10/01/2020 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Faculty Morale in a Challenging Year

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A simple question posed recently on an academic listserv ignited a torrent of responses. The question: What are schools doing to support faculty morale this fall?

Independent school leaders responded with an outpouring of concern and sympathy for teachers. While some offered concrete steps schools can take to ease the burden teachers carry this fall, most respondents were also looking for answers — for any suggestion that would help them help teachers cope well with what is no doubt one of the most challenging school years educators have faced.

As one school leader noted, the first few weeks of school this fall have felt like months of work already, with so much compacted into a each long day. Another administrator noted that our teachers are the “front-line workers in the biggest disruption to school ever.” A survey of teachers conducted in the spring by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) drove home the essential point. Teachers may have risen to the occasion in the spring when forced to switch instantly to distance learning, but they say they feel, then and now, anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad.

A Growing List of Challenges

The list of challenges is enormous. Separate from actual teaching, educators engaged with in-person programs this fall have to address all the issues related to protecting students and adults in school from COVID-19 — including policing adherence to the rules regarding social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing. Simple issues in the past, such as students taking breaks or eating lunch, are suddenly complex logistical matters. Teachers also find themselves needing to address the rising levels of student (and parent/guardian) anxiety like never before.

For the distance-learning programs, there are the Zoom issues, the mic issues, the camera issues, the questions of workload and of giving quizzes and tests — and otherwise measuring academic progress — while trying to ensure that students do their own work. These are added to the complexities of shifting a curriculum to an online format that demands new ways of teaching, and the exhausting challenge of engaging all students in asynchronous learning.

For many teachers, a blended learning program requires all of the above.

Of course, there are the personal challenges for teachers themselves in terms of staying safe and ensuring that their families and loves ones are also safe. Across the country this month, COVID-19 is appearing in schools that have opened up for in-person learning. The problem is even worse in higher education, where thousands of students who have returned to campus have come down with the virus — in many cases due to spotty or no enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing or to the students themselves flaunting the rules and regulations that would keep them safe. All of this no doubt weighs on teachers’ psyches.

Being Aware of Teachers' Needs

Not to dig too deep a hole here, but all of this stress comes on top of the already existing stress teachers felt before the pandemic began.

Essentially, along with whatever actual loses they are experiencing this year, teachers are dealing with what feels like the end of a way of life, or at least a shockingly quick shift in many of their personal and professional routines — including the ability to be with friends and extended family, to be out and active in their communities, and to work side by side with colleagues. Those teachers with children also wrestle with how to find safe childcare or, like other parents and guardians, support their children’s own learning.

Thoughtful leaders of schools are aware of the weight teachers carry now and are working to finding ways to keep them as safe as possible, show appreciation, and reduce stress where they can. There are pushes, for instance, to reduce the teachers’ non-class time workload by reducing the number of meetings and the usual professional development requirements. There are efforts to make it easier for teachers to connect with each other online for support (and venting) and for sharing of ideas and information. Daily schedules have been redesigned to keep students in smaller cohorts during the day, reducing the problems associated with the dance of filling the hallways and remixing students every hour. At least one school has launched an alumni appreciation program — encouraging alums to offer teachers their services as mentors to students or as actual interns to help with the class load.

If there is anything close to a silver lining here, it’s that this awareness of teacher needs is driving important conversations on teacher support that both address current issues while also offering insights into how schools can continue to support teachers well post-pandemic. A number of schools, for instance, are turning to the tenets of Positive Psychology to guide this work. As one school leader noted, much of it boils down to paying attention to the details. It’s so important, for instance, that schools make sure teachers have the resources they need to do their work well. Not only are teachers asking for resources, as one head writes, “conservation of resources theory tells us that teachers experience less stress when they feel that they have the resources to meet the demands of the job.”

The resources are not just technological and physical. They include information about best practices for distance learning and outlets for places and people to turn to for professional and personal help. Of course, time is the most precious resource. The more time schools can give back to teachers this year, the better teachers will be able to feel about their days, and the better they’ll be able to perform.

Prioritizing Teachers' Emotional Well-Being as the Missing Link

What we are learning now is that prioritizing teacher emotional well-being is the best way to sustain a well-functioning school — in a crisis and beyond. An article in Greater Good Magazine makes this case well. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has been working with schools across the nation, encouraging them to create an “Emotional Intelligence Charter” as a way to identify the emotional skills teachers need to function well and then work to develop and support those skills in the school community. The process, as the Center notes, starts with the deceptively simple question: How do we want to feel as a faculty/staff? With clarity on this matter, adults in school can then turn to the core question: What do we need to do for everyone to feel this way?

If, for instance, teachers say they want to feel supported in leading distance learning, what does a school need to do to ensure that every teacher feels supported? If teachers say they want to feel more valued or less isolated, what concrete steps can schools take to ensure that they feel valued and connected? Having these conversations, the Center says, can make a huge difference in what schools focus on, how teachers perform, and how well they serve students. The Center describes this work as “the missing link” in the conversation about education.

This viewpoint is borne out by others as well. During the courses they offered educators this past summer, the team at the World Leadership School noticed that teachers who had not been able to address their own anxiety driven by the shift to online learning in spring were having a hard time concentrating and doing the development work they needed for this fall. In contrast, teachers from schools that gave their teachers space to discuss and address their emotional experience — along with addressing the logistical issues related to the switch to online and distance learning — were better able to engage.

Shifting from Despair to Hope

There’s no one right answer here. For school leaders, it comes down to a question of attentiveness and being as creative as possible in their support efforts. Some are creating virtual picnics or buying meals for teachers or sharing articles that can help educators manage their classrooms well. One shared a video by Alicia Keys to acknowledge the heroism and trauma of teachers as front-line workers. Another had shared readings, including a valuable article regarding surge capacity, which makes the point that we all have the capacity to respond to a crisis in the moment, but that when the crisis drags on we need to adopt a different style of coping. Meanwhile, division heads are sending out regular surveys to measure teachers’ emotional health and asking them specifically what they school can do to support them.

One survey of teachers noted, as expected, that many of them feel anxious and are struggling to plan ahead. But there was also a note of pride about how well they’ve responded to date — along with a widely shared view that the future will improve.

All of this work reminds us of the best of jazz improvisation. We know our school missions, we have our students, but the dangers threaded throughout this pandemic require a willingness to shift keys and tempo, adjusting to the complicated world around us. The success of our efforts depends in part on what we bring to the teaching-and-learning table now and how well we pay attention to each other in the process. So far, we are deeply impressed with the attentiveness we’re seeing in the school communities we know best. It’s our hope that schools can carry this care through the year — until we can get back to the form of education we know best. And by paying close attention to our teachers emotional needs we can help them shift, as one school administrator put it, “from exhaustion and despair into hope and determination.”


What else are you or your school doing to boost faculty morale? Let us know in the comments!

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Stephen Dexter 11/6/2020 at 8:30am

We redefined the timetable and declared Wednesdays a catchup, connect and community day. Saved our division. The assignment of every minute to a task in schools is the #1 driver of stress besides angry parents.

Jonathan Ayres 1/11/2021 at 1:57pm

Thank you for writing this very detailed, developed and discerning piece! As a teacher, I feel “seen and heard” by this writer.