Senior leaders in schools are right to be concerned about staff morale because of the impact it can have on outcomes pupils and the health and wellbeing of staff. Wikipedia states that “Employee morale, in human resources, is defined as the job satisfaction, outlook, and feelings of well-being an employee has within a workplace setting.” If that’s the case how do you identify the absence of job satisfaction, outlook and feeling of positive well-being?
This post was commissioned by The School Bus and proposes an approach to maintaining and nurturing positive morale that is rooted in best practice and on what most effective leaders already know about what works but somehow, amongst the staff meetings, parent interviews, curriculum changes, funding changes, duty rotas and performance tables it got lost.
In one recent case the staff in a primary school ended up taking action short of a strike in protest against the Head teacher and Governors because they felt their concerns weren’t being listened too. They felt bullied, overworked and definitely demoralised. They believed that no one was listening or taking them seriously and so felt compelled to take extreme action.
As a leadership coach I regularly hear how teachers and senior leaders feel about their work; what makes them angry, sad, frustrated, stressed and hopeless. I also hear about what makes them smile, energised and optimistic. What makes them frown, cry, shout, sad and exasperated is a sense of powerlessness; of not being trusted to do a good job or not knowing what they are expected to do. In some instances they feel bullied, harassed and worthless.
Tom Bennetts report states that “The key task for a school leader is to create a culture – usefully defined as ‘the way we do things around here’ – that is understood and subscribed to by the whole school community.” Whilst Bennetts report is a review into effective behaviour management, he is clear that it is the leader’s role to set the tone and culture of the school for pupils and staff alike. It’s about consistency, clear boundaries and expectations, about being seen to be fair and equitable but uncompromising in your expectations and standards. In creating that culture as a leader you are creating an environment where everyone, staff and pupils alike feel listened to, valued and respected.
The Thinking Environment® developed by Nancy Kline consists of ten key components which, if consistently applied within a school and embraced as ‘the way we do things around here’, will prevent low morale. It provides a framework for ensuring equality, respect, time and space for everyone to be heard and if applied in meetings will improve the quality of the outcomes and decisions.
Kline proposes that the most valuable thing we can offer each other is time to think for ourselves. This is because the quality of everything we do and the outcomes we achieve, depend on the quality of the thinking we do first. That in turn depends on the way we treat each other whilst we are thinking and crucially when we are listening. There are ten identified behaviours that generate our finest independent thinking and they are called the Ten Components of a Thinking Environment®. If school leaders can create this environment for staff and pupils, morale will improve because they will feel valued, respected and equal as thinkers. We also know from pedagogical research that the mind works best in the presence of a question, preferably an open question and that, in listening to the answer we do this without interruption and with genuine interest. A question for leaders to consider therefore is, if you knew that by creating a culture in your school where there was time to listen and think you would improve staff morale and pupils outcomes, how would you organise your day?
By adopting an approach based on the Ten Components (set out below) leaders can create a positive culture and morale in any school.
The Ten Components
Ease: When was the last time you experienced a lack of rush or urgency? What could you do to create this for yourself? It might be to remember to breath, or take a couple of deep breaths. Maybe take a short walk outside or notice something positive about your journey to work. In meetings it’s certainly helpful to make sure that everyone feels at their ease, including you.
Equality: This is about acknowledging that we are equal as thinking peers. It’s about giving equal turns and attention in meetings and about sticking to agreements and boundaries. So, if you knew that everyone is equal in their ability to think, how might you manage staff meetings differently?
Attention: There will be many times in the day when you are giving your full attention to something urgent or important only to be interrupted by an email notification appearing on the screen, or a ‘phone call from the secretary, or a knock at your door. It might be that you suddenly notice a pupils dress or litter when you are in the corridor listening to a colleague or student. The question is, if you knew that to be interrupted is not good, to get luck and not be interrupted is better, but to know that you won’t be interrupted allows you (and others) to do their best thinking, how would you behave? What boundaries and agreements would you put in place for yourself and your team to prevent the need for interruption?
Appreciation: The 5:1 rule is a theory of the ratio of praise/ appreciation to criticism/negative feedback which when applied, enables staff and pupils to perform at their best. We also know that if this appreciation is specific, succinct and sincere, then it has most impact. If you knew that by applying this rule the result would be a happier, higher performing workforce, what would you change?
Encouragement: Encouragement is one of those tricky ideas that is dependent on context; what is said, how and with what intent. How might you provide encouragement to staff and pupils so that they can be creative, courageous and compassionate in their thinking? How will you do this without the need for them to compete so that each person is valued on their own merit?
Feelings: The recent tragic events in Manchester and London have provoked strong feelings. The fight or flight response is a physical reaction to when we are threatened, stressed or in a highly emotional state. It means that when we are in this state we can’t think. By allowing sufficient emotional release in yourself and others you will also be restoring the ability to think. If you knew that it was a sign of strong, courageous leadership to show your feelings to staff and pupils, how would you change your behaviour?
Information: Withholding information is intellectual vandalism and creates a culture of distrust and fear. If you truly believed that your staff are you thinking equals, who can be trusted with whatever information you tell them, what would you share with them at the next staff meeting that you currently don’t? Information is also about providing facts and dismantling denial. It’s about admitting what you already know so you might also want to ask yourself, what’s staring me in face that I’m not admitting?
Diversity: Do you appreciate that just as you may have staff from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, they will also have diverse and sometimes challenging views? Do you provide opportunities to hear those views in a non-judgemental way and encourage others to do the same? This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them, but in providing a thinking environment you will be able to challenge respectfully and appropriately.
Incisive Questions: These are questions that provoke and prompt further thought. Typically, the format looks like ‘if you knew x, how would you behave/ what would you change?’ It’s about challenging your own and others untrue assumptions in a way that allows the hearer of the question to consider in a non-threatening way what a liberating alternative might look like. For example, if you knew that you could achieve outstanding outcomes without the need for homework, how would you plan your lessons?
Place: When planning meetings do you consider where you meet and talk to staff? Is it calm, quiet and comfortable in terms of noise and enough chairs? Does it allow everyone to see each other? Do you guarantee no interruptions by asking staff to turn off their mobiles or other devices? Does it say to staff ‘you matter’?
By providing the time and space to reflect on the questions above you will be developing a culture which supports positive morale. If you want more information about running effective meetings and creating the Thinking Environment® for your school, you can contact me via the website or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.