Managing Staff Morale in Austere Times

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 16 January 2017
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

With the 2016 -2017 academic year now reaching a winter of discontent in terms of industrial relations, school leaders are left to try and manage the situation as best they can, torn between sympathy for teaching colleagues and responsibility to parents and pupils to keep things running. All of this comes on top of successive failures by government in Northern Ireland in recent years to resolve industrial workload disputes with the teaching unions which was already making school improvement difficult.

The rhetoric of the teaching unions gives a clear indication of the current state of teacher morale. “The high-quality education to which all children and young people are entitled cannot be delivered by teachers whose professional lives are being blighted by deep pay cuts and excessive workload.” Chris Keates, NASUWT General Secretary.

This statement reflects new economic realities which we are told must be faced in public sector employment with declining budgets but also serious workload implications with fewer staff covering the curriculum and inevitably higher contact times. Taken together with erosion of pension entitlements and increasing accountability it is hardly surprising that teacher morale is low and that the quality of teacher’s lives are said to be affected. Is this something that school leaders should try to address, given that they are not authors of the situation, nor able to remedy the cash shortages which have caused it?

My former colleague ASCL Policy Director Leora Cruddas writing about managing teacher workload says that of course quality of life is important – allowing time with families and friends and having interests and activities unrelated to work. None of us want a life that is totally dominated by work, or indeed work that is dominated by low value and unnecessary tasks!

She adds that nor do we want to position teaching in an anachronistic industrial era of clocking on and off – the interminable counting of hours. Teaching is first and foremost a profession. As such it ignites our passion and our moral purpose. It is born of the conviction that we make a difference in the lives of children. Teachers come into the profession with a commitment to evaluate constantly the way in which their practice improves children and young people’s learning and life chances. None of this can be done from the point of view of a narrow industrialist model of work.

So there is a problem that school leaders need to solve – the fact that teacher’s professional lives can contain unnecessary tasks and compliance processes that take them away from their primary focus process of teaching and learning. I agree that when working relationship disputes arise between teachers and a head and it descends into counting hours, then everybody loses,  especially the teachers themselves whose natural instinct is to be there for the pupils and participate whole-heartedly in the life of the school.

So what if anything can school leaders do in such difficult circumstances? According to Webster's Dictionary (2010), morale is a person's mental state that is exhibited by assurance, control, and motivation to perform a task. Writing about leadership behaviours that contribute to teacher morale, Vickie Tantee and Randolph-Robinson of Georgia Southern University argue that if school leaders are sensitive to morale they can do much to turn around a lot of things in a school. Student achievement is adversely affected by low teacher morale. Boosting morale will do more than save a teacher. It will save a student. It will save a school. They suggest that by treating teachers in ways that empower them, such as involving them in decisions about policies and practices and acknowledging their expertise, school leaders can help sustain teacher morale. Principals can also strengthen teacher morale by actively standing behind teachers. “Effective principals serve as guardians of teachers' instructional time, assist teachers with student discipline matters, allow teachers to develop discipline codes, and support teachers' authority in enforcing policy”.

There is a real danger during times of industrial unrest in schools of allowing a “them and us” mind set to develop between managers and teachers. It is essential to avoid this and have open dialogue to resolve difficulties together. Dr. K. Govindarajan Professor, Faculty of Education, Vinayaka Missions University, Puducherry, India suggests that leadership behaviour clearly impacts teacher morale. Research findings support the argument that teacher morale can be predicted on the basis of the leadership style asserted by the principal. Principals who use a participatory style of leadership are more likely to have more satisfied and productive teachers than principals who use an autocratic style of leadership.  

My own experience has been that clear communication with staff during industrial action is essential to avoid misunderstanding and resentments. The key issues are really about being valued as professionals and the level of pay is the most obvious sign of how teachers are valued by society and government. Unfortunately, we are now in a new era of austerity and uncertainty when the economic scaffolding which previously held everything together has been removed and like it or not we must all come to terms with unpleasant realities and develop realistic expectations about future earnings. This then is a very difficult ask of school leaders, to help staff come to terms with less job security, fewer promotion prospects and more demanding terms and conditions while at the same time ensuring that teacher’s efforts are properly valued and appreciated.

Writing in 2014 in the Guardian newspaper in the Secret Teacher column, a late entrant to the teaching profession reflects on teaching compared to other types of working life. The teacher suggests that the secret to achieving this elusive happiness (in teaching) lies in the way we are spoken to. Managers, you aren't "disappointed" in your staff if they forget to answer your email. You remind them politely and acknowledge they're busy. You don't tell staff they are "not allowed" to leave an open evening before a certain time; you acknowledge it's a late evening and thank them for staying. Unhappy staff are not "bitching and moaning", they need a proper outlet where their concerns will be considered objectively.

I find that this chimes with my own instincts and experience and is really just basic professionalism. Ensuring you communicate diplomatically and respectfully can soothe even the most painful extra workload announcements and secure more happiness at work than any order from above. As school leaders we cannot change the world outside, but we can certainly decide on how it will be 'coped with' in our own “world of work”.

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This article is correct at 16/01/2017

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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