Real Ways School Leaders Can Build Morale and Reduce Stress in Schools

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Face it — schools can be stressful places to work, and that perpetual stress can take a serious toll on the faculty and staff. It’s normal to see slumps in staff morale and spikes in teacher stress throughout the year. During busy times, between vacations, at the end of the year, or during periods of change, school staff morale can fluctuate. But strong school leaders can learn to recognize the signs, kick into gear, and give everyone a boost.

Here are some great ways to combat the high-stress peaks and low-morale doldrums.

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School Problem #1: Compassion Fatigue

The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) reports that nearly 50% of the children in the United States have experienced “at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma.” Educators who work daily with such students can face what’s known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. A side effect of working with those who have endured traumatic experiences, compassion fatigue is common amongst health care professionals, social workers, and educators. The symptoms of compassion fatigue are similar to that of direct trauma: isolation, depression, difficulty focusing, insomnia, excessive drinking, appetite changes, anger and/or sadness.

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What school leaders can do:

Help combat compassion fatigue by providing professional development centered around self-care or mindfulness. Give your staff an outlet and a safe space to talk about the traumas they’ve taken on, and then provide training on healthy coping skills. Bring in a counselor or let the school’s counseling staff run a PD on coping skills. Meditation, a fun team-building outing, writing exercises, and even small group counseling sessions can help those of us who spend our lives helping others.

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School Problem #2: Negativity

Many educators are aware of the reputation of the Teacher’s Lounge as a hub for gossip, complaints, and negativity. But no matter what space you’re in, negativity can spread like a virus in schools. Just like students, there are teacher cliques, teacher bullies, and staff attention seekers. One person’s negativity can multiply, sinking morale and halting innovations from moving forward.

Young man in a booth, staring at his laptop screen with frustration

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

What school leaders can do:

Watch for signs of discontent and stay connected to the needs and chatter of the staff. When people complain, it’s often because they feel unheard. Make it known that your door is open for constructive discussions and that you encourage staff to come to you with problems, needs, and solutions rather than spreading negativity. “Dealing with difficult teachers is a central responsibility of instructional leaders. To do it effectively, you must first commit to being a character builder: a role model whose values, words, and deeds are marked by trustworthiness, integrity, authenticity, respect, generosity, and humility,” according to Elaine K. McEwan in her book How to Deal With Teachers Who Are Angry, Troubled, Exhausted, or Just Plain Confused. Be a model of optimism, professionalism, and openness, and then encourage others to follow your example.

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School Problem #3: Resistance to Change

Change can be a difficult sell in schools, and often there is one person whose resistance has a ripple effect: The Underminer. In their article Working with Difficult Staff, John and Sheila Eller write that, ”An underminer works behind the scenes to weaken your leadership by fabricating or exaggerating negative aspects about you or the change you are implementing. Other teachers, especially those lacking a clear understanding of the issue or the strength to resist, may be easily convinced to join the negative conversation. A group of covert resisters may develop. The situation can quickly get out of control.” For example, an underminer may agree to a new plan in person, but covertly work against you in private.

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Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

What school leaders can do:

John and Sheila Eller suggest meeting with the underminer in private to discuss the behavior and get to the bottom of why they may feel so resistant to you or the initiatives they’ve rejected. The authors recommend using a script to keep on message and to avoid any emotional distraction. Ensure that your staff knows they can come to you with issues and ideas and encourage doing so to avoid negativity from manifesting in school culture.

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School Problem #4: Burnout

At the end of the school year — heck, by mid-year, teachers are often burned out. Stress, anxiety, expectations, and work levels mount, with teachers losing steam and perspective. Burnout symptoms include fatigue, forgetfulness, increased sick days, anxiety, depression, anger, cynicism, isolation, loss of or overactive appetite, pessimism, and even apathy. A teacher suffering from burnout can be overwhelmed, ill, or so frustrated that they give up. “On top of everyday stressors like scant resources and long hours, there’s a surprising culprit behind many cases of burnout: teachers’ own beliefs that they’re not able to do all the different (and changing) parts of their job well,” writes Calvin Hennick in his article Beating Teacher Burnout. Teachers can also feel inundated with new initiatives and innovations, leading to a perpetual state of innovation fatigue.

