Students today are experiencing higher rates of anxiety and stress than any other generation. There is more emphasis on high-stakes testing, less time to relax, and there are more tasks to complete in order to prepare kids to “compete” in a fast-paced world. That is in addition to distance learning we are experiencing now! Maybe your sweet kiddos encounter racism too. All of this can translate into stressed-out students who experience low morale in schools. As teachers and administrators, students look to you to set the tone and raise morale. Students who have higher morale are more likely to enjoy school, be successful, and have a positive view of education. Let’s look at some key facets responsible for raising morale.
The environment plays a huge role in morale. If you feel endangered, excluded, or unheard, obviously, you would not be happy. An environment that produces high student morale is one where students feel safe, supported, and included.
At the classroom level:
- Make your room a place where routines are established and where students know they can come to you with problems, questions, and concerns.
- Make sure your library includes books that represent all races. Students of all races should feel included.
- Always address and listen to the concerns or schedule a time to do so, no matter how trivial the questions might seem.
- Show that unkind words and actions have no place in your classroom and address insulting, racism, belittling, and unkind comments and actions ASAP.
- When students are being excluded or struggling to make friends, arrange “Mix-It-Up” days where everyone must spend time with a new person or random buddy, arrange different partnerships, or simply spend some time playing games where groupings change and all are included.
If you do these things, students will feel like your room is a safe place where you care about them. They will realize that unkindness isn’t tolerated and all must be included.
Side Note: When I was in the classroom, I addressed my class as my Classroom Family. I would tell my students, “We are a family. We are together all day. We will treat each other like we are family.” (Then of course I would tell them that they are all my babies/children. They loved it.)
Kind Words and Actions
In addition to making your classroom safe and welcoming, reach out to students with praise, affirmation, and acknowledgment. In recent years, some teachers have been sparing with praise, believing they should only reward accurate answers or relevant contributions so as not to fall into the “participation award” mindset. However, there are other ways to boost student morale with your words than non-specific praise for every attempt.
Share the spotlight: When kids do something great in the classroom, the school building, or in the community, take a minute to make it known. You don’t need to undertake this task alone. Ask parents to email quick notes about ways their kids made a difference. Ask students to write a note once a week about an act of kindness they observed. Pick several of these notes a day to read aloud to the class and fuss over the recipients. If you notice someone hasn’t been mentioned in a while, be the one to do it.
Give Credit: Did a student teach you something? Did a suggestion help another student or make the day go smoother? Tell everyone! There are times (especially with older students) they may give us a tip for a new app, a new way to use technology, a fun activity to try. If you try it, make sure you give credit to your helpful student.
Appreciate and Acknowledge: It costs nothing and takes seconds, it can be done while multitasking, and it will earn enthusiasm, engagement, and smiles. As you go about your day, handing out papers, writing on the board, etc, appreciate the efforts you’ve seen and acknowledge improvements. You might praise students who’ve earned As and Bs on a recent quiz, but you might also acknowledge and give kudos to your struggling student with a D or C who finally nailed one concept or word problem, or that you saw studying. Sometimes, students begin to feel that only the high achievers deserve recognition. While it is true that those high achievers should be recognized, there are other things to praise. “I love that you decided to get the sequel to the read-aloud we shared in class.” “I saw you double-checking all those math problems.” “Thank you for holding the door for me today.” These little words may not seem like much, but they pump up student morale.
Side Note: Keep a mental note to make sure you reach all your students. Look around the room. Is there someone who hasn’t received praise or a spotlight from you yet? I made this part of my lesson plans each day!
Rapport and Friendship
“Develop a rapport with your students.” Every teacher education course says it, but do they tell you how, or do they figure everyone can wing it? Everyone builds friendships differently. Here are some tried and true tips to help students see you as a person as well as an educator.
Set boundaries: Make it clear that you are a teacher first, friends second. There are ways we come to look up to and admire an authority figure as both a leader and a friend. Make sure that you keep what you share meaningful enough to matter and personal enough to show that you desire to be seen as an individual. Always be professional and keep conversations appropriate for age range and audience.
Keep It Going: At the beginning of the year, many teachers do a few minutes of “get to known you” activities. They often include themselves and share about their pets, hobbies, and families. Continue to let children into your life throughout the year. If you discuss a hobby, give them routine updates on your progress or involvement in it. Make sure that you ask about their interests outside of school and discuss them throughout the year as well. Each Monday, ask students to share one thing they did over the weekend and tell them something you did.
Go Beyond the Books: It seems that we are so busy in the classroom these days. The demands are high, the stakes are high, and the paperwork is ridiculous. We don’t have time to stop and chat, right? Wrong. Fostering personal relationships with students means taking time to talk to them about their interests and lives, not only their academics. Studies show that teachers who make personal connections with their students have a much better classroom dynamic with more engaged learners. These learners also have higher morale and better attitudes toward school. Teachers now realize the importance of teaching the whole child. Make sure you talk to the whole child as well. Take time to talk to your students about their lives, hobbies, and interests outside of school. Even a few minutes a week for each child can make them feel special and create a foundation of friendship.
