An old colleague of mine used to say, “Happy teachers means happy students.” There is some truth to this statement but upon closer examination, it quite often does not hold true.
Leaders, indeed, do need to work hard at supporting teachers. Most importantly, leaders need to strive to create the conditions in schools where teachers can focus on teaching students with minimal distraction. Things need to be organised: timetable correct at the beginning of the year, resources available and the calendar set, so teachers know what is going on in a school from one day to the next. There is also the provision of conditions that support the building of teacher morale. The creation of a staff room / lounge that is inviting for teachers to come together and talk, refreshments at meetings and planned collaborative planning time. Some teachers would also say that if leaders are providing them with the professional learning opportunities that they want goes along way to assisting them in being more happy in their job.
Sadly, giving teachers what they want does not necessarily mean we get better teachers. Certainly, we can have less frustrated teachers when teachers feel that they are being provided for, however, this does not always translate to better learning for students.
For example, if school leaders were able to increase the number of teachers on faculty and subsequently reduce teaching loads, this may give more planning time to teachers. The question, then to ask is: How many teachers, if given less contact time with students, would use this time effectively to plan for student learning? The answer probably depends on the motivation of teachers and their willingness to work collaboratively.
What about giving teachers the professional learning opportunities they want? Unless the professional learning opportunities are a good match with the needs of students, then the level impact a teacher can have on their students may not be as high as it could.
It is this last point that leaders must really focus on. What do the students in your school need and what do teachers wish to focus on? While many of us may claim to have the student’s best interests at heart, when push comes to shove, do we? We may well be in full support of our students when it is convenient, or when the conditions are ‘right’. What do we mean by the ‘right’ conditions? Possibly those time when we are not being challenged to do some of those things we do not want to do.
This is where the fine balancing act comes in for school leaders. It is important that school leaders show teachers that they are supported and that much is being done to create the conditions they need to thrive as teachers in the classroom. At the same time, teachers must be challenged to improve, especially in the areas that students need support. Improving schools involves change and change should be mildly uncomfortable to a point where you like to do more of it.
That said, one of the problems associated with supporting students in schools, is that teachers can be made to feel guilty about what they are not doing. While it needs to be understood that teaching is a service and selfless profession, it should not come at the detriment of the well being of teachers. Well being can also be used by teachers to push back against the requests of administrators too. This is why it is such a difficult balancing act. No doubt, we need to have teachers fit and health to perform the job asked of them but at the same time, some teachers must be challenged to avoid complacency and ineffective use of time and resources. We forget, or conveniently ignore, that the latter really can impede how much teachers can have a positive influence on student learning.
So, yes, support teachers and be their biggest advocate but challenge teachers to make that difference to student learning in the areas that students need their support.
Richard is currently Secondary School Principal of Suzhou Singapore International School, one of China's leading international schools. He leads workshops across the Asia-Pacific region for the International Baccalaureate in the areas of pedagogical leadership and approaches to teaching and learning. Richard consults with schools on the topics of school improvement and effective implementation and use of technology.
With a background in public and independent school education in the UK and Australia, Richard is enjoying his international school adventure in China. He is passionate about developing and supporting educational leaders, as it is essential to improving all schools.
Richard is a proud family man and feels lucky to be married to Kim and father of their son Austin.
In his spare time Richard enjoys to swim, bike and run and is a now retired football player and coach (with occasional guest appearances)