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How Two Superintendents Are Tackling the Underlying Issues Plaguing Teacher Morale

February 7, 2023, By Chrysanthi Violaris, Analyst, Product Marketing

Teacher morale is at an all-time low as the range and size of demands placed on teachers continue to grow dramatically. Although district leaders have tried to address this, the initiatives are often temporary solutions and do not tackle the underlying issues impacting morale. EAB’s Teacher Morale Collaborative provides a system for finding solutions to low morale through a repeatable, three-step process.

Two superintendents who completed the Teacher Morale Collaborative joined EAB experts to speak on this topic to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) member districts. Read below for highlights from the discussion and the panel’s recommendations for improving teacher morale. For the full presentation, please click here.

Discussion highlights

Dr. Georgeanne Warnock
Superintendent, Terrell Independent School District, TX

Neal Dickstein
Superintendent, Freehold Township School District, NJ

Low teacher morale and burnout are not new concepts. What, specifically, has made it worse? How is it manifesting differently?

Neal Dickstein: The first, obvious answer is COVID. Teachers had to switch to an untested, virtual environment practically overnight. They weren’t given enough time to ensure students have what they would need to succeed in a fully online learning environment. This, coupled with the increased demand from state standardization, has really made it difficult for teachers to feel valued. The second answer is the immense polarization. No matter what, teachers are highly criticized. People from outside the education sector are constantly looking for underlying interpretations of teachers’ methods. This increase in pressure from everyone is making it difficult for teachers to feel fulfilled and respected in their work.

Dr. Georgeanne Warnock: Morale for teachers is really driven by valued work, as we have such a direct effect on children’s lives. But right now, there is a lot of out-of-sector noise that is impacting teachers from being able to live in the values that drew them to the profession in the first place.

What was your “aha moment” that made you realize teacher morale is a much deeper issue in your district?

GW: After reflecting on the previous school year, we decided to focus on teacher appreciation for the 2021-2022 academic year. The second week of September, we surprised every campus with drink carts and thought this was a great way to boost our teachers’ morale. About two weeks later, we received some direct – but nevertheless kind – feedback that fun sodas aren’t going to fix any of the underlying issues. That was the moment I realized that I and other district leaders should be thinking through helpful, actionable treatments for teacher morale rather than quick, band-aid solutions.

Teacher morale is something district leaders are very aware of right now, with many trying to find the right solutions for their specific issues. Where did your process begin to fight low morale?

ND: We weren’t sure where to start, which is why we joined EAB’s Teacher Morale Collaborative. The first step in the process is to identify the root causes of morale through a survey, collecting quantitative and qualitative data. Given the high response rate, we held focus groups for additional feedback. This was a critical tactic for us, and we found it was worth the time investment. Following the survey and these sessions, EAB worked with us to identify and focus on the top causes of low teacher morale instead of trying to fix everything all at once.

Teacher morale is something leaders need to have their pulse on all the time. What are you doing in your district to stay in touch with the current sentiments of teachers?

GW: One part of the EAB Teacher Morale Collaborative is co-designing morale solutions with teachers to create actionable next steps after the data collection. For inspiration, I followed the “lead by walking around” advice – I started subbing at all of our campuses once a week or so and continue to do this once a month. This boots-on-the-ground experience allows me to resonate with our teachers and get a feel of what they are going through.

EAB’s Teacher Morale Collaborative is an iterative process, allowing leaders to restart the loop to identify another set of priorities. What has the reaction been like to this process?

GW: From a leadership standpoint, it has been great. It allows us to identify the main issues and how to solve them in our district specifically rather than general tactics to mitigate the symptoms of low morale. With EAB’s help and through our action teams, we realized our four biggest threats are all connected. From there, we set up sub-committees to keep an eye on these issues and study data, like attendance and student behavior, to figure out what we need to be successful.

ND: The repeatable process helped us have a great year in figuring out how to liven up morale. For example, instead of a traditional beginning-of-year meeting, we held a pep rally with raffles and games. We added a link in our newsletters and website for principals and others to submit teacher or staff shout-outs. We have been able to incorporate frequent, specific positive feedback into our routines which has really helped increase teacher morale.

What advice do you have for other districts on how to address low teacher morale?

GW: Whichever tactic or process you decide on, you need to build in time for feedback. Identify what is and is not working and then narrow it down to one or two topics in focus groups. And, although it’s hard as leaders, make sure you are open to listening and taking in this feedback, even if it means abandoning an idea you thought would work.

ND: Understand that this needs a repeatable process that you are willing to commit to. Focus groups are a time commitment, but it was important for us to understand what was happening in a live, face-to-face environment.

Chrysanthi Violaris

Chrysanthi Violaris

Analyst, Product Marketing

Read Bio

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