A Head recently wrote: “Our enrollment is up, and the Board is happy with the School’s financial picture and with my performance. However, I am learning that there is a lot of anxiety and downright unhappiness in the ranks of some faculty and staff. They feel as though we are stretching them even more. Our salaries are not competitive compared to what the local public schools pay, but on the other hand, our workload is relatively low. The recent loss of a couple of valued teachers is helping to fuel the faculty narrative of being underpaid and overworked and this is overshadowing our many successes.”
This sentiment is not uncommon. How does a head of school address these issues, stemming in part from pandemic fatigue, that undermine a healthy faculty culture? One does so CAREFULLY to avoid opening a Pandora’s box of problems that cannot be managed.
Here are some actions that can help turn around this negativity:
- Assess who the influence peddlers/makers are on your faculty and staff. Invite them individually to talk with you about school culture issues. DO NOT form any committees or formal groups, at least at this point. Just hold the conversations to assess the situation.
- Through these key players, try to determine which groups are stressed the most: senior teachers? Young teachers? Mid career teachers? Marrieds? Those with children? Singles? Key members of the support staff?
- Try to take some initial, perhaps small, actions even if it does involve making some changes, or adding some funds to specific budgets. Teachers and staff do deserve more pay, but that is also an economics issue based on your financial health.
- Try to ensure you have an “equity” budget to fill in the gaps for underpaid teachers where there is no clear indication in the file of that teacher of why they were underpaid compared to their peers.
- Focus on professional development opportunities and funds. Often these monies are boosted by fundraising from parent associations. Teachers need some breaks, some rest, some curriculum studies, visits to other schools, conferences, even mini sabbaticals. Try to put aside at least $2000 plus for each teacher (i.e., base your PD budget on that formula)
- Bring some select teachers, not just department heads, in front of the board to celebrate their programs and accomplishments.
- As you determine what the specific issues are for each group of teachers and staff, try to develop some “tools” not only to ameliorate the immediate stress points, but to signal a willingness to look at more structural long-term issues.
- Consider undertaking a truly collaborative process involving small cross sections of teachers/staff/board/administration to discuss more mission appropriate and equitable approaches to evaluation, salary system design/modifications and the benefit package.
- Conduct a survey of all faculty and staff specifically about the benefit package: What do they know? What do they not know? What do they care most and least about? Are they sophisticated consumers or not about medical, retirement and other options available to them?
- Make staff feel valued. Even small gestures count but they must be genuine, not superficial, and grounded in fact.
At some point the collaborative process recommended above can and should result in a dramatically improved school climate and culture overall. It only takes five unhappy staff out of sixty to bring a culture “down.” And it is much more difficult to find the five happy ones who will counter that other group because naysayers are always more motivated and willing to speak out than those who have something positive to say. But how can you support and encourage the more positive voices? That is crucial to helping a culture become more positive or to returning to a previously more positive tone.
A news report today talked about the hundreds of thousands of teachers nationwide and worldwide who have left teaching entirely. Untold others are sticking with it but remain very disappointed and unhappy about changes and trends in their chosen profession. Leadership must step forward to help address this.
In a recent visit to a client on the topic of school culture, I was sitting in the library in a part of the room where no one could see me while I was working on my computer. Two senior teachers came in and sat down in the front of the library near the door and began trading comments. Then a new young teacher walked in and said, “I just had a fantastic AP World History Class! What a great School!” One of the two teachers replied, “Stay here as long as we have, and you will dislike this place as much as we do.”
That teacher left at the end of the school year and I was asked by the Head to do an exit interview. The teacher told me: “I am not hostile to the Head or as negative as one group wanted me to be. I like and respect the Head but do not want to come off as a Pollyanna and that leaves me isolated. However, I am very new to the profession and do not want to be alone and without friends. So having no group to join and no place to belong, I quit.”