Teacher morale has not totally tanked. Here are 5 ways to boost it.

Teacher morale has landed in a fragile place after the pandemic-era rollercoaster of praise, pressure and political attacks.

Teacher morale hasn’t completely tanked in 2023, but it has landed in a fragile place after the pandemic-era rollercoaster of praise, pressure and political attacks.

And with ESSER relief funds expiring next year, the specter of layoffs and budget cuts are only adding more anxiety to a K12 environment fraught with a rise in student misbehavior and other safety concerns. Not surprisingly, then, administrators focused on teacher retention will find some conflicting sentiments from the educators who participated in the influential Merrimack College Teacher Survey that was released this week.

For example, the percentage of teachers who report being “very satisfied” with their jobs has nearly doubled from last year (it’s up to 20%) but less than half said they would recommend teaching as a career to their younger selves. More teachers feel respected by the public compared to last year’s poll but more than a third are considering leaving the profession within the next two years. On the bright side, that number dropped from the 44% who said in the 2022 poll that they were thinking about leaving.

“While this should serve as a flashing red light to educational policymakers, the survey also provides insights into strategies that educational administrators and policymakers can employ to address this,” said Dean Deborah Margolis of Merrimack’s Winston School of Education and Social Policy. “By prioritizing teacher mental health and well-being and taking steps to build teacher morale, academic leaders can help create a healthier and happier school environment and retain more of their teachers.”

About one in three of the teachers surveyed acknowledge receiving mental health and wellness support from their principals. However, only one in 10 of the teachers who admitted that mental health is having a major impact on their work said the same.

Making headway on teacher morale

Here are the top five steps that teachers recommend administrators take to improve the work environment in schools:

  1. A pay raise or bonus to reduce financial stress (67%)
  2. Smaller class sizes (62%)
  3. More/better support for student discipline-related issues (62%)
  4. Fewer administrative burdens associated with meetings and paperwork (57%)
  5. More acknowledgment of good work/hard work/successes (54%)

And here are some more details on just how and where administrators can make some morale-boosting changes. First of all, teachers who have more autonomy over their work tend to be more satisfied, the survey points out.

More from DA: What’s driving K12 staff layoffs? It’s much more than expiring ESSER funds

Teachers in this year’s poll said they continue to have a lot of autonomy over pedagogy, the curriculum, student assessments and classroom management. But they feel they have much less control over school policy or their own schedule, including when they have to take on additional duties such as supervising recess.

Further down the list of steps for improving teachers’ mental wellness are more para-professionals to assist teachers in the classroom, stronger support when parents make demands, time and space to step away from the classroom to distress, and more opportunities to exercise and healthily during the school day.

Finally, teachers had some strong opinions about what administrators should learn in graduate programs about supporting staff. At the top of the list was understanding and supporting teachers, followed by more flexible schedules, time off and wellness programs.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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