Research shows teachers are less content at work than any other professional group. John Caunt tells heads how to boost morale
Just how do you keep your staff happy when their wages and general conditions of work are decided at a national level? Some heads might feel powerless to give their teachers a boost when morale is low, but there are practical ways in which you can make a difference.
Recently published research into levels of job satisfaction in the United Kingdom has revealed that teachers are less content at work than any other professional group in the public or private sectors.
The study by two economists, Jonathan Gardner and Andrew Oswald at Warwick University, used a sample of almost 7,000 randomly selected individuals who were tracked and interviewed each year throughout the Nineties. They were asked to rate their satisfaction against specific aspects of their jobs and in overall terms. Public-sector levels of job satisfaction declined generally over the period of the study, but teachers were consistently lower than all other groups.
The greatest source of dissatisfaction among them was, unsurprisingly, hours of work. Teachers constituted only a small element (3 per cent) of the overall sample so that results in connection with any single occupational group should be treated with caution, but other recent research specific to teachers appears to support their findings.
A 1998 survey of primary teachers, carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, with benchmark comparisons from other occupational groups provided by the Opinion Research Corporation International, found that only 20 per cent of those surveyed were satisfied with the amount of work they were expected to do, while 45 per cent, when all aspects were considered, were generally satisfied with their jobs. Both results were lower than all the other organisations surveyed.
Job satisfaction is the relationship between what people want from their jobs and what they see them as offering. There may be numerous contributing factors and, since the Fifties, experts have offered various frameworks for understanding them.
One common approach uses Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, where an individual's basic needs such as safety and affiliation have to be achieved before higher needs such as self-esteem.
Other approaches have concentrated on pay and conditions incentives, leadership style or the intrinsic satisfaction of actually doing the work. While satisfaction is no guarantee of performance, it is closely linked with other aspects of morale such as confidence, enthusiasm and motivation.
Some of the most significant factors affecting job satisfaction may be outside the control of individual schools and senior management teams - the effects of national assessment, curriculum and pay policies for example.
However, individual managerial style can have a significant impact. A recent book, Teacher Morale, Job Satisfaction and Motivation by Linda Evans, based on a study of three primary schools, argues that the actions of school leaders are the most important determinants of teacher job satisfaction. The teachers in the Warwick study recorded a lower level of satisfaction with their bosses than that in other occupational groups.
In the ATL survey, only 51 per cent of respondents felt that their headteacher recognised or acknowledged when they had done their job well - a lower rating than most other groups. Job satisfaction is largely a matter of individual perception, and supportive management action could be as varied as the personalities that make up the school community. But based on the elements within a manager's control, here are six points to consider.
lMaximise security, clarity and consistency. Basic job security precedes other elements of job satisfaction, but often overlooked is the psychological security which comes when staff are able to operate within a framework of clear, reasonable and consistent expectations, good communication and understandable policies. Managers need to bear in mind that minor issues in the overall running of a school may have significant individual impact. An example that plagues those on part-time or fixed-term contracts is delay in confirming future work requirements, which leaves them unable to plan their work or home commitments.
2Meet everybody's need for recognition. Acknowledgement of one's work is fundamental to job satisfaction and a vital factor in performance. Aubrey C Daniels, a behavioural psychologist and performance management guru, points out that positive reinforcement must be immediate, specific and frequent if it is to be effective. He warns against blanket praise, and counsels that the same form of reinforcement will not work with everybody. Some people will respond well to public recognition while others experience discomfort and concern about the way their peers will view them. He says that in many organisations good performance is taken for granted and poor performance criticised. He asserts that star performers need positive reinforcement just as much as those who are struggling.
3 Adopt a participatory style of management. A feeling of being consulted and involved in decision-making is important for self-esteem. People need to perceive the involvement as genuine, so attention to the process of consultation may be as important as the end product. Too much consultation also has its downside - interminable meetings, excessive copying of documents and slow decision-making make people view their jobs as tiresome.
4 Provide staff with real autonomy. The opportunity to work on one's own initiative figures strongly in most studies of job satisfaction. The most frequent failing of managers who seek to delegate responsibility and empower their staff is reluctance to surrender control and a tendency to interfere. A hefty dollop of trust is needed on the manager's part, together with a readiness to see tasks approached in new ways.
5 Help people to grow. This is not only about offering training, but allowing people to take on new challenges. If staff are to be given the opportunity to grow they must also have the opportunity to fail. The management regime has to treat mistakes as learning experiences rather than occasions for blame. Without such a culture, teachers will remain firmly within the comfort zone.
6 Don't forget to listen. It would be a foolish headteacher who tried to keep everybody happy all the time, but readiness to listen and to explain what you will or won't do about a situation is important. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, describes the essential quality as "psychological presence" - being attuned to those around us, accessible and engaged and able to contribute ideas, energy and intuitions.