School & District Management

How Principals and District Leaders Are Trying to Boost Lagging Teacher Morale During COVID-19

By Catherine Gewertz — May 08, 2020 7 min read
Kari Munoz and other teachers from Zavala and Travis Elementary Schools in Odessa, Texas, used noisemakers last month to greet their students, who are learning from home because of the coronavirus. Distance-learning has taken a steep toll on teacher morale, EdWeek Research Center data shows.
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Principals and district leaders are deploying a flurry of supportive tactics to help teachers adapt to the sudden shift to remote learning, but teachers’ morale has taken a serious tumble as their weeks of home-teaching pile up.

Surveys by the EdWeek Research Center document the decline in teachers’ spirits. In our March 25 survey, 63 percent of teachers reported that teacher morale was lower than before the pandemic. By April 8, that figure rose to 69 percent, and by April 23, it reached 72 percent. On May 7, 71 percent of teachers reported that morale was worse than before the pandemic.

Knowing the shift would be tough for teachers, administrators have scrambled to assemble as many kinds of supports as they can. They’ve set up training sessions on technology platforms that are new to many teachers, like Zoom and Google Classroom, and dropped into virtual class sessions to offer instructional guidance. They’ve dropped off Chromebooks and tracked down errant students, posted encouraging messages on Twitter, and even driven by teachers’ homes to wish them a happy birthday (from a safe distance).

Tony Sinanis, an assistant superintendent in the Chappaqua, N.Y., school district, uses Twitter to model wellness for teachers. He posts videos while he’s out running, or cooking dinner with his partner and their teenage son, making sure to tag at least one teacher from each of the district’s six buildings. One 2nd grade teacher responded with photos of herself hiking with her children. A kindergarten teacher tweeted about a few of her restorative activities: reading, trying new tea, and cooking lasagna. “Thanks for the #ChappSelfCare reminder,” she tweeted.

Kathy Brown, who teaches middle school social studies in rural Milford, Ill., appreciates the things her principal has done to preserve a sense of normalcy, like posting videos of daily announcements and teachers reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. She values the weekly consultations with her fellow teachers, which have now moved to Google Meets.

“Those would be things we’d normally do, and it’s really nice that we’re still doing them,” Brown said. “It makes us feel like we’re still connected to each other.”

But the boost from even the best-intentioned strategies can be swamped by the big things that are weighing on teachers’ minds.

Brown says her morale is waning because she’s worried she won’t be able to convey all the material her students need to start next year in good shape. She hasn’t finished World War I with her 7th graders, or the Roman Empire with her 6th graders. Some students haven’t turned in any work at all.

“I just feel like I’m not doing a good job, and I worry about them,” said Brown, who’s in her 30th year of teaching.

The Heart of Teaching, Challenged

Given what research says about why teachers teach, it’s not surprising that their morale is declining right now, said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ work conditions and satisfaction.

Many of the “intrinsic rewards that drew teachers to teaching”—working closely with children, being part of a collaborative, service-minded community of colleagues, conveying content they care about—have become more difficult to experience when they must work from a distance, she said.

“They could master the technology, but for many teachers, that kind of instruction is artificial and isolating, especially in the early grades,” Johnson said. “The draw and reinforcement teachers get from working in a social context is really compromised by a modular, asynchronous system,” she said.

“It’s really hard if they don’t have the sense that they can do the work they came to do,” she said. “It’s worrisome, and there’s no simple answer for schools.”

As more schools extended remote teaching into the rest of the school year, teachers’ morale drooped as they realized that this stressful experiment will last months, not just a few weeks.

“Now I don’t see an end in sight,” said Will Napier, a special education teacher at Artesia High School, in a suburb of Los Angeles. “I don’t know if I can handle this for months.”

Will Napier, a special education teacher at Artesia High School, southeast of Los Angeles, appreciates the things his school has done to boost teachers' morale, like passing out these lawn signs. But he is still struggling to feel good about teaching remotely.

The principal of Napier’s school, Sergio Garcia, tries in every way he can to keep his teachers’ spirits up. He stays in “constant communication” with his staff through texts, online meetings, and drop-ins to instructional sessions. He gave them face masks with the school’s mascot on them, and lawn signs proclaiming that they’re “all in this together.” He urges teachers to slow down and take time for themselves.

“Knowing how distant you can feel, I knew we needed to support our teachers,” Garcia said.

In a time when it feels like “the world has been turned upside down,” Napier said, those things can offer a measure of reassurance.

Flexibility, Emotional Support, Setting Boundaries

In Education Week interviews with principals and district leaders, key themes emerged about the kinds of support strategies that have gotten appreciative feedback from teachers. Added to a solid base of instructional leadership, experts say they could provide important sustenance while teachers aren’t together in their school buildings.

  • Offer scheduling flexibility. Many school districts have started dropping instruction on Fridays, using it instead for teacher collaboration and preparation. Others have shortened block-schedule classes and reduced their frequency. “The biggest thing we did is not to replicate the normal schedule,” said Mat McClenahan, the principal of High Tech Los Angeles, a small charter high school. He told teachers they could do only a couple of hours of live instruction per day, and the rest could be asynchronous to fit better with the demands of their home lives, and spare them from sitting in front of computers all day.
  • Encourage teachers to set work boundaries. Like a growing number of schools, Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall urged its teachers to establish “office hours” so they don’t have to “make themselves available at all hours,” said Kelly Walsh, the private Massachusetts high school’s director of 9th and 10th grade programs. “We wanted to put in some parameters to protect teachers.”
  • Be transparent and accessible. Especially when they are navigating new ways to do their jobs, teachers need to know they can ask questions. McClenahan said his twice-weekly staff meetings have included open forums for tough questions like whether teachers will still have jobs in the fall.
  • Be a troubleshooter. If teachers are struggling to get Chromebooks to all their students, hop in your car and become part of the delivery service. If your 12th grade English teacher hasn’t heard from several students and they need that class to graduate, make a home visit to those kids. These are the kinds of things Aaron Newman and Jennifer Agresta did in Steubenville, Ohio. They’re both assistant principals; Agresta at the district’s one middle school, and Newman at the high school. They also completed students’ individualized education plans for a teacher who had to be hospitalized. “Just having that empathy and knowing we’re trying not to put undue pressure on them” is important, Agresta said. Newman said: “It’s not just words. It’s action.”
  • Recognize that emotional support is as important as instructional support. Leaders at several schools said they’ve repeatedly reminded teachers of the tele-therapy benefits available through their health-care plans or their own school-based counselors. Some set aside virtual meetings just for friendly chats and non-instructional support. Anu Ebbe, the principal of Shorewood Hills Elementary in Madison, Wis., opens staff meetings with mindfulness exercises led by trained staff members. She uses concepts and practices from the district’s chosen social-emotional learning framework, Zones of Regulation, to help teachers reflect on their emotions, and access the same menu of self-care strategies they teach their students. For Ebbe, instructional coaching also doubles as emotional support; she drops into teachers’ Zoom lessons, accompanied by a social worker or psychologist, so she can provide academic feedback and also follow up on signs of struggle in her teachers.

What teachers need most now, Ebbe said, is a multi-layered approach to support. They don’t just need mindfulness support, they need a comprehensive virtual learning plan that offers clear guidance on things like the scope and sequence of instruction, and attendance and grading policies. They need a dedicated virtual space for “shout-outs” that recognize their hard work, but they also need a good shared-leadership structure so they can collaborate to plan instruction. They need coaching support to teach their students, but they also need explicit messages from administrators about taking care of themselves.

“It’s not just one thing,” Ebbe said. “All of these things matter.”

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