Teacher Morale and the Post-COVID World: Where do we go from here?
The current educational system is experiencing radical systemic changes as a consequence of COVID-19 and a global pandemic. With the ultimate goal of ensuring students’ and educators’ health and well-being, school leaders from across the nation have implemented social distancing measures to slow the deadly spread of COVID-19. While these measures are undoubtedly well-intended and necessary, no one can deny the pressure placed on educators who must continue to teach in an unfamiliar format.
Before COVID-19, educators within the public school system were expected to effectively educate over 50 million students (National Center for Education Statistics). Even in normal circumstances, this task is massive enough to challenge every educator’s ability to handle pressure and manage stress. Now, consider that the vast majority of students are being educated in a hybrid or completely virtual format. This means most educators are engaging their students in teaching and learning in an unfamiliar format. They are trying their best to utilize resources and applications they have not been adequately trained to employ. Also, many educators are battling their personal anxieties and fears related to COVID-19.
When we consider the multitude of possible stressors educators are facing, it is clear that we must begin to brainstorm new and innovative ways to bolster teacher morale. How do we help educators handle pressure, manage job-related stress, and effectively engage students in teaching and learning in a post-COVID world? How do we support educators and increase the collective morale of staff within the school building? How do we ensure that we are not unintentionally opening the doors that lead to teacher burnout and attrition? Answering these questions may be the most challenging task of all during the 2020-2021 school year.
Here are (3) Things Every Leader Must Do to Address Teacher Morale in a Post-COVID World
1. Take off your Superman Cape
Leadership is tricky because it demands confidence without cockiness. It requires the decisive action needed to navigate the unknown while demonstrating the humility necessary to acknowledge when you need help. This is the challenge of leadership. Educational leaders must be able to communicate a sense of “you can rely on me” to their staff without modeling a “Superman complex.” The Superman complex is demonstrated when leaders act as if they “know-it-all” or have it all under control. While most leaders would love to appear to be poised and in control at all times, the reality is COVID-19, and the global pandemic has presented unusual challenges that have never been experienced before. Therefore, it is ok for leaders to say, “I don’t know.” It is ok for leaders to express uncertainty because uncertainty does not communicate weakness at this unusual time but instead displays your humanity. In this uncommon time of stress and anxiety, teachers are not looking for Superman. They are looking for Clark Kent. They are looking for a regular person who can empathize with and relate to what they are experiencing. Let your folks know that you are human by taking off your Superman cape.
2. Throw Away your Hammer
In reference to leadership, a mentor once told me, “Sometimes you have to be the hammer and the pillow.” Initially, I did not fully understand what he was trying to convey with that expression. I assumed that the hammer metaphor referred to the seriousness of holding people accountable, leading with authority, and not allowing room for excuses. Whereas the pillow metaphor referred to demonstrating grace, a willingness to listen, and possibly even bending expectations to prove that you understand “things happen” when people fail to meet the mark. In normal circumstances, I can see the need to be the hammer and the pillow. As a leader, you never want to lead people into thinking excuses are acceptable. However, in the post-COVID world, it may be time to discard the hammer altogether, at least temporarily. Educators are already stressed and frustrated. They do not need to feel as if someone is waiting for them to make a mistake so they can be called into the office to be hammered. Now is not the time to be the hammer, now is the time to be the pillow.
3. Commit to Community Building
In an article titled, “7 Things You Have to Do to Build a Powerful Community,” best-selling author Kevin Daum expressed the importance of community building within organizations and teams. He stated, “The #1 required skill for today and the future is community building because no one will accomplish much anymore by themselves” (Daum, 2017, p. 1). Although the author is generally speaking of business, we can see how this truth applies to the field of education. Now more than ever, we need each other. Educational leaders must strive to develop a sense of collective unity within the school building. The goal must focus on supporting one another as we work together to accomplish the tasks at hand. Daum (2017) believes this can only occur if we cultivate a “We before me” culture (p. 2). This is precisely what we must do in this new normal, where everyone needs to feel supported.
Conclusion: Things to Consider Moving Forward
Building teacher morale and establishing a positive school culture and climate cannot be pushed to the bottom of the priority list. These things must take precedent if we are to preserve the teachers that we have. Before the pandemic, we were already experiencing a national teacher shortage. COVID-19 has made leaving the profession more enticing than ever before for teachers. Therefore, educational leaders are facing the greatest challenge of their professional careers. How do I keep my entire staff focused on the goals while ensuring that each member in the school community feels supported?
(3) Specific Considerations for Every Educational Leader:
- What is my strategy for building teacher morale moving forward?
- How much time will I designate to plan monthly activities and events to help teachers feel connected to the broader school community?
- What will I do as a leader to invest in my continued leadership growth and development?
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education,” 1995–96 through 2017–18; and National Elementary and Secondary Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity Projection Model, 1972 through 2029.