Concerns about school and district employee morale and burnout remain top of mind for superintendents, a new survey shows, even though they generally feel more upbeat about their own careers.
Worries about employee well-being come as district leaders identify staffing concerns as a key hurdle for accomplishing district goals, making retention of existing employees an even more urgent priority.
Those findings are from the 2023 Voice of the Superintendent survey of 198 superintendents from 37 states, which was released Feb. 16 by EAB, an education consulting organization.
District leaders have consistently told Education Week that maintaining, supporting, and recruiting employees are key challenges.
Years of disruption from the COVID-19 debates and divisive political rhetoric about teachers and the role of public education have made it more difficult for educators, said Georgeanne Warnock, the superintendent of the Terrell, Texas, district.
And there’s not a silver bullet for turning it all around, leaders said.
“There’s not one 100 percent solution,” Warnock said. “There are 100 1 percent solutions.”
Here are some key findings.
High levels of concern for special educators
Asked about staff in a range of school roles, district leaders were more likely to say they had “moderate or major concern” about low morale and burnout of special education staff, followed closely by teachers in general.
District leaders have tried a variety of strategies to lift employee morale and to address systemic concerns—everything from using COVID-19 relief aid to pay for mid-year retention bonuses to conducting “stay interviews” to ask employees what they need to remain content on the job.
Warnock has tried strategies of all sizes.
When her district struggled with a substitute teacher shortage, for example, she took turns covering classrooms and used her observations to make improvements around the district.
This year, she’s broadly surveyed staff and reviewed the findings in smaller focus groups. Teachers especially need to know how that feedback will be used, when changes are made as a result, and how success will be measured, Warnock said.
“The people who are closest to the ground need to have the loudest voice at the table,” she said.
Drawing upon that feedback, the district plans to take a big leap next year: switching to longer school days and four-day instructional weeks with time for independent student learning on Fridays.
The plan, which was supported by a majority of parents in a district survey, will give teachers more time and space to design instruction, Warnock said.
Administrators fret about hiring struggles
Asked about various types of employees, leaders’ concerns about hiring and retention mirrored their answers to questions about morale—with special education staff among the most challenging to hire and retain.
Superintendents were most likely to identify staffing shortages as a key barrier to achieving district goals on student mental health, behavior, supporting special education students, and academic success.
In all four of those categories, respondents ranked concerns about staffing above the need for other resources, like a sufficient budget or buy-in from their school boards.
Students’ mental health, behavior trump academic concerns
A majority of superintendents responding to the survey said student mental health and behavior are worse today than they were before the pandemic. That finding is in keeping with educator surveys administered by the EdWeek Research Center over the last two years.
Addressing these concerns is both a key priority for schools and a contributor to low employee morale, district leaders said.
Such concerns have gotten attention from state and federal policy makers, who’ve approved new funding for school mental health professionals in the last year.
Superintendents’ outlook has improved
Despite these challenges, superintendents seem to have a more positive outlook this year than they did in the 2021-22 school year.
Seventy percent of respondents said they feel more successful today than a year ago.