Every Wednesday after school, first-grade teacher Jennifer Korte and her fellow teachers get out their yoga mats, put on their workout clothes, and unwind in the school gym.
It's just one of several ways Korte and her colleagues at Howard Elementary School in Dearborn, Michigan, get to know one another on the other side of the classroom walls. It's a healthy social time Korte considers essential to a good workplace. "We let loose, and enjoy each other's conversation," she says.
But Korte's experience with the other teachers at her school may be rare. Employee morale isn't a high priority for schools, says Nathan Eklund, a former teacher and author of How Was Your Day at School?. The quality of a school is measured by student experience — how the school boosts academic achievement, inspires kids to be lifelong learners, and prepares them for the world — not by teacher experience. "We're not in the business of thinking of schools as workplaces," Eklund says. "They're places where kids learn, not where adults go to work."
Ignoring the faculty experience yields an unfortunate result: Teachers are driven behind their classroom doors and even out of the profession by schools that, simply put, are terrible places to work. At the extreme, colleagues don't talk to one another or have time to collaborate on lessons, and principals only stop by to give the required review, and then do it with just criticism in mind. Faculty meetings are contentious and uncooperative and teachers are overwhelmed by mandates. According to the 2006 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teachers who say they don't expect to stay in their jobs also report having principals who don't ask for their input or treat them with respect, and they have poor communication with other teachers and the principals at their schools.
Teacher angst also trickles down to the students. Stressed teachers "may not have the focus necessary to establish an engaging learning environment," says Carol Walker, dean of the school of education at Florida's Saint Leo University.
Accentuate the Positive
Before you heave another exasperated sigh when you open those school doors, consider that you can take steps to help your school be an inspiring place for everyone in it. Support from the top and a collaborative atmosphere are the ideal goals, but little things also go a long way, from simply being more connected with your peers to having a stake in the changes mandated at your school.
Patting each other on the back can help to create a truly collegial atmosphere. "Teachers hear repeated messages that the system is broken and we're not good enough," says Scott Butler, an assistant principal at Beadle Middle School in Omaha, Nebraska. "It can be hard to focus on the positives." So faculty meetings at his school start on a positive note, with teachers offering recognition of good deeds, such as helping a colleague with a difficult student.
If your administrators aren't modeling positive feedback, try it yourself. Tell the teacher next door that you liked her lesson on Greece, or how she engaged a reserved student. And if a colleague is a complainer, ask him to tell you one good thing about his day, or remind him of a success.
Get Social With Your Peers
If it's Friday, teacher Ken Halla and his social studies colleagues have lunch plans. Every week, the teachers at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Virginia, stop their day for 30 minutes to enjoy a meal and dessert. They talk about their lives or the news and really get to know one another, says Halla, chair of the department. What they don't talk about: the students.
The key to socializing is to keep the work talk to a minimum, says Carol Walker. By not talking about work, you'll establish relationships that promote "a climate of friendship and a positive work environment," Walker says.
Jennifer Korte agrees. She recalls a year when she shared a classroom with a teacher who had no interest in socializing or even making small talk. The result was a chilly relationship that left Korte wishing for the year to be over.
Rather than let that happen, consider ways for your colleagues to get together. On a larger scale, you can organize a social committee and plan events. Or you can get together in smaller groups and have dinner once a month, attend a cooking class, or simply take a few minutes to discuss your favorite television show with fellow teachers.
"If you can laugh together and know each other well, then you will be able to work more successfully together and be more willing to speak up at meetings," Halla says. "The more fun we have, the more of a chance we are going to be able to keep the great teachers we hire."
Be a Leader
Anthony Cody, who is now a science coach and mentor, didn't like the turnover problem he saw in the science department at a now-former middle school in Oakland, California. So Cody decided to pair experienced teachers with new ones in an informal buddy relationship. The result: The next year they didn't lose a single teacher from the department."It really worked to create a sense of community," Cody says of the buddy program. "It's important to have people who are organizing their peers."
Teachers can and should pitch in by taking on more leadership roles within their schools, says Barbara Miller, center director at the Boston-based Education Development Center. It not only will free up your principal to spend more time walking the halls, but will give you a chance to influence change for your colleagues and your students.
"Seize opportunities," Miller says. "We all want kids to achieve. We're looking for better ways to make that happen."
Keep Meetings Focused
Like many schools, Gunston Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, often took a one-size-fits-all approach to staff development, meetings, and schoolwide initiatives. While teachers at the school were happy, they wondered if they couldn't make better use of their time.
So last year, the principal and a lead teacher developed a Teacher Learning Community program. Teachers formed small groups to research, discuss, and write up a subject that meant something to them, says teacher Harry Costner, whose group created a database of Web 2.0 tools designed to help teachers in their classrooms. Other groups read a book together, studied teenage obesity, or looked at adolescent brain development, he says.
Costner says the focused groups were more motivating and fulfilling than other professional development efforts, and the results have created colleagues with specific expertise that others can draw from, and a more collegial atmosphere overall. "It makes for a dynamic, stimulating work environment that I very much enjoy," says Costner, the school's project coordinator and video journalism teacher.
Some strategies to make the most of your time: Get your principal or department chair to keep faculty meetings focused on curriculum and student performance goals, and push to get planning time with others in your department. Short of that, try making the most of down time, like lunch and hallway duty. Instead of talking about your students' behavior, or your weekend plans, engage your colleagues in talk about instruction while you're standing around the cafeteria, Miller suggests.
Happy Teachers and Kids
Nathan Eklund believes that a school that's supportive, positive, and engaging for the teachers who work there will result in better students. Changing the school environment is an academic improvement plan, he says.
"If we can have a building where adults are excited to show up every day, that will help lead to high achievement for kids," Eklund says. "This can't be a sidenote to the work of schools."