It’s been a long summer, with August marking discouraging results for many secondary school pupils. While every teacher worth his or her salt will join calls for higher standards, once again many students have had plans destroyed and dreams shattered by an erratic and ill-thought-out attempt to implement them.
Even high achievers will be feeling the frustration, as predicted grades may no longer be worth the paper they are written on, and because a poor sense of morale infiltrates any school environment like an insidious disease.
Starting a new term with negative emotions will undermine attention, focus, dedication and determination, and leave students feeling apprehensive about the future. To get the best from them, it’s important to lift morale from the outset. Here are a few ideas.
First, get to know your students. There is a wealth of research showing that specific, positive attention and interaction can boost morale and positively affect moods.
Ask every student to write a list of two short-term and two long-term goals, along with a note of one achievement that makes them proud and one thing about them that makes them special (their unique selling point). Refer to these sheets throughout the year and take time to ensure that they are on track for fulfilling ambitions and goals, and that their special qualities are being exploited to best effect.
Offer students a voice. All too often frustration, stress and dispirit are bottled up. If students are given a vehicle for making their feelings, worries, concerns and ideas known, they will feel empowered and valued. Building relationships within a school environment and ensuring that there is a democracy in existence will also create a strong, united school spirit and greater individual satisfaction.
While many of our kids may be 12 or 13 going on 25 (or think they are), the truth is that they are still children and require regular reassurance, opportunities for communication and interaction, and support in order to make sense of their world – and make the most of it. Even more importantly, showing respect for their ideas and views (not to mention their worries, no matter how insignificant) builds trust and engenders respect – of the mutual kind.
Recognition for improvement and achievement is crucial to building and maintaining morale. Many kids will feel a little battered after working hard and failing to live up to expectations, and therefore struggle to sustain the pace or to dredge up the energy and enthusiasm necessary to carry on trying.
Regular pit-stops, where rewards or awards are handed out, can lift spirits enough to keep the ball rolling. Kids have to feel that they are good at something before they will be good at anything and as educators we are in a position to help them experience that.
Be prepared to give some autonomy. Adults and children respond best to challenges when they are given some latitude in how they can approach their work. Students have a huge range of learning styles and skills, and a one-size-fits-all approach to learning will never work for them all.
Allow them to put forward “business plans” or proposals for completing assignments and give them all consideration. Students who are involved in their own learning, rather than being “taught” all the time, not only engage better and learn more, but also feel more driven to succeed and prove the value of their method or argument.
Celebrating originality not only brings out the best in our students, but also lifts their morale sky high. Why? Because they are allowed to be themselves, and that promotes self-belief and self-esteem, and directs enthusiasm. What better way to start the year!
Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert.