January 25, 2022

Elizabeth Caldwell: One Jeans Day Won’t Cut It (and what school leaders can do instead)

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Blogging at Organized Chaos, Elizabeth Caldwell offers some do’s and don’t’s for school leaders trying to support teacher morale.

It has been said many times by this point but I’m adding my voice to the chorus: random, superficial rewards from administrators that are supposed to make teachers feel better just don’t cut it when the stress and the pressure are this high. Teachers don’t want a pat on the back when they’re drowning. Here are a few things I see many school leaders trying that don’t work, and a few that do.

What doesn’t work: one-off, surface-level tokens
Small tokens of appreciation, whether it’s donuts in the staff lounge, a “jeans pass”, or a jolly rancher on teachers’ desks, are nice. The problem is most of the time, school policies, reality of life, and overall school climate communicate a lack of appreciation that one small gesture won’t counteract. In fact, many school leaders use these little tokens as a way to mentally check off the “be nice to the teachers too” box and teachers know it, so these small gestures end up coming off as disingenuous, and often just create more dissatisfaction.
What does work: a consistent pattern of appreciation
Patterns of behavior speak louder than individual actions. Small reminders that teachers are appreciated can in fact be an effective way to build a positive climate if they are done regularly, and backed up by genuine support. Tokens alone aren’t enough to improve teacher morale but if they are a consistent, regular occurrence they can build a positive culture over time and add a spark of fun without feeling superficial.
What doesn’t work: motivational speeches
Whether it’s an actual speech in a staff meeting, a pep talk in the hallway, or a motivational meme at the end of an email telling teachers it’s going to be OK, or that they are superheroes, general motivational messages without concrete action are another great way to elicit eye rolls from staff.
What does work: specific affirmation
Specific compliments and thanks, on the other hand, are one of the best ways to improve teacher morale. It needs to be a specific statement about a specific thing to a specific person (“I saw the way you responded to the student running down the hall to calmly redirect them, Ms. Johnson.”), not a general “You all are awesome”, for it to be meaningful. Verbal comments are great, a quick card or even an email is even better because it can be read back again later.
Read here for her full list.
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