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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

“Staff morale improves when we don’t strive for it”

Easy humour between colleagues, drinks after work – often, the best way to improve staff morale is for leaders to just get out of the way and let things happen, observes Ian Mitchell…

Ian Mitchell
by Ian Mitchell
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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

According to recent research by Teacher Tapp, teachers who go for drinks with their colleagues are more likely to work at outstanding schools. Meanwhile, 51% of teachers claim they have a best friend at work, and 80% confirm that they can ‘have a laugh’ with colleagues.

The indications are that a little warmth goes a long way in terms of improving staff morale. School leaders are by no means oblivious to the importance of staff morale – indeed, some will even use it as a selling point to attract new applicants.

Naturally, it’s desirable to have a workforce with plenty of confidence and optimism, but it doesn’t follow that this can be controlled from the top down.

When it comes to cultivating an atmosphere conducive to good staff morale, I believe that there’s a paradox at play in that staff morale is achieved by not striving for it. Organic friendships, relaxed humour and a few visits to the pub are most likely to happen when the opportunities needed to enable them actually exist – usually because the school ethos provides a little breathing space.

Furthermore, a school’s atmosphere cannot only be formal; there has to be a time and a place for both work and play. Some of the finest – not to say most amusing – memories from my time in teaching came from arbitrary situations when something fun or entertaining just happened to happen.

I’m therefore grateful to Teacher Tapp for not just highlighting the value of staff morale, but for also giving me the opportunity to recall some priceless humorous moments…

Not fazed by idiots

For instance, I was once in a staffroom meeting, many years ago, when a middle aged, female colleague made an announcement. She was appealing for help in finding who she strongly suspected were the students at the school who had defaced her car.

After finishing work the night before, she had found it in the staff car park sprayed with abusive graffiti, including the word ‘slut’. As she spoke, describing the misogynistic language, this room full of teachers fell silent in sympathy. She then added, “…And I just looked at it, and thought to myself, well – chance would be a fine thing…!” At which point, the entire room fell about laughing.

What I always admired about this teacher’s attitude was her steadfast determination to not be fazed by the behaviour of idiots. It was the vandals that had the problem – not her. They were not going to ruin her day. Moreover, it was an example of how humour can be most valuable when it occurs arbitrarily.

Value in humour

On another occasion at the same school, we held a meeting to discuss the imminent arrival of Ofsted. The teacher in charge of PSHE explained that, owing to Ofsted’s visit, the Y9 sex education programme would be delivered later in the year. “Does that mean we’re now putting off sex for Ofsted?” quipped a voice.

I also remember how the deputy head would always diligently make notes on the staffroom whiteboard at each meeting, and kept her board pen stuck to a piece of Blue Tac on the wall with a note beside it, saying, ‘Don’t even think about it!’ (This was back when board pens in schools were as precious as gold dust.) If that school had a strength, it was realising the value of exercising a sense of humour.

Going further back, I remember an occasion during my first post when the headteacher was about to deliver his talk to new parents at that year’s annual information evening. Just as he began to speak, a dozen or so watches seemed to beep in unison as the teacher sweepstake to guess the length of his speech duly commenced. He knew all about it, of course, but understood that such japes did him little harm, while providing his staff with a little entertainment.

A precious quality

What these anecdotes all have in common is that they occurred unexpectedly. In teaching, humour is a necessity. Its precious quality makes it impervious to manipulation or management. It’s unique to each individual teacher, and shouldn’t be encouraged, nor discouraged by anyone else.

With teachers now returned to school sites after an extended period of partial closures, the need to maintain staff morale remains even more vital than ever. Last summer saw teachers assume the role of unpaid examiners, assessing their students for summative grades.

At the same time, staff turnover continues to be high – most likely the result of heightened bureaucracy and long hours. In such a climate, it’s imperative that teachers know not to take themselves or their roles too seriously. Just because a job matters, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be the subject of jollity.

Teachers need to feel comfortable enough to sometimes laugh at their place of work – especially in response to those parts of the job that would otherwise drive everybody mad, such as assessment, staff meetings, parental complaints and INSET days.

Secure beliefs

I imagine some senior leaders might well be wondering what those schools highlighted the Teacher Tapp research have done to so successfully foster a culture where staff feel like meeting each other for drinks. My best guess is nothing.

School leaders have to recognise that some aspects of the workplace are simply beyond their, or anyone else’s control. Trying to enforce an esprit de corps will invariably have the effect of merely stifling people’s sense of security and balance. Humour and fun require a little room to move. There’s no need to try to make them happen; remember that less is more.

A school that’s secure in its values and beliefs will generally be the kind of school that can boast of having the best staff morale. They are places of work that are comfortable enough in their own skin to not to care too much about what goes on in between lessons and those various other daily routines.

In my experience, teachers respond no better to having their social lives managed than captive pandas. But it takes a prudent leader to realise that.

Ian Mitchell has worked as a teacher of English and psychology for 22 years across both the state and independent sectors

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