Monday, May 20, 2024

Spillover

How can management and leadership affect teacher morale? Teacher trainer and English language expert, Giovanni Licata explains how ‘spillover’ could be to blame for poor teacher wellbeing.

Education is a dynamic field where school management styles have a significant impact on the wellbeing of teachers. The role of school administrators and academic managers goes beyond mere oversight. They shape the working environment for educators, affecting their job satisfaction, stress levels, and morale. Educators and academic managers familiar with the field’s seminal literature have encountered various leadership and management styles.

Just like fashion eras, these styles have blossomed, sometimes replacing their predecessor, and sometimes overlapping and mixing: the autocratic, transformational, and laissez-faire styles, to name a few, have been explored in the context of education, each with distinct characteristics that influence teachers’ experiences.

When it comes to management styles, however, scholars have often focused on the phenomenon rather than its roots. Most of us will spontaneously agree from our experience that autocratic leaders tend to exert strict control, potentially diminishing teacher autonomy and increasing stress. In contrast, we will all have observed that transformational leaders inspire and motivate through shared vision and mentorship, fostering a more positive work atmosphere.

Research has demonstrated that transformational leadership positively affects teacher morale, job satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. On the other hand, autocratic management styles have been linked to burnout and demotivation among educators. The organisational climate shaped by school management can also influence workplace stressors, teacher turnover rates, and student outcomes. Teacher wellbeing is intricately connected to students’ learning experiences, emphasising the importance of understanding how management styles can either support or hinder educators’ ability to perform optimally.

However, one of the limits of many studies into management styles and wellbeing is that they tend to describe management phenomena as clear-cut dichotomies – good/bad, autocratic/transformational – as they become apparent. What would be more useful for our educational institutions’ wellbeing is to identify the start, the roots, some hidden or quiescent signs of negative management before it’s too late.

Recent years have forced us to become familiar with some microbiology jargon and vocabulary related to viruses, and most of you will be familiar with the concept of spillover. In simple terms, a spillover is the phenomenon that occurs when a pathogen moves away from a ‘reservoir’ species – a species that keeps it alive without any symptoms – to another species that will develop symptoms. Theinteresting aspect is the fact that the host, the reservoir species, keeps the virus alive without being affected.

The analogy with the educational context becomes apparent if one starts studying staff room dynamics like scientists observe ecosystems: when staff wellbeing seems to decrease abruptly and appear at risk, an observer might wonder where the problem originated and when/how it started. The answer to this question is not always apparent, not necessarily univocal, and not always readily available, since the host or hosts will not show any symptoms of the virus when it starts spreading. Hosts are not necessarily academic managers or coordinators; yet, similarly to any ecosystem, the species that have more contact or impact on the system itself tend to cause more damage.

Inspired by my observations on ecosystems, a few years back, I decided to conduct a small-scale survey among teachers who worked in different contexts across Europe. I asked them to define bad or good management. One might expect that the teachers’ responses would mainly focus on ensuring organised, streamlined procedures, clarity of information, and on management styles, such as whether their managers acted as motivators rather than authorities. Some responses of that sort were indeed present. However, interestingly enough, what teachers seemed to focus on was their coordinators’ ability to listen, to be empathetic, to create a positive work environment. What some teachers noticed in their open answers was that they could not quite identify what or where the problem was, but they knew they had suddenly started feeling that their school context was becoming less healthy and that their academic managers were sometimes passive-aggressive.

So, why are we often preoccupied and consumed by certain aspects of our educational environments and not others? Saarah Mercer, an inspirational author when it comes to teacher wellbeing, gives a possible answer as she clarifies that the vagueness surrounding the definition of wellbeing generates the absence of clear and strong messages to protect it. In Mercer’s words: ‘this lack of clarity has made the concept an easy target for being dismissed by those who do not take the trouble to engage meaningfully with what well-being truly represents.’

With that in mind, what can we do to prevent pathogens from spreading? The analogy with virus reservoirs may again offer some solutions. And just like for scientists, reflection and observation are the first steps to finding a solution. A few questions we might want to start with when observing are: 1) Have our colleagues manifested fatigue or stress that we can’t read? 2) Have we found ourselves reflecting on power dynamics in our ecosystem? 3) Have you had the chance to survey your staff? 4) Are we sometimes the host?

Evidently, the last question is the one that requires the most honest and urgent answer.

Image courtesy of Library
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