Side Note: Making personal connections has helped me reach so many students. If a student was struggling at school or I didn’t have the connection I wanted with a student, I would show up at one of their sporting events or recitals. It made a world of difference! I know that you can’t do that for every student, but any little connection makes your classroom a happier place for all!
Team-building is a morale builder encouraged throughout the corporate and scholastic world. Sharing successes raises morale for multiple reasons. One reason is that you feel proud of your own achievements when conquering an obstacle or solving a problem. Another is that team building gives you a common purpose with others. Shared thinking and communication build trust. You find out that you have things in common and can work with people even if they are very different from you in other ways.
Provide Continued Opportunities: Team activities are often done at the beginning of the year as an icebreaker. To keep morale high, give students frequent activities that help them become a team and a community, not simply a cluster of kids that are in a classroom. As we know, that helps students feel safe and comfortable, continuing to boost morale.
Fly your Flag: Team spirit is very motivating. It gives people something to rally around. Even if we are from all different walks of life, we can feel love for a shared country or team. Make your room your own kingdom with all of the citizens. Create a unique flag. Have your class design a coat of arms that symbolizes the great things about being a member of their particular classroom. Each group of desks can have a team name! The possibilities are endless, and so are the rewards you reap when your students have a sense of pride and belonging.
Overcome Obstacles Together: Based on studies that show how effective team-building is to promote feelings of success, we know that it’s worth incorporating into the classroom. Another fun idea to boost morale is to tackle some challenges with your students. Students love to build relationships with their teachers, and what better way than to make yourself part of the team?
Give your students a list of challenges and let them vote on what you want to achieve, whether it be planting a classroom garden, a hundred book challenge, a homerun derby, etc. Make yourself part of the team, whether it be as a leader or as a follower. Even if you have to take a leadership role, participate in the same ways as your students do. Run bases, dig up flower beds, let them see you reading your favorite books while they’re reading theirs. Do whatever it takes to complete the challenge. When the challenge is done, it is something your students will look back on and realize that you’ve done together!
The activities mentioned in this section all revolve around fun and creating a feeling of community. Young minds need play and flexibility. Friendly competition creates a sense of team spirit as well as providing opportunities for play and challenge. You’ll need at least two teams in the classroom, two classes in the same grade, or some inter-grade partners. Your challenges could be silly ones, athletic ones, or ones based in academics. Giving students a chance to work together in the spirit of good sportsmanship (and the chance to earn bragging rights or console each other) will boost morale as they face obstacles together. Help create the attitude of “Win or lose, we did our best and had fun together!”
Side Note: One of my favorite things at the beginning of each year was making a Classroom Constitution together. Students came up with rules for the class. I made a big poster out of it and we all signed our names.
A Special Note About Distance Learning
Distance learning encompasses all of the aforementioned ingredients. You need to create the same level of safety, kindness, and success. However, it might be especially hard to do that with distance learning because there are so many factors you cannot control. The biggest factor you may face is whether students will even participate, let alone how they will feel about it. However, according to respected author Larry Feriazzo, who writes about student motivation, there are ways to get students to participate and feel positive about distance learning. Key elements include:
- Creating connection between students.
- Providing opportunities for success.
- Incorporating student choice.
- Making sure the activities seem relevant.
Incorporate the Four Keys: To create a meaningful and morale-boosting activity, break your students into groups. If they’re socially mature enough, you could let them choose their own groups with the understanding you have the final say. This will involve setting up a few different virtual chats or video meetings, but your students may love having a moment where there are just five faces instead of twenty to focus on! Working in groups let them brainstorm a list of activities that they think could be helpful for their classroom or community. Give them the autonomy to decide what would be most helpful and how they can implement their plan. Will they make an appreciation video for the nurses at the local hospital? Will they start a fundraiser or pet food drive for local shelters? Could they surprise a classmate who seems down lately with an explosion of e-cards or funny videos? Every project can be meaningful and different. If you are worrying that these projects won’t fit in your curriculum, remember that students could graph the total of cans they collect for the pet food drive, include poetry or narrative in cards the write, include drama and creative speaking in appreciation videos. What’s more, all these activities can teach compassion and cooperation. That’s part of the human curriculum and we need more of it!
Side Note: I am saying a special prayer for all the teachers who are anxious about starting their year with distance learning or a mix of distance learning and regular classroom. I know this is challenging, but you got this!
We know that happy, safe kids make the best learners. They let go of anxiety, feel successful, make friends, and learn. Every aspect of a child’s education can be influenced by morale. Instead of making it a footnote in your classroom, make morale a priority!