Learn...to Live Well: Boosting Morale

Of course the most fundamental, important aspect of education is the relationship between teacher and student. And, it’s a two way street. Teachers must respect students; students must respect their teachers. This symbiotic relationship seems to be eroding. There is a dearth of young people entering the educational field, thus a very concerning shortage of teachers, with the consequence of less quality, vibrant teachers. 

Let’s look at it, first from the view of the teacher. I hope you have all had the experience of an exceptional teacher in your life. One that got the best out of you. Got you excited about life and learning…regardless of the subject matter. And, likely, the frustrating experience of having had mediocre and even poor teachers…inadequacy very likely due to low morale. Nobody is a poor teacher by choice.

What students, parents, the public don’t see is how morale is affected within the educational system, itself. Since I was a secondary school teacher for 13 years, myself, I’ll give you a personal glimpse into what can affect a teacher’s morale and thus, performance.

After 13 years I was laid off due to declining enrollment and having become the least-senior English ‘equivalency.’ The feeling of being dispensable, no matter how good a job you’re doing, is, naturally, not a morale-booster. There’s an aphorism that claims, I think truthfully: “A person who feels appreciated will always do more than expected.”

Well, the year before I got the ‘pink slip,’ the assistant principal for the ‘language arts’ area stood at the entrance to my homeroom every morning never saying anything about me arriving at school by 7:30 for my 7:35 homeroom, but with his arms crossed and giving me the evil eye. Our contract supposedly required that we arrive 35 minutes early…at 7:00.

That year I taught the sophomore ‘gifted’ English class (delightful); two creative writing classes (I had taken over and raised the program from ashes two years before); two regular English classes; coached the sophomore boys’ soccer team (which had happened to go undefeated); directed a well-received improvisational school play; and published the student literary magazine for the fourth year (sales had gone from 30 to 350). It may sound like I’m bragging, but I was motivated and having fun…feeling appreciated by my students.

At the end of the school year, the aforementioned assistant principal’s responsibility was to write an evaluation of my efforts. He kept it simple: “Tim was not on time for school one time all year.” Talk about a morale-boosting tome! I felt so appreciated. (Actually I was pretty proud of myself: Not ONE time! Cool.)

But, since morale, due to lay-offs and, thus, an aging staff, was flagging, I thought I’d make a point. So, I sent the list of my accomplishments to the principal and requested a meeting with him and the cross-armed assistant. When we sat down, all I said was: “Ed (a fictitious ‘Ed’), when do you go home at the end of the day?” “Well,” he had answered, “at 2:35 at the end of the school day.” “Well,” I said, “maybe your school day. So, you probably don’t know I’m usually here until 6 or 7:00 at night?”

The principal handed Ed his terse little evaluation and said maybe he could write another? So, great. The principal supported one of the underlings. He told me when the assistant had padded out that he had been aware of my accomplishments. Now, why he hadn’t expressed his appreciation, which like anybody else I would have appreciated, I’m not sure. As it was, with student-centered classes like creative writing and improv, the envelope gets pushed and some of the community who had slid to the far right (you know, the ones that want “To Kill a Mockingbird” removed from school libraries) sometimes were truly not appreciative of our (students and my) efforts, which, ironically motivated me. We figured if you’re getting a rise out of someone, it’s at least not boring and conventional.

Anyway, students and the public should beware of what goes on behind the scenes in education. If teachers are not supported and shown respect and appreciation for their efforts, morale will wain and so will the quality of education. If we want to attract high quality individuals to the teaching profession, especially young vibrant people, the position of educator must be a respected one, or these high quality people will gravitate to professions where they are appreciated and respected…and paid appropriately. Although it would appear it’s the teaching profession that suffers, it’s actually the student and society that bears the brunt. Beware!

The other side of the street next week.