Special Report
Teaching & Learning

Editor’s Note: Battling Low Morale and Lagging Motivation

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 06, 2021 2 min read
Image shows a bright background of yellows and oranges with a sad and concerned emoji wearing a medical mask over its mouth.

“Any other educators out there feel like failures? I hate it because I KNOW I’m a great teacher. I’m perpetually behind in what feels like EVERYTHING. I’m basically in survival mode as I prioritize tasks daily. It’s only November. I. Can’t. Do. This.”

That tweet—from special education teacher Wade Buckman—blazed across social media, striking a deep chord with Buckman’s teaching peers who shared their own feelings of distress and flagging spirits.

As we kick off the second half of the hardest school year in modern history, teachers are battling low morale and exhaustion as the prospect of any widespread return to normal schooling looks unlikely until the fall of 2021. At the same time, students—especially those in remote learning—are dealing with sluggish levels of motivation.

This is not just anecdotal. The Education Week Research Center conducted nationally representative surveys in November of teachers—as well as students in middle school and high school—to capture the mindsets of both groups.

Nearly 75 percent of teachers told us their morale is lower than it was before the pandemic. And roughly the same share of teachers said their students’ morale is either much lower or somewhat lower than before the pandemic. That’s a tough environment to feel successful in.

More than half of students who are in full-time remote learning said they have lost motivation to do their best in school. And among those who get to attend school in person at least part-time on a hybrid schedule, more than half said they are also less motivated to do their best in school.

School and district leaders have an imperative to confront these challenges of morale, motivation, and engagement urgently, but they must also do so thoughtfully. Concerns that significant numbers of students are disengaging from school completely or losing major academic ground can’t be addressed without tending to teachers’ feelings about their effectiveness and getting more students to consistently engage in their learning.

The news is not all grim. Overall, students in our survey express more hopefulness and resilience than their teachers—a heartening takeaway for the grown-ups who are worried and stressed about the pandemic’s long-term negative effects on kids. And we do know there is a small, but meaningful, subset of students who are thriving as full-time remote learners—a phenomenon that can’t be ignored when things do return to normal.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as Battling Low Morale and Lagging Motivation

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