With Teacher Morale in the Tank, What’s the Right Formula to Turn It Around?

More recognition, flexible schedules, and better pay are among the keys to improving teacher morale, a panel of education experts said in a candid discussion about a “profession in crisis.”

The panel was part of Education Week’s three-day Leadership Symposiuma virtual event for district and school leaders to discuss issues impacting schools today, teacher morale high among them.

Earlier this year, the first annual Merrimack College Teacher Survey, done in conjunction with the EdWeek Research Center, found that teacher satisfaction has hit an all-time low. Less than half of the 1,324 teachers who responded to the survey said the general public respects them and views them as professionals. Twenty-six percent said they are paid fairly for their work and just 37 percent said they have influence over their schedules.

The low morale reflected in the survey bleeds directly into school culture, Dan Krause, a principal at Willowbrook High School in Village Park, Ill., said during the panel.

“We can’t count on 14- to 17-year-olds to drive the ship for us, it’s the adults that do it,” Krause said.

It is not easy to increase teacher morale after two years of pandemic-disrupted learning, but there are a few steps school leaders and lawmakers can take to improve teacher experience.

Acknowledge that teachers are dealing with a lot of pressures

As teachers find themselves in the center of political debates and controversy over pandemic policies and curriculum, it’s more important than ever for school and district leaders to highlight the value they bring to students on a daily basis, said César Morales, the superintendent of schools in Ventura County, Calif.

Districts have seen a dramatic increase in federal funding during pandemic, opening the doors for more school counselors and mental health supports. When that money goes away, school leaders must find a way to continue to support those programs, Morales said.

“We need to be creative with how to keep that going,” he said. “We can’t cut those positions and expect our teachers to then [take on] that burden as well.”

Adopt flexible scheduling

In order for teacher recognition to translate to improved teacher morale, school leaders need to reevaluate schedules, said Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and president of the California State Board of Education. Teachers in the US have some of the world’s most rigorous schedules with classes packed back to back and little time allotted for planning and breaks, she said.

“We inherited a factory-model design from the early 1900s,” Darling-Hammond said. “The way in which we design [teacher] schedules and the staffing structures and so on is built on that.”

With the addition of remote learning technology, schools have more tools now than ever to provide more flexible schedules to teachers, which could mean more time for one-on-one meetings, planning periods and home visits, Darling-Hammond said.

More flexibility also means more time for teachers to be able to listen to their students and have a better sense of their needs. It will ultimately improve morale for those in the profession, Darling-Hammond said.

“Teachers get frustrated if they can’t meet the needs of the students in front of them,” she said. “They’ve just got to keep marching along and know that they’re losing kids or they’re falling behind.”

Increasing salaries as an effective strategy

Ultimately, none of the strategies may be more effective at improving teacher recruitment, retention, and morale than higher pay. Fifty-one percent of teachers who responded to the Merrimack College survey said that they strongly disagree that their pay is fair for the work they do.

Often teachers are paid less than other professionals in their community and, in some cases, below the living wage, Darling-Hammond said. The result is a dwindling interest in the profession.

One strategy aside from simply raising teacher pay is to adopt tuition relief programs and student loan forgiveness for teachers.

“We need to be real. Altruism and vocation is not enough anymore to attract teachers into the profession,” Morales said.

The Leadership Symposium will continue through Wednesday. Those who are interested in attending can sign up by visiting EdWeek.org/events.

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