Why a little classroom gratitude goes a long way

Teachers feel overwhelmed and undervalued. So how to boost morale? A heartfelt "thank you" can make all the difference, says Yvonne Williams

schoolboy gives gift to teacher

As we come to the end of another academic year, everyone is looking forward to the summer holiday. But, before we go, it’s also the time to review the last three terms and acknowledge the achievements and efforts of teachers as well as pupils. 

It came as no great surprise to read earlier in the year that teachers contribute more unpaid overtime to the economy than any other profession. And Colin Harris quite rightly pointed out that teachers are too quick to stress their shortcomings when rating their own performance.

To some extent, it’s possible to attribute the increased effort and personal fault-finding to the type of person attracted to teaching: the intrinsically motivated and often self-deprecating perfectionist. 

But should we flip the coin and ask instead whether it’s down to what even a few months in the classroom and being subject to modern systems will do to even the most buoyant of individuals?

Low morale

So far, most of the low morale has been put down to the excessive bureaucracy that turns all teachers into Atlas figures, carrying the weight of the accountability framework on their backs – and, of course, the stagnation of pay. The introduction of performance-related pay into a vocationally oriented profession in a cash-strapped era has in fact been more likely to result in pay rationing than reward for effort or achievement. Some teachers haven’t even seen the 3.5 per cent pay rise promised for this year.

The observation routines that end on could-do-betters leave even the best of lessons seeming desperately ordinary. Book scrutinies are mere compliance exercises. And mock examination results are too fraught with anxiety to leave any room for congratulation to anyone.

No wonder teachers and support staff feel overwhelmed and undervalued – which makes the volume and diversity of co-curricular, extracurricular and enrichment activities even more astounding. Unfortunately, the very high quality and quantity of education outputs go largely unnoticed. So routine have these become that pupils (not to mention parents and education leaders) see the extras as an entitlement rather than a privilege.

Perfunctory

Sadly, mere lip service is paid to the efforts of those who have negotiated the maze of trip software, bookings sites and school purchase systems, or shouldered the first-aid packs that get heavier and more numerous by the year. Writing their own school publicity and filling in self-evaluations on their return provide the only real recognition for most teachers who have gone above and beyond.

So, what can we do to redress the balance and restore a modicum of wellbeing to teachers’ working lives? How can we make their endeavours feel worthwhile?

Circulars from an academy trust, governors or local-authority leaders may contain the words “thank you” in among the news of all schools within the body and publicity for future events. But they are quickly read and easily forgotten, so bland and general are they. A brief mention among the many items on a head’s long to-do list in a staff meeting is at best a hygiene factor. Leaving off an achievement provokes feelings of indignation at being overlooked that far outweigh any gratification at being mentioned. It’s all too routine and perfunctory.

The boost to esteem that comes from psychological (rather than financial) reward has become steadily more difficult to achieve. Physical rewards – like those cards with badges proclaiming "No 1 Teacher" – have degenerated into no more than a profitable industry for greetings-card manufacturers. Teachers are left feeling unappreciated; it seems almost impossible for leaders and parents genuinely to value extra commitment. Morale sags.

What can we do about sagging morale? This is where the new acronym “SAG” comes in.

Support

Support from a number of parties prior to, during and after extracurricular events makes all the difference. 

Organising and running events can often feel like an isolated endeavour. Having people alongside who provide help in a variety of forms makes it all much easier and shows empathy on the part of the contributor. A school leader who knows the trip software like the back of her or his hand and rescues me from the dead ends of the system is a friend for life.

So too are the parents who can transport a team to a venue when all the school minibuses are booked out on the routine home run for other pupils. Some parents make all kinds of convoluted arrangements to provide this level of support. Most memorably, a father of one pupil provided a carrier bag of snacks for the journey that raised spirits and cemented team spirit. I’m sure that the relaxed enjoyment and later success of the team was in no small measure attributable to his thoughtfulness. And dropping me off at the ferry terminal on the way home was an act of supportive generosity. 

Appreciation

Appreciation is not always for going above and beyond. It’s a rare head who can recognise the quality of work from even the smallest cog in the wheel. 

I remember some years ago, when I was on a temporary contract, the head stopping briefly in the staffroom to congratulate me on the quality of my report-writing. He didn’t need to – I was nearly at the end of my contract – but he had noticed.

It was the unexpectedness of the comment, combined with the attention to detail, that made the moment of appreciation so memorable. Routine praise, however well intentioned, misses the mark because it’s just another part of a mechanical procedure. 

Gratitude

Gratitude is equally hard to pitch. Just saying “thank you” is a good start. 

Gifts that are actual, tangible, consumable rewards do matter – we’re all human after all. Granted, the frequency of this form of gratitude is good news for chocolatiers’ profits, but sometimes sweet things really do hit the spot.

Students’ cards or gifts are always welcome, especially when personalised with witty comments. One of the most touching demonstrations of gratitude in the press this year was the news that Richard Dunsterville, the head of English from the Bay CE School on the Isle of Wight, had won a University of Oxford Inspirational Teacher Award. He was nominated by Sam Lapham, a former student who is now a first-year undergraduate studying English language and literature at Christ Church, Oxford.

The most memorable act of gratitude for our staff was at an awards evening, when a retiring governor invited the prizewinners and their parents to turn round and applaud the teachers. It was a pleasure mixed with embarrassment, but it was nice to be thanked so publicly and by someone of high standing.

So, as we wave a none-too-fond farewell (at least for the summer holidays) to excessive workload and constricting monitoring systems, let's look forward to a year in which more carefully pitched SAG-ing might lift the sagging morale of the teaching profession.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the south of England

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