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Until Morale Improves

My classes at MSU included some perfunctory discussion of morale in the school. Bad morale is an insidious problem; it moves easily from teachers to students, or from students to teachers, or from the general community to the school. Because it can start at and spread from any level of a working school community, it’s everybody’s problem—teachers, students, parents, everybody—but usually treated as a responsibility primarily for administrators.

Lots of things affect morale: violence in and out of school, pay scale, the likelihood of students moving on to college, intrusion of political concerns upon the classroom, and especially the interference of political ideology with effective teaching methods, pay scale, proper teacher training, student tracking, a principal’s competence…lots more. Money plays a big role: rich communities tend to have good schools, poor communities failing schools—but not always, not by a long shot. The interaction of all these elements is very complex in their effects on whether a school becomes a good or bad learning environment, which simultaneously explains why an education curriculum with other things to cover might deal with them hastily and makes a hasty treatment a shame. The upshot of all of this is, I haven’t any idea what makes morale in a school what it is. But I know it when I see it.

This week, I was called in to sub at East Side High. It’s in Newark, a city notorious for borderline and failing schools. Yet East Side—or at least those students and teachers I met in the course of two days—were alert and dedicated. A world of difference from Barringer, where I did my student teaching, a school hanging under a cloud of failure, struggling with NCLB standards and demoralized by that knowledge. Yet both schools are in the same district, same educational system, same budgets. Again, I don’t know what makes the difference, but I know it when I see it.

I think I can identify at least one element at play here: the self-reinforcing cycle of morale. Good schools know it and get better: they attract better teachers, students with a sense of accomplishment apply themselves more eagerly, and in the very long run academic success creates a larger community that values its schools. Bad schools get caught in the opposite spiral: teachers burning out from too much caring and too little return, kids that give up as their teachers fail them, and a community that just lets standards slide—in the very long run, descending into poverty because uneducated workers attract no business. The difference between high and low morale, while difficult to explain, is easy to spot because morale gravitates to the extremes.

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