Are you on your staff's side?


How can school leaders increase teacher morale in these difficult times? By admitting that there are problems, by seeking to change the system which created these problems and by being on their staff’s side when the crunch with governments and employers c

“At a time of great transition in our profession, many teachers appear to be at their breaking point. In my home state, a teacher recently published a letter to the editor of our largest newspaper, explaining why she is thinking of quitting her job. How can leaders increase teacher morale during a time of great change?”

Only the phrase “home state” in that blog from a High School Curriculum Leader, made me realise this was from a teacher in the USA.

Stress, burn-out and frustration are increasingly the norm among teachers across the western world, perhaps even more universally.

Even more concerning than the problem’s near-universality, was the near-universality of the facile, clichéd responses. 

The first was from the chief executive officer of an educational consultancy: “Support them in every possible way, but the most respectful way is to collaborate, lose the rooster and 30 chickens model and bring these professionals into the decision-making arena.”

The second was from the founder and chief executive officer at an educational technology company: “Be a leader and take responsibility of every aspect of the school especially instruction and morale. Respect, collaborate, share, trust, value, ask for input and use the golden rule with teachers and staff. Applaud and recognize the everyday successes that add up over time and that make the whole team a success. Show you genuinely care for all stakeholders.”

A coach at a county board of education stated: “Let teachers have a voice in the change. I believe we need to include teachers in the decision making process.”

Teachers, in Scotland and across the UK, also are close to breaking point with near-frozen salaries, deteriorating pensions, fewer jobs, fewer support staff and reduced resources. Those who can take early retirement, jump at the chance.

An inclusive, distributive leadership model is indeed a prerequisite for schools to optimise the potential within their staff teams.

In the context of the current drastic resource challenges however, neither letting “teachers have a voice in the change” nor respecting, collaborating, sharing and trusting offer any meaningful means to ease the pressures on teachers.

Such feel-good language and relentless optimism in the face of catastrophe only help hide the extent of the problem. To suggest that the appropriate response is teachers having a voice in the change is suggesting that teachers should take responsibility for undermining and diluting their own working conditions.

Walter Humes, Stirling University’s visiting professor of education, commented recently on trends in Scottish education: “Government ministers and the leaders of key educational organisations (such as Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Agency and the General Teaching Council Scotland) all have a vested interest in maintaining that things are going well and that standards are being maintained.  

“This stance is possible because of the considerable powers of ‘narrative privilege’ which they enjoy.  It is their story of Scotland’s educational achievements that becomes the received wisdom. Anyone who dares to question it is marginalised: this includes researchers, parents, teachers and pupils.”

Governments paint all educational effort in relentlessly rosy colours. The new leadership gurus paint a picture of schools which would be perfect if only optimum collaboration were achieved and management structures more democratic and inclusive. At both a micro and a macro level, the trend is not to ignore the big problems but to deny their existence.

How can school leaders increase teacher morale during a time of great change? By admitting that there are problems and seeking to change the system which created these problems; by exposing the received wisdom; by being on their staff’s side when the crunch with governments and employers comes.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.



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