districts from achieving their pandemic-recovery goals and initiatives. 75% of teachers say that the education environment today makes it difficult for teachers to be their best in the classroom. And district leaders need teachers to be at their best to recover from and continue navigating the pandemic.

Engaging students also requires high teacher morale. Over 75% of surveyed secondary students reported that if teachers do not have good morale, they are less interested in class. Re-engaging students will be crucial to recover from last year when absent and disengaged students became the norm for many districts.

Superintendents also report that low morale impedes implementing new initiatives. This year, many districts must employ new initiatives to address missed learning and help students recover socio-emotionally from the trauma caused by the pandemic. Continued low teacher morale could and likely will impede these efforts.

District leaders must elevate improving teacher morale as an urgent priority to achieve district and student success.

Myth #2: Teacher morale will bounce back in a post-vaccine world

Reality: Teacher morale was on the decline long before the start of this pandemic-and while the pandemic has exacerbated the problem-even a return to “normal” won’t address the root of the issue

Research demonstrates that high stress correlates with lower morale, and teaching-even before the pandemic-is often reported as one of the most stressful jobs in the nation.

In 2012, Gallup surveyed more than 7,200 K-12 teachers, revealing nearly 70% were not engaged in their jobs. And today isn’t any better. In fact, teacher morale hit a new low during the pandemic. A record 73% of teachers did not feel valued in 2020-an increase of nearly 10% from 2018. This data paints a concerning picture of both pre-pandemic and mid-pandemic teacher morale.

Pandemic recovery will require more from teachers than ever before. Teachers will need to continue to adapt, address the political landscape, and respond to evolving demands. Most districts have never adequately addressed burnout in the past, and the classroom impact will continue if low morale persists.

Morale isn’t going to miraculously “bounce back”-district leaders must act.

Myth #3: Factors outside of district control cause low morale

Reality: Many organizations have successfully improved their employees’ morale despite challenging external factors (pay, politics, etc.)-district leaders can too

Superintendents often blame factors beyond their control such as low pay, scrutiny from parents, and high-stakes testing as drivers of low morale. However, other organizations also experience low employee morale due to factors seemingly outside of their control-and still manage to improve it.

For example, despite compassion fatigue, a challenging economic environment, and employees consistently ranked as the most stressed, the Cleveland Clinic, a world-renowned health care system that today ranks as a top employer, improved employee morale by addressing the factors within their control.

When morale was low during the Great Recession, the Clinic invested in employee morale and jumped from the 38th percentile in employee engagement in 2008 to the 87th percentile by 2013  (compared to other health systems).

Not only did employees benefit from improved morale, so did their patients. From 2008 to 2013, the Clinic moved from 55th percentile to the 92nd percentile in overall patient satisfaction. Consider the implications if school districts could improve student and parent satisfaction that significantly by investing in their teachers.

Myth #4: District leaders should exclusively prioritize wellness and individual supports

Reality: Wellness and socio-emotional health alone put the onus on the individual to solve a job-related morale problem and do not effectively boost morale-instead school districts need to take an organizational approach to see improvements

Why wellness alone falls short

90% of interviewed district leaders mostly rely on wellness supports (employee assistance programs, mindfulness training) and socio-emotional learning (SEL) approaches to address teacher morale. But as one expert puts it, “individuals can’t yoga or meditate their way out of [low morale]…organization-level interventions are needed.”

Wellness in the workplace is popular-nearly an $8 billion industry in the US-but wellness efforts alone do not improve morale.

Low morale is not the fault of individual teachers-but the organization

District leaders too often credit their high-morale teachers as good at coping or ‘glass-half-full’ individuals. But as Christina Maslach (one of the founding researchers on employee burnout) puts it:

“Imagine investigating the personality of cucumbers to discover why they had turned into sour pickles without analyzing the vinegar barrels in which they had been submerged.”

Unfortunately, school districts’ current approach to improve teacher morale and engagement focuses too much on the pickle. This approach puts the blame on the individual for not being engaged. However, research tells us that people are naturally engaged-they just might not be motivated by what we expect.

In response, districts must stop focusing on fixing the individual and instead must turn inward and ask-what is our district doing to understand and improve our “vinegar barrels,” or the environment in which our teachers find themselves?

Organizations that have successfully improved morale do not rely only on wellness or on individuals with ‘ideal dispositions.’ Instead, they take an organizational approach. School districts must learn from the efforts of exemplar organizations (like the Cleveland Clinic) to improve teacher morale.

District administrators should not expect low morale to resolve on its own. Instead, they must prioritize improving teacher morale as a cornerstone of their district’s success and take an organizational approach to address the factors within their control. The stakes are too high to miss an opportunity to improve outcomes for schools and their students.

EAB is here to help district leaders-who are facing extraordinarily stressful and busy times themselves-tackle this urgent issue even with limited time and resources. Stay tuned for more on this topic throughout this year and next.

Olivia Rios

Olivia Rios is an Associate Director in the K-12 division of EAB. She has completed research on behalf of university, school district, and independent school leaders. Her past research has focused on topics ranging from school desegregation to mitigating the vaping crisis. She also led EAB's work on developing academic leaders in independent schools. She's currently leading EAB's research on teacher morale and helping school districts create more sustainable work environments for their staff.

Prior to joining EAB, Olivia taught English to secondary students in a rural community and conducted research on secondary writing centers. She also tutored postsecondary students in writing at Bloomsburg University, where she served as an assistant director of the writing center.

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