Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Demoralization Isn’t the Same as Teacher Burnout

What COVID-19 means for the teaching workforce
By Doris A. Santoro — November 11, 2020 5 min read
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Teachers did not enter their jobs planning to be front-line workers in a pandemic. Parents fortunate enough to keep their jobs did not envision managing a day care in their impromptu home offices. Students did not anticipate that they would not be able to share lunch time with their favorite teacher or examine a slide with their lab partner.

During the current health crisis, teachers have faced transformations and stressors in their work that put us all (higher education professors like me included) at risk for demoralization and burnout. What will we do to sustain the profession and those who undertake this difficult and important work?

It is worth distinguishing teacher demoralization from burnout. Teachers’ ongoing value conflicts with the work (demoralization) cannot be solved by the more familiar refrain for teachers to practice self-care in order to avoid exhaustion (burnout). Demoralization occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work. It happens when teachers are consistently thwarted in their ability to enact the values that brought them to the profession.

Burnout, on the other hand, happens when teachers are pushed to the brink of exhaustion and are entirely depleted. The rhetoric of teacher resilience offers a clear culprit in the scenario of burnout—the teachers themselves who failed to conserve their energy and internal resources.

Our current predicament has many teachers running on empty, even those with good boundaries and solid self-care practices. They are grappling to learn new online platforms that will continue to engage the youngest learners. They have been required to calculate the health risks to themselves and their families if their classes are meeting in person. They are managing elder and child care while stemming the economic freefall of their families. Black and brown teachers face daily reminders that their lives are disposable in the eyes of the law.

At the same time, critics on social media and in traditional media are painting teachers as selfish and unwilling to perform their jobs. Parents, many justifiably at their wit’s end, criticize the stopgap measures districts have put into place during the epidemic.

Our current predicament has many teachers running on empty, even those with good boundaries and solid self-care practices."

The tide of public opinion about teachers had been turning. After several decades of teacher-bashing, polls such as last year’s “PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools” showed that a majority of K-12 parents would support teachers going on strike to garner higher pay and greater involvement in academic decisionmaking. For those of us involved in the recruitment and development of educators, that was a promising sign.

Prior to the pandemic, the United States was already in the midst of a teacher shortage. That same 2019 PDK poll revealed that half of U.S. teachers were considering quitting their jobs—this was well before the arrival of COVID-19. Teacher-preparation programs across the country have seen substantial drops in enrollments over the past decade. Teaching, something that many families are coming to realize can be extraordinarily difficult and has been woefully undervalued, was already waning in attractiveness as a profession.

One reason people are not attracted to teaching, and why some are leaving teaching, is that they do not see it as a place where they can enact their values. By this I do not mean that they are seeking to indoctrinate students in their belief systems, but that they do not see teaching as a way to do what psychologist Howard Gardner and his colleagues call “good work.” Good work serves a social purpose (for example, supporting students to be critical thinkers in their community or enabling students to recognize the elegant logic of the periodic table) and upholds the highest ethical standards of the profession (for example, ensuring that all students are treated with respect and dignity or designing assessments that are the best possible representation of what students know and are able to do).

Teachers are often compensated far less than their peers with similar educational credentials and expertise. As public schooling has become increasingly focused on standardization, testing, and compliance, it has become a less compelling career choice for people who are motivated by contributing to their communities, engaging meaningfully with young people, or sharing the beauty of their subject matter. In exchange for these moral rewards, they have traditionally been willing to persist in work that is intellectually and emotionally demanding and only modestly compensated.

About 20 years ago, merit pay was touted as a solution to retaining the best teachers. It didn’t pan out. Teachers are not motivated to do their jobs for money, but we can see how pay-for-performance policy on standardized tests invites corruption and unproductive competition when collaboration between colleagues produces better results for all.

Teachers deserve to be paid more. Full stop. Teachers who must hold multiple jobs to support their families deserve to be paid much more.

However, the likelihood that we will see teacher salaries increase substantially in the near future is nil. The economic crisis brought on by our health crisis is leaving municipalities and states with staggering revenue shortfalls that are leading to cuts to education.

We are at the very beginning of understanding how the education employment landscape has been impacted by the current health crisis. Prior to COVID-19, we did know, based on University of Pennsylvania education labor economist Richard Ingersoll’s work, that greater teacher retention would significantly ease the problem of the teacher shortage. In other words, if more teachers remained in their jobs, we would not see the shortages that states are navigating.

I am worried about teachers and I am worried about the teaching profession. If we want to keep our best teachers, we must enable them to do good work. We can do all we can to limit the specter of burnout, but that is insufficient. We must stave off demoralization in this extraordinarily challenging time. That means enabling teachers to find ways to do good work whenever possible.

We can begin by acknowledging that we are all in an impossible situation. School leaders, teachers, school staff, and families are attempting to balance physical safety, emotional well-being, and worthwhile learning. District personnel are weighing the welfare of their staffs in light of the profound needs of their communities.

Perhaps we all—school leaders, families, colleagues, policymakers, teacher educators, reporters, colleagues—could intervene with a simple question for teachers: What do you need to do good work right now?

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as The New Face of Teacher Demoralization

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