A Model to Support Faculty and Build Morale

Integrating another teacher into a close knit teaching team that has worked together for a long time can be difficult, especially when the new teacher brings her own ideas. How can an administrator be instrumental in helping the existing teachers become a well functioning team of three, rather than two who are aligned, and one who is disenfranchised?

How can a Jewish studies faculty and Hebrew faculty who have worked together without an immediate supervisor accept a new authority figure when a director of Jewish studies and Hebrew is hired?

These are two examples of situations we face in Jewish day schools. In our experience at the Pardes Jewish Day School in Phoenix, the model of Appreciative Inquiry enables us to utilize a positive approach when faced with day-to-day issues as well as challenging situations. By using this model we can establish a strong unified faculty culture, retain more teachers, and demonstrate how to build excellent working relationships with parents and students.

In the mid 1970s, David Cooperrider at Case Western University defined a generative thought process for change that he called Appreciative Inquiry. Its premise “is that in every organization something works and change can be managed through the identification of what works, and the analysis of how to do more of what works.” Appreciative inquiry is not a specific technique or management style; rather, it is a mindset. Simply put, it is a philosophy which calls upon each individual in the workplace to seek out the best in each other. Appreciative Inquiry calls for leadership to unite the faculty to work towards a shared vision, to appreciate everything of value in the organization, and to work together to construct a shared future.

Translating theory into practice requires hard work. It starts with the leadership who must seek new ways to positively understand the needs of teachers. This is done through a process of inquiry that starts with the question, “What is working for you?” Once we find out what is working, we begin a process to build upon the strengths and use this information to inform our future.

In the case of the three teachers that needed to find a more functional way to work together, a process of inquiry was started. The first question was, “What is working well for the three of you?” Rather than focusing on what wasn’t working, the language shifted to the affirmative. Once the teachers defined something that worked well, a framework was set that moved the conversation from the negative to the positive. The next set of questions focused on each individual teacher’s strength and how the team could benefit from one another. In this case, it was determined one teacher would take the lead on planning the science curriculum because this was her area of strength, one teacher took the lead planning the language arts curriculum, and the other teacher took the lead on planning the social studies curriculum. Two of the three teachers worked together on the math curriculum while the third chose to continue planning on her own. In their second year as a team, all three teachers worked together on implementation of the math curriculum.

Recognition of one another’s strengths was the first step in uniting the three teachers. The benefits of working together were experienced as each teacher’s work load decreased. This in turn led to a new appreciation for each other. New questions were asked: “Describe a time you felt the team worked especially well together. What made that time special? Can you use what you learned from that time and apply it now?”

Now in the third year working together, the teachers have an easy, respectful relationship, where they truly enjoy working together. In fact, they joke that they spend more time together with one another than they do with members of their family. They quickly add that this is by choice!

In the case of the Jewish studies and Hebrew teachers, the model of Appreciative Inquiry was used to help the teachers see this new hire as positive. When it was clear that accepting a new leader was a challenge, the questions focused on the value and benefits of having a supervisor. Teachers were asked how they could envision this working well for them. Out of those answers came a greater understanding of the teachers’ needs and a wonderful blueprint for building trust.

This process works for building faculty morale. If the school leadership focuses on what is working and thoughtfully takes every opportunity to provide specific positive feedback to teachers, faculty members feel appreciated and morale increases. Despite how busy we are as administrators, it is well worth taking the time to e-mail a teacher to thank her for writing a well written detailed letter to parents about the unit on chemistry she is about to begin, or thanking a teacher for taking the initiative to start a middle school newspaper. These are simple examples of recognizing the good in our teachers and taking the time to express our appreciation.

How does this model work when difficult conversations are necessary? I have found it actually becomes easier to have difficult conversations with individuals. The individual is more open to hearing about what is needed to improve or change when she knows you recognize all the good. Trust has been established by the open sharing of appreciation in the past. The individual knows we are not seeking out the negative but neither do we shy away from the truth.

Schools are all about relationships. The attitudes and behaviors that administrator’s model for teachers has an influence on what teachers model for their students. Appreciating our students is as important as appreciating our teachers. A substantial body of research shows that the school’s social environment has a significant influence on students’ learning and growth (see The Role of Supportive School Environments in Promoting Academic Success by Eric Schaps). We all exist to serve our students.

There is so much more we can learn from Appreciative Inquiry. This mindset harbors tremendous potential to change attitudes, behaviors and practices in our schools. I highly recommend reading a short but wonderful overview written by Sue Annis Hammond called The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. If you relate to this mindset, you will want to read Appreciative Inquiry Handbook For Leaders of Change by David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney, and Jacqueline M. Stavros. It will provide a way to think about how we can lead with optimism and build and sustain our schools.

Ben Azzai said, “Be eager to fulfill the smallest duty and flee from transgression: for one mitzvah induces another and one transgression induces another transgression. The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, the reward of one transgression is another transgression.” The habits of mind cultivated by the practice of Appreciative Inquiry build success upon success to create a positive, healthy, collaborative work environment in schools. May we all move from strength to strength as we continue to build our day schools.♦

Jill Kessler is the head of Pardes Jewish Day School in Phoenix, Arizona. jkessler@pardesschool.org

Jill Kessler
Day School Teachers
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