We know psychologically that there is a connection between feeling of self-worth and actions. When teachers lose hope in their career, eventually they change the direction of their own future and in turn it impacts the future of our children. If you are an educator or have friends who are educators, you have undoubtedly discussed teacher morale in public education and thoughts on the future of education. Sadly, those thoughts were most likely negative. Educators who enter the field are often bright-eyed, confident, and enthusiastic. Teacher turnover is continuing to climb higher, yet those entering the field is going lower. What happened? That is the problem we must solve.
Teacher turnover holds back our schools and our students. How do you improve morale? It will take multiple strategies, which differ from community to community, district to district, school to school. Let’s look at four of the most prominent issues: educator compensation, lack of respect for educators, testing and out of control students.
Educator Compensation. Compensation is everything that is provided to the educator for their services. Compensation alone will not impact teacher morale. Governor Bill Haslam made teacher salaries a priority, and should be recognized for his efforts. It is debatable if dollars allocated for salary increases reached all classroom teachers. This may be attributed to district implemented pay plans. Educators should be involved in the development of those plans. Governor-elect Bill Lee indicated he intends to develop a pipeline of well-trained, highly compensated educators who can flourish in the teaching profession. This will likely include incentive compensation programs, together with stipends, and associated benefits that are based on professional employee performance that exceeds expectations. Compensation can also be used to aid in hiring, and/or retaining highly qualified teachers for hard-to-staff schools and subject areas.
Lack of Respect for Educators. Teaching, a profession once held in high esteem, is being de-valued both by stakeholders and policymakers for a variety of reasons. Teachers, who are on the frontlines of parental dissatisfaction with the system, are often made scapegoats by people who have lost trust in the system. This lack of respect is reflected by lack of parental support and engagement. In fairness, some parents are supportive and work with educators to help ensure their children get the best possible education. Yet more often than not, parents simply blame the teacher for the problems at school. But even more than that, teachers often lack the support of their administrators, district, and even the state. Bureaucrats keep piling on more requirements of educators with barely a nod of appreciation. Teachers, above all other professions, deserve the recognition and gratitude of a job well-done. Doing so on a regular basis will be a small step toward improving the teacher turnover rate.
Testing. The testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. Nobody would object to testing that benefits the teaching and learning process of students. As it stands currently, the data is not received in a timely manner and the results yield little or no benefit to the students. Educators would welcome a robust, practical solution to current assessment issues. A portfolio-based assessment model is also problematic. However, it may be a preferred model of student evaluation if it is not too time-consuming. It is based on a wide range of student work done over a long period of time, rather than on a single, paper-and-pencil test taken over a few hours. We must work to ensure that our assessments and the subsequent results are empowering and informing without being a time drain. Assessments should not inhibit quality instruction but provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. Most importantly, assessments should be not used a punitive measure against teachers.
Out of Control Students. Effective educators consider the root causes of misbehavior and develop appropriate solutions on a consistent, ongoing basis. However, some students need attention and intervention beyond the scope of what a classroom teacher can provide. It is imperative that a school and district adopt policies that support effective classroom management, as well as student instruction for all students. One possible policy has to be a better tracking of the time an educator has to spend on discipline issues. Do parents have the right to know, for example, if one student disrupts their own child’s education so frequently, they lose instruction time? School districts must balance their responsibilities toward the community with the responsibility to nurture students. Without discipline, students cannot learn. Students themselves must respect rules and authority regardless of underlying disabilities/issues. Districts must have policies in place that protect all students’ right to learn.
There is no one size fits all strategy that will work in every school or district. This is a recurring theme among those who believe in local control in public education. Together, we can work to address teacher morale issues. Once a plan is in place, it is very important to examine, evaluate, and adjust as necessary.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.