I recently submitted a short piece of writing to ASCD Express based on a call they had for educator submissions on building positive morale in a school. While the piece is brief (they asked for 600-100 words), I thought that the points I submitted were high leverage items that most any principal could begin to implement in his or her school to improve or strengthen morale. The following is the piece I submitted:
In times of great change and during stressful situations, it is easy for the morale of any organization to “take a dip”. This can be caused by multiple factors and influences, including those internally and externally. My experiences as a school leader have taught me that there are some simple things that any administrator can do to build a positive morale within their school and school community. While not an exhaustive list, here are some things that I feel are “high leverage” items in keeping morale positive:
- Talk less and listen more. Building morale in times of great educational change means listening to those that you lead, including students and parents. Use active listening strategies to engage with staff and students so they know you understand what is important to them, what is challenging for them, and what brings joy to their school experience. Sometimes, just being heard and feeling that someone has listened to you is key. For parents, it means hearing their concerns and providing forums for them to share with you what they hope their children take away from their school experience.
- Communicate frequently and via multiple means. Strong communicators help keep school communities connected. I contribute to our school newsletter once per month around topics that are pertinent to the school. The newsletter is published on our website and can be translated into a number of languages to reach as far across the school community as possible. I also write on my principal blog at least once per month, if not more about educationally related topics that may hold an interest for parents and other educators. Additionally, I use Twitter to share school related information, learn from my PLN (Professional Learning Network) and communicate about educationally related happenings both in and out of my school. You don’t need to have 100 ways to communicate, however, you should have a few good ones. Start small if need be and then work into something that is meaningful and manageable.
- Take time to celebrate. In an age of accountability and change, it can be easy to get lost in mandates and initiatives. Be sure to find ways to celebrate with staff, students, and parents as a way to accentuate and highlight the great work your school is doing with students. This can happen through your periodic communications, at staff meetings, during staff meetings and other forums such as PTO/PTA events and school assemblies and gatherings. Be sure to celebrate even small successes! Positivity is contagious and celebrating good work helps people push on when the work feels tough.
- “Weed the Garden”. Is everything you are doing necessary? Are there practices within your school that are no longer necessary but continue because “that’s how we’ve always done it” ? Sometimes, finding one or two things that are no longer useful or finding a better way to do them can be liberating for staff. It also tells them you value their time and work and that you want them to invest their energy into those things that will be most meaningful to your school.
- Be Present 10 out of 10 Days. When I was in my second principalship, I worked for a superintendent that once reminded me, “We need to be here for students and staff 10 out of 10 days.” As an administrator, you are the “cheerleader” for your staff. It is imperative that you provide them with a positive, yet realistic attitude about the work and that you “bring your best self” to the job every day; not 5 out of 10, or 8 out of 10, but 10 out of 10. For teachers, that means having faith in ALL students, and believing that all students can learn at high levels, no matter what. Students need to know that you are there for them, that you believe in them, and that you are committed to their success, both academically and socially/emotionally.
- Stick to Your Vision. In an age where so many changes are taking place, teachers and parents need to be engaged in working towards a vision for your school. What do you want your school to be known for and how do you want your school to be talked about in the community? Having a clear vision for what your school should become is some of the “glue” that holds everything together. That should also include being clear on what your mission is as well. As yourself and staff, “Why are we here?”. The answers to those questions are the compass points that guide you in your work despite the changes taking place in education and they also provide parents and the school community a clear “picture” of the organization that cares for their children each and every day.
- Remember: We’re All Learners. Whether you are a first time Kindergarten parent trying to learn how school “works”, a first year teacher navigating the classroom and all that is expected of you, a student in first grade learning how to read, or a 15 year principal trying to lead a school, we are all learners. Schools should be promoting growth mindsets and the fact that not any one of us in a school community has all the answers, knows everything, or can’t make mistakes. One of the great things about being in education is the fact that we continually have the opportunity to learn and grow. This sometimes means we make mistakes along the way, have several attempts at learning something new, or need to discover how we learn best. The point being, we all need to view one another as learners, no matter what our role in the school.
Lastly, and most importantly in helping to promote a healthy and positive morale within a school, the focus must always be on children and what is best for them. Parents do not keep the best and brightest at home, educators do not get into education because they don’t want to make a difference, and no child wants to be unsuccessful. Our focus must always be on meeting the needs of children. This means that no matter what we do, no matter what mandates we are given, we always work with what we have been given to make a positive impact on the lives of students. That is everyone’s goal, everyone’s livelihood, and the very best way we can maintain high levels of morale in ALL of our schools.