New Mexico needs happy teachers

I keep talking with public school teachers who are miserable. They’re all looking at their bank accounts trying to figure out when they can retire.

The purpose of the school system is to educate students, not to make its employees happy. Students come first. But it’s hard to imagine that students are getting the best possible education when their teachers show up each morning feeling beaten and dispirited.

They say it’s because of testing – too much testing, too little time to teach, testing results applied to their evaluations in ways that they say are unfair or illogical. Some complain about Common Core standards, but testing is still the primary theme.

They are echoing a common complaint of unhappy employees. Employees are unhappy, it’s said, when they have no sense of control over their work, when they think things are being done wrong but they can’t do anything about it, when they don’t trust management and believe management won’t listen to them. That’s the classic formula – virtually guaranteed to produce low morale.

Having a demoralized teaching force, all over the state, is not something we should tolerate.   If they are stuck with all this testing – and apparently, for now, they are – there has to be another way to give teachers back their dignity, morale and sense of purpose. (We can’t simply say if they don’t like the job, they should leave; the job is essential, their experience is valuable, and we don’t have replacements.)

Maybe we need a Happiness Planning Committee for staff in every school, I said to one of my unhappy teacher friends.

Nobody in the schools has the nerve to propose such a thing, my friend replied. “You do it,” she said. So here it is.

One school has started such an initiative. They’ve held a few Friday afternoon social gatherings, off campus, and similar activities to increase friendliness and mutual support.

Then there’s the Quality (capital Q) movement.

The Quality model is a method for achieving excellence in organizations of all kinds, through a process in which — to oversimplify hugely — everybody is required to listen to and respect everybody else.   In a Quality organization, activities and processes are modified based on feedback that shows what works. Employee morale is a factor.

Quality New Mexico organizes conferences, trainings and the chance to win awards for excellence.  QNM was originally sponsored by Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman as one of their many efforts to spur economic development. It appears to be still going strong. My former state agency participated for a decade (I was deeply involved) and won a couple of those awards.

My favorite line from all those conferences was a quote from an employee of a hotel that won the top national award.   The judges had interviewed employees to learn how well the Quality attitude had permeated the company. One person, asked to describe his job, replied proudly, “I am a Quality engineer in the dishwashing department.”

If Quality can do that for a dishwasher, there ought to be a way to improve the morale of thousands of New Mexico teachers.

I mention QNM not to suggest that this process is right for every school (it isn’t), but for a different reason: the honorary chairs of QNM are Gov. Susana Martinez and all five members of our congressional delegation. So let’s assume that the governor endorses its principles. And that if teachers start forming committees to improve their work environments, it will be regarded from above as a positive step and not an insurrection.

The current demoralization is bad for New Mexico in every way you can name, including our economic future. Even if we’re stuck with testing, there must be a way to fix this morale problem and give teachers back some sense of empowerment. The new year is a good time to explore possibilities. Our children deserve this.


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