The Pursuit of Teacher Happiness

By Andy McHugh

How are school leaders managing to retain good staff (so far)?


With so much pressure on existing budgets, it’s hard to pay teachers more, so how can teachers be ‘incentivised’ to stay? I use the term ‘incentivised’ as loosely as possible, to cover both intrinsic and extrinsic motivational strategies. Sometimes there are things school leaders can do/add/remove that don’t require deep pockets or revolutionising the school as an organisation.

But, sometimes revolutionising is actually the way forward. When the status quo isn’t working, it takes bravery to challenge it and make changes. Sometimes those changes work and sometimes they don’t. But nothing improves by keeping things as they are.

One idea I keep returning to is the notion of happiness. Not job satisfaction, success, or impact. Happiness. It’s vague, subjective and can’t easily be quantified. But perhaps the reason we don’t value it is because we are so used to valuing only the quantifiable.

Do school leaders check for happiness? Should they do so? How could it be done? Will it open a can of worms? Is it worth it?

I think, in this teacher recruitment and retention crisis, we can’t afford to ignore it any longer. It’s time to rip off the plaster. There will be a cost to doing so, but the cost of inaction could be much, much higher.

One way to explore the issue of teacher happiness, before asking colleagues directly yourself, is to consider asking yourself some questions about them first. If you’re honest and thorough, then some of the answers will likely make for uncomfortable reading. But they might just prevent fantastic and often irreplaceable teachers from leaving your school, or worse, leaving the profession.

  1. Who among your staff are the happiest?
  2. How do you know?
  3. What about work makes them happy?
  4. Did you contribute to this?
  5. Who among your staff are unhappy?
  6. How do you know?
  7. What about work makes them unhappy?
  8. Did you contribute to this?
  9. What aspects of teacher happiness do you perceive to be outside of your control?
  10. What aspects of teacher happiness do you perceive to be within your control?
  11. What would be the cost (financial and other measures) of five good members of teaching staff leaving?
  12. What are you doing to make good teaching staff want to stay?

There are of course many leaders who will be brave enough to ask these questions and they’ll gain valuable insights by doing so. Leaders who act on those insights will likely retain their teachers, maintaining a more stable workforce and incur far fewer recruitment costs.

However, there is also the risk that some leaders might just go through the motions, making listening noises, without actually responding positively to what staff are telling them about their lived experience.

What’s the root of the teacher retention problem? Too many teachers are unhappy.

What’s the solution? Increase teacher happiness.

How we do that is going to be complex and often very difficult. But it might just begin with asking teachers about their happiness and accepting what they have to say.


You can read other articles by Andy McHugh here.


Editor of HWRK Magazine, Andy is a teacher, Head of RE and Senior Examiner who loves nothing more than a good debate.

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