The Great Resignation

In mid-July 2022, the Times Educational Supplement reported that 95% of schools in the UK were struggling to recruit teachers, with 43% claiming the problem was “severe”.  Schools were trying to cope by increasing class sizes, especially in subjects such as Physics, Mathematics, Design/Technology, Chemistry and Computing.  Similar patterns of teacher shortages are emerging globally, including in Australia, New Zealand, Uganda, the US and elsewhere.

A year earlier in 2021, mid-way through the most savage impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic, “The Great Resignation” became a topic of widespread speculation and conversation. According to the often-dubious source of Wikipedia, the term was first coined by Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University in May 2021 to refer to a predicted mass voluntary resignation of employees.  He (and others) predicted that many people would resign due to factors such as wages rising more slowing than costs of living, frustration with endemic job dissatisfaction, concerns about the safety of working in a pandemic environment, and a desire to change the balance of in-house and remote working.

Whatever individual reasons a person has for joining The Great Resignation, the common theme seems to be a simple one; it is lack of job satisfaction.

In my work with School Boards and Principals, I have detected signs that “the Great Resignation” is starting to affect many schools, with some being affected to a significant degree.  Some boards are struggling to find good applicants with appropriate credentials and character qualities to fill vacant headships.  In turn, Principals are finding it more and more difficult to retain good staff and maintain morale.

The media increasingly highlights stories about the low pay of teachers, the long working hours, the growing struggles of classroom management, the challenges of expanding parental expectations, and the difficulty of attracting intelligent, motivated high school graduates into teaching as a career.  The increasing demands of government compliance and accountability add to the impression that education is an increasingly bureaucratic occupation that offers decreasing scope for originality, creativity, and genuine care for students’ needs and individual differences.

Interestingly, many educators (including school leaders) who are resigning are not doing so to earn higher salaries; indeed, many are taking a pay cut.  They have realised that whatever the level of remuneration, workplace culture is more important than material gain.  

If this is true (and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that it is so), the implications are clear.  School boards need to ensure that they are caring adequately and genuinely for their Principal in non-material as well as material ways, including doing their best to make sure the Principal’s spouse or partner (if they have one) is also feeling supported in the face of the seemingly excessive demands that are often made of Principals.

Similarly, Principals need to care for their staff genuinely and authentically.  It is an often-repeated truism to say that a school’s most important resource is its teachers, but it is no less accurate for being repeated so often.

the great resignation

What does this mean in practice?  I think there are three significant factors.

The first is culture.  

Culture is often seen as a nebulous, intangible ‘thing’ that is impossible to define precisely.  In schools, culture is central to identity, and is usually defined by the mission statement, the strategic vision and the articulated core values.  To ignore culture is to surrender the identity of the school – which is why we have developed the SMART evaluation tool to help schools measure their effectiveness in implementing their mission/vision/culture.  

Moreover, ignoring culture will adversely affect the everyday experiences of every employee in the school, starting with the Principal and permeating through every facet of the school.  Culture influences the behaviour of every line manager, whether or not credit is given for effort, the extent of help and support available, and who steps up to become the influential role models.

Irrespective of a school’s underlying philosophy, two key elements of a positive, effective work culture are collaboration and transparency.

In a collaborative work culture, everyone works together as a team to get things done.  Everyone – the Principal, teachers and non-teaching staff – are trusted as professionals who will perform their job well.  Recognition of success and achievement are shared fairly, while leaders and employees have a strong mutual accountability to one another.

Signs of a dysfunctional work culture include people and sections working in silos, individuals who promote their own self-congratulation and importance, fear of making a mistake, micromanagement of staff by managers (or worse, the Board), and widespread gossip, complaining, victimisation, sabotage, and backstabbing.

It is easy to understand why an educator or school leader might resign to escape such a dysfunctional work culture.

The second area is what I call source of meaning.

Everyone is motivated by something meaningful.  The source of this meaning may be external or internal, and it may be positive or negative.  Positive meaning derives from a mix of passion and purpose – head and heart.

‘Meaning’ is the driving force behind the effective work of most teachers, educators and members of school boards.  For many educators in independent schools, this meaning flows from religious faith and identity, including cultural identity.  In other words, authentic meaning – purpose and passion - is found in convictions that are profound, and immeasurably larger than any one individual or institution.

Tensions inevitably arise in schools when the ways in which ‘meaning’ is expressed or practised fall short of the ideals that are expected or promoted.  The word ‘hypocrisy’ may even be used in corridor conversations.

Of course, everyone finds meaning from many sources apart from work.  However, when the importance of workplace-sourced meaning declines for any individual in a school, morale and motivation decline, and an exodus of competent staff often follows.  For the Principal, lack of effective support from the Board can motivate a similar course of action.

The third area is opportunities for personal, professional and values/soul growth.

No teacher, no Principal and no Board Member is a static, inert being.  We all either grow or shrivel depending upon the quality the inputs we receive, the experiences we enjoy (or endure), and the opportunities we have to try new things, meet new people and to serve others.

For most educators (and for every good educator), personal, professional and values/soul growth is more important than salary.  Good educators, and good Principals are inherently idealistic and optimistic.  This characteristic should never be seen as an opportunity for school boards to squeeze employees in terms of remuneration or expectations of time and effort.  Such squeezing stunts growth and can (indeed probably should) become a trigger for unwanted resignations.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Learn more about SMART (the Schools Mission Appraisal Reporting Tool), our original ground-breaking assessment tool that evaluates how well a school is achieving its cultural targets - its unique mission, vision and values.

Advice on improving the critically important Board-Head relationship is included in our workshop OSG-S1 Board Operations.

Detailed advice on enhancing the Board-Head relationship is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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