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Study explores teacher morale in Richmond-area schools, makes recommendations to improve it

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As teachers across the country feel the burden of an increased workload and report record low levels of morale, a new study by a partnership of Richmond-area school districts and the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University investigated how local teachers feel about their work and makes a number of policy recommendations aimed at boosting teachers’ job satisfaction and morale.

The study, “Understanding Teacher Morale,” was conducted by the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium, a research alliance between VCU and the school divisions of the counties of Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico and Powhatan and the cities of Richmond and Colonial Heights.

It comes as national research shows that teacher job satisfaction is at its lowest level in 25 years, with more than half of teachers reporting that they are “under great stress several days a week” — an increase of 15 percent since the mid-1980s.

“In the region, and across the country, we are facing challenges related to teacher turnover and shortages,” said Jesse Senechal, Ph.D., interim director of MERC and an assistant professor in the School of Education. “Research has shown that instability in the teacher workforce has profound negative effects on student achievement and school success. It is also worth noting that this problem is experienced with more frequency and greater intensity in the most challenged schools, effectively contributing to an achievement gap. It’s exciting that regional school leaders have supported an effort to raise awareness and build understanding about this issue, and develop solutions for addressing it.” 

As part of the study, a team of VCU faculty and students, along with school division personnel representing both central office and school-level perspectives, conducted a series of observations and interviews with 44 teachers across three Richmond-area middle schools.

The researchers sought to answer three key questions:

  • How do teachers experience job satisfaction and morale?
  • What are the dynamics between a teacher’s job-related ideal and the professional culture of the school that support or hinder the experience of job satisfaction and morale?
  • How do differences between schools related to policy context and social context affect the dynamics of job satisfaction and morale?

The findings highlight the influence of federal, state and division-level policy on teachers’ experience of work and the importance of leadership in creating school cultures in which teachers can find job satisfaction and build high morale. 

The study makes a number of recommendations to improve teacher morale. It recommends that school districts review current and new policies that impact teacher work, rethink the models of accountability and the role of data, address the issue of teacher compensation, and communicate policy rationale with clarity, consistency and transparency.

It also recommended that school districts address the issue of teachers’ massive workload.

“One of the ideas expressed by study participants was the desire for more time to ‘just teach,’” the researchers wrote. “Most teachers in our study felt overloaded by the number of students, number of course preparations, paperwork, and the constant requirements of new initiatives. Overload has a number of negative effects, including compromising the quality of teaching, increasing stress, and upsetting work-life balance. Careful consideration should be given to anything that adds to a teacher’s workload.”

The report also recommended that school districts promote school and division cultures that support teacher professionalism and leadership. It suggests creating structures to promote professional growth, institutionalizing opportunities for teacher voice and leadership at both the school and division level, and greater professional development support of principals.

Established in 1991, the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium conducts research that addresses enduring and emerging issues in K-12 education with the goal of informing policy, building professional knowledge and skills of key stakeholders, contributing to the body of scholarly knowledge, and impacting outcomes relevant to students, schools and communities in the Richmond region.

The consortium’s focus on research relevance and impact has also led to plans for collaborations between VCU and the local divisions that will use parts of the report as a starting point for professional development conversations with teachers, principals and other school leaders.

“MERC is truly a leader in connecting educational research to those that are driving the policy for our school divisions in the Richmond region,” said James Lane, Ph.D., Chesterfield County superintendent and chairman of the consortium’s leadership council. “This collaborative organization is a benchmark and model for other school divisions across the country and an invaluable resource to our schools and teaching professionals.”

The read the full report, visit: http://www.merc.soe.vcu.edu/current-research/teacher-morale-study/

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 225 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Seventy-nine of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. The VCU Health brand represents the health sciences schools of VCU, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.