What school leaders can do:

Watch for warning signs amongst your staff. Teachers who may be irritable, exhausted, crying, or exhibiting burnout symptoms may need a life preserver. Look over their workload. Is there room for lifting a few burdens, even temporarily? Can you give them a grace period on some deadlines? Ask what their needs are and encourage them to be honest. Burnout isn’t weakness. It’s real and it’s common. Offer ideas for organization of responsibilities, managing workloads, and adjusting practices to alleviate stress. Encourage staff to collaborate and offer professional development in self-care and mindfulness.

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School Problem #5: Educator Demoralization

Let’s be real: Teachers have an image problem. Policymakers tell them how to do their jobs and pay very little, thus undermining their profession and often creating impossible standards for success. In her book Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, Doris A. Santoro notes that the teaching profession has a few problems: “The low status of the profession relative to the education and training required for entry; demographics of teachers that are remarkably different from those of their students; low compensation relative to the preparation required for and demands of the work.” Others include clashes with the administration, little autonomy, testing pressures, and being overworked. Santoro explains that the opinions about teachers are internalized by educators, who can begin to feel like all of their hard work and tireless giving is no longer worth the cost.

What school leaders can do:

Chett Daniel, founder of K12 HR Solutions and author of Ignite: A School Administrator’s Guide to Designing Districts that Motivate Teachers (a free, downloadable e-book), notes that providing teachers with meaningful resources can help build a foundation of respect, professionalism, and trust. Daniel clarifies that the word resources doesn’t just refer to school supplies and copy machines, but more deeply impactful elements like teacher autonomy, transparency, peer support, professional learning, feedback, fairness, and professional respect. When these resources are authentically present, teachers are more likely to feel valued and supported in their school. And sure, school supplies are great too!

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School Problem #6: Feeling Unseen for All That Extra Work

Teachers spend so much of their personal time working on lessons, grading, and planning. Their weekends and summers are often full of professional development and designing for the next year. When teachers leave the school building, many spend countless unpaid hours working at home on school-related tasks — a fact that is regularly overlooked or merely expected.

What school leaders can do:

Recognize the hard work your teachers are putting in outside of school hours. Whenever possible, offer overtime pay for after-hours contributions. When that’s not possible, appreciation goes a long way. Let your staff members know that you see how much time they’re putting into their work. Thank them for going above and beyond for the students in your community. Make an effort to build in moments of gratitude throughout the school year vs. waiting for a specific event to do so. And hey, some donuts for those early-morning arrivals or a kind note to a hard working staff member are simple yet impactful gestures that say: “I see you, and I am grateful for what you do.”

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School Problem #7: Lack of Connectedness as an Administrator

Budgets and endless meetings can really make a school leader feel removed from the classroom. When teachers feel this type of disconnect, it “can lead to negative stereotypes of principals: that they are motivated more by self-interest and salary than serving children, or that their priorities and allegiances lean more toward bureaucracy and budgets than teaching and learning. Some teachers feel that administrators don’t ‘get it’ and this perception feeds an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” says Olaf Jorgenson and Christopher Peal in When Principals Lose Touch with the Classroom.

What school leaders can do:

School leaders should make time for non-evaluative classroom visits. Sit down next to students and engage in activities with them — and try to stay for more than five minutes. Stay up to date on what students are learning in classes; chat with them about it in the hallway. Make time each day to get up from your desk, stay visible, and interact with both teachers and students. Converse with your staff by reading articles together, learning new techniques, and modeling your own teaching and leadership practice. And hey, why not stretch those teaching muscles and do a guest appearance in a classroom from time to time?

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How do you tackle these common school problems as a building leader? If you’re a teacher, what strategies have your building leaders put in place to help you thrive in your classroom? Let us know in the comments below.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and educator at Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in New York City. At Hudson, she created Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for adolescents. Jennifer is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Jennifer is a regular contributor to outlets such as EdWeekThe ByEd Blog, and Concordia University-Portland’s Room 241 Education Blog. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter: @jenniferlmgunn.

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