We often hear the term “teacher burnout” to describe how some educators feel overtaken by the pressures of the classroom. But are these really cases of burnout or have many educators become “demoralized”? These are similar but also distinct forces, says Doris Santoro, Assistant Professor of Education at Bowdoin College, and both are driving dedicated and talented teachers out of the profession.
In a recent article for the American Journal of Education, Santoro argues that demoralization at the hands of rigid education “reforms” is often misdiagnosed as burnout, a condition that has more to do with how an individual responds to everyday stress. Demoralization, according to Santoro, occurs when much of the value of teaching has been stripped away by rigid, ill-conceived education reforms, creating a high level of frustration and helplessness among teachers. “Burnout” is not the issue. As she explains to NEA Today, the work of teaching has changed and it is therefore up to school communities and policymakers to help restore the “moral rewards” of teaching.
How does teacher demoralization differ from teacher burnout in terms of cause and effect?
I make a distinction between demoralization and burnout primarily in terms of cause. The effects – apathy, bitterness, depression, exhaustion, isolation – may, in fact, look remarkably similar. Burnout is studied most frequently by psychologists who examine how an individual’s personality, physical and mental health, and coping strategies help to manage stress. Burnout tends to be characterized as a natural by-product of teaching in demanding schools and leaves the problem of burnout as an issue of teacher personality and/or naiveté. Burnout is characterized as a failure of individual teachers to conserve their personal store of resources.
In demoralization, the resources – what I term the “moral rewards” of teaching – are embedded in the work itself. Demoralization occurs when the job changes to such a degree that what teachers previously found “good” about their work is no longer available.
Moral rewards are what bring many of us to teaching: finding ways to connect meaningfully with students, designing lessons that address students’ needs, using our talents to improve the lives of others. It is a sense that the moral dimension of the work is taken away by policy mandates that affect their teaching directly.
Explain a bit more about the moral dimension of teaching, particularly how it relates to the recruitment, retention and attrition of teachers.
The moral dimension of teaching is the aspect of teaching that suffuses instruction and curriculum, but also exceeds them. It is where teachers talk about what is good, what is right and what is just about their work. What is it about teaching that enables us to find and express moral value? How is what I am doing bettering the world or myself? How does my teaching improve the lives of others?
The moral dimension of teaching goes beyond questions of student achievement (for example, “Will this raise my students test scores?”) and includes asking about how the teaching affects all involved as persons (for instance, “Is how I am teaching good for my students and for my wellbeing?”). I believe that we get into trouble when we divorce achievement-type questions from moral questions. They must be held together.
Teaching attracts individuals who seek to do good work in spite of the profession’s relatively low status and pay. Research has also shown that the ability to enjoy the moral rewards of doing good work sustains teachers throughout their careers. Of course, salary, school conditions, and structural supports like time for collaborative planning or smaller classes must be addressed, but in concert with the moral dimension of the work. These issues are often intertwined.
How do so-called education reforms lead specifically to demoralization?
My preliminary research shows that it is never one single event or policy that leads to demoralization, but a compilation of mandates that change the character of teachers’ work. It depends on how the policy is implemented at a particular school and what a particular teacher views as central features of good teaching.
It is undeniable that teachers who work high-poverty schools tend to experience the most Draconian forms of high- stakes accountability. Examples of policies that may demoralize teachers are scripted lessons that divest teachers of using their talents in planning, mandated curriculum that allows no space for teachers to respond to students’ academic needs and interests, and testing practices that make teachers feel complicit in doing harm to their students.
For instance, one teacher I interviewed spoke of her district’s requirement to have first-grade students sit for a three-hour exam without a break. Other teachers have mentioned their school’s mandated fidelity to the pace of commercial curriculum even though students were not ready to move on to learning a new concept. Overall, the high-stakes accountability climate has neglected conversations about good teaching.
How do burnout and demoralization differ in regards to individual responsibility vs. community responsibility in preventing and addressing the problems?
Certainly there are teachers with personalities that render them prone to burning out – they do not have healthy boundaries or may find self-realization through self-sacrifice. There are also sick school cultures that can contribute to burnout. For instance, schools where putting in anything less a twelve-hour day is viewed as a lack of commitment to the job.
Demoralization, being rooted in the practice of teaching and having policy- and system-based causes, should be addressed by whole-school communities. Current federal policy initiatives require data from teacher surveys on levels of support in and working conditions of schools be published in state and district report cards. Why not include questions such as: When, why, and how do you find value in your work? What enables you to teach at your best? What prevents you from engaging in good teaching? While some responses to these questions may be cynical or blame students and their families, it is likely that they will also point to aspects of policies that require revision in the interdependent goals of improving student learning and retaining talented teachers.
Absent better policies, can teachers do anything to keep from becoming demoralized?
Teachers should first resist the label of “burnout” if what they are really experiencing is demoralization. Demoralization indicates a problem with the profession and practitioners collectively can call attention to the ways in which the work is changing. Demoralization is not a personal problem, so it cannot be avoided individually. Naming and resisting policies that impede doing good work need to be addressed collectively.
There is no shame in demoralization – it is the work that has changed, not the failure of an individual to tough it out. Teachers can ask themselves, colleagues, school leaders, policy makers, parents, whoever will listen: How are we able to access the moral rewards of our work? What do we need to do to “remoralize” our teaching?
Supporting teachers, providing them with career options and helping them improve throughout their careers is a key component of NEA’s Leading the Profession action agenda, released last December. Read more about NEA’s plan to transform the teaching profession.