9 ways principals are restoring teacher morale after challenging years

Here's a surprise: Pay raises are not even in the top five in one survey.
By: | May 6, 2022
Some 70% of administrations named staff shortages and 58% ranked teacher morale as top concerns compared to the 57% who mentioned learning loss.Some 70% of administrations named staff shortages and 58% ranked teacher morale as top concerns compared to the 57% who mentioned learning loss.

Nearly all principals and administrators say teachers are more stressed-out than ever. Staffing shortages and teacher morale ranked as higher concerns than even learning loss in a survey of 500 principals and administrators by Unruly Studios, which produces STEM and computer science games.

Some 70% of administrations named shortages and 58% ranked morale as top concerns, while 57% mentioned learning loss and 21% cited test scores. So how are building leaders boosting teachers’ morale, particularly with Teacher Appreciation Week coming to an end? Here’s a surprise: Pay raises are not even in the top five in this particular survey. Here are the nine leading strategies:

  1. Taking things off teachers’ plates
  2. Praise/shout-outs
  3. Catered lunches, baked goods and other treats
  4. Ensuring teachers feel seen and heard by implementing their suggestions
  5. Team/bonding activities
  6. Increasing pay
  7. Ensuring teachers feel seen and heard through surveys
  8. Yoga, massages and other methods of self-care
  9. Mentoring programs

The top strategy is likely a response to the nationwide trend of many teachers taking on extra responsibilities during the pandemic. To allow them more time to focus on students and instruction, principals have postponed some new programs and reduced the number of meetings. Ed-tech is seen as another way to save teachers time. Just about 60% of leaders said the right technology, when well-implemented, can boost morale. And the first step in adding ed-tech should be training teachers and then letting them practice with new tools, the survey found.

When it comes to pay, the inflation fueled by the pandemic means the power of teacher salaries has declined over the past 10 years, according to new research. And even though some states have given teachers big raises this year, this data suggests that a factor largely out of K-12 leaders’ control—the rising cost of living—will likely exacerbate the staff shortages many districts are already facing.

It’s estimated that the average teacher will make $66,397 for the 2021-2022 school year, as salaries have been increasing gradually. But when adjusted for inflation, this year’s earnings are also about $2,200 less—or about 4%—than a teacher earned a decade ago, according to new figures from the NEA labor union.

Bigger-picture solutions to shortages

Beyond the day-to-day morale boosts, there are several broader steps administrators can take both short- and long-term to try to increase job satisfaction and prevent staff shortages from worsening. In Jefferson County, Kentucky, for example, federal relief funding was used to give teachers $5,000 retention bonuses. The Texas Teacher Incentive Allotment incentivizes teachers to work in high-needs schools, according to a new guide on addressing teacher shortages released by the Education Trust, the equity advocacy organization.

FETC 2023

The Future of Education Technology® Conference takes place live and in person Jan. 23-26, 2023, in New Orleans. Register now!

Some districts are also adjusting their licensure policies. In Metro Nashville Public Schools, ESSER funds are paying for new teachers to earn licenses to teach English-language learners. Other districts are building up their pool of substitute teachers and using tutors to expand staff capacity. Houston ISD has partnered with community organizations to recruit and train community members to work as long-term substitutes. The district has also recruited graduates to serve as tutors to help students recover instructional time lost during the pandemic.

Longer-term, some district leaders are working to build safer, more responsive workplaces to reduce turnover, particularly among teachers of color. A key strategy here is to gather and implement teachers’ ideas. In Tennessee,  the Hamilton County Schools Reopening Taskforce surveyed teachers on the safe reopening of classrooms before the 2020-21 school year. The Education Trust also encourages leaders to continuously monitor working conditions and pay special attention to high-needs schools.

3 superintendents to watch: Charting a new normal for education 

Beyond the district level, some states, such as Illinois, have created new data systems to identify shortages among subject areas to help districts zero in on their greatest needs. And Arkansas tracks school and teacher characteristics—such as the percentage of teachers not fully credentialed, teacher demographics, and teacher experience—so district leaders can address inequities more effectively. A growing number of states are launching loan forgiveness and service scholarship programs for teachers. Florida’s new programs in these areas prioritize teachers. One state, Connecticut, offers mortgage assistance to new teachers.