As a nation, we lean heavily on teachers to help realize the next generation’s potential to meaningfully contribute to their communities. But are we leaning too hard?
As any teacher could tell you, American teachers are stressed out and overwhelmed. Considering the physical, social, and emotional impacts of both the COVID-19 pandemic and years of systemic racism in education, this stress may even seem inevitable.
Both popular media and our own academic community are guilty of a narrative that equates good teaching with sacrificial teaching. In our work as special education researchers, we have noticed a pernicious narrative that assumes good teachers are maternal figures who are always willing to sacrifice their own needs. This narrative of personal sacrifice distracts from the systemic inequalities in teacher working conditions.
For example, in a recent interview one of us conducted for a research project, an elementary principal praised special educators in his building for their willingness to “give up” their planning or lunch time to “be there” for students. Rather than acknowledging the likely costs of such sacrifices for instructional quality (from the lack of planning time) or teachers’ well-being (from the lack of a lunch break), he viewed such sacrifices as inherent to their dispositions as caring teachers.
Such messages burden teachers with unsustainable responsibilities while distracting from the deeper issue of systematic underinvestment in education for marginalized students. But teachers often internalize these messages. In our research on teachers’ emotions, we have the opportunity to speak to a wide variety of teachers about the conditions of their work and their affective responses to it. We often heard teachers describe sacrificing time with their own families, spending their own money, not getting enough sleep, or even hesitating to start therapy due to time restraints—and yet still feeling guilty.
When working conditions are poor, teachers’ needs (such as planning time or more classroom funding) are pitted against students’ needs for strong instruction, and students’ needs can only be met through teachers’ overwork and sacrifice. Such sacrifices are particularly unsustainable for teachers who may have multiple jobs to make ends meet, competing access needs, extensive caregiving responsibilities at home, and/or simply a reasonable desire for work-life balance.
However, teacher stress and guilt are not inevitable. They occur because, we use teacher sacrifice as a Band-Aid for systemic inequities—such as the wildly disproportionate funding provided to predominantly white students vs. students of color or the vast differences in technology allocated to schools in urban vs. rural areas. These inequities manifest in the unsustainable working conditions that exacerbate teacher-recruitment and -retention challenges.
How do we know? Data show that teachers who begin teaching in special education, in higher-poverty schools, and in schools serving more students of color (or any intersection of these roles) often choose to move out of teaching altogether or to positions teaching students who are predominately white, wealthy, and nondisabled.
It’s not because of the kids. Regardless of who and where they teach, teachers experience the most joy when working with their students. When school systems don’t provide teachers the working conditions they need to effectively teach their students, they leave. Without key resources—such as curricular materials, social support, or opportunities for continued professional learning—teachers can only do their jobs well by making unsustainable sacrifices of their own time and money.
And systematic economic underinvestment in students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income communities has made working conditions for teachers in those communities systematically more challenging. As a result, schools serving students who are the most marginalized in society often experience the greatest teacher shortages.
To disrupt this cycle, we have to reject the narrative that “good teachers” must always sacrifice. This narrative perpetuates the idea that if teachers just try hard enough, are passionate enough, or are generous enough with their emotional energy, physical presence, and financial resources, they can help any kid realize their potential. Not only does this normalize a work culture that rewards those who are able to “rise and grind” no matter what, it also positions teachers as saviors who give everything they have to their students who are desperate for their goodwill and generosity.
Every day, students across the country enter their classrooms with many strengths. And, like all of us, they also have a range of needs for which they rely on a range of supports, including from their families, schools, and communities. Teachers play a crucial role within these support networks. We should all feel a deep sense of gratitude for how committed teachers are to their work. But if we want to improve teachers’ working conditions, we also need to start talking about their sacrifices differently.
We already know how to invest in teachers’ working conditions. Given how long we’ve struggled with teacher-retention issues, brilliant thinkers have put forward tons of actionable ideas for decades. Policymakers and school and district leaders have access to evidence-based research and opportunities to listen to community.
Teaching doesn’t have to be this stressful, and teachers’ working conditions shouldn’t depend on their students’ race, class, or ZIP code. Let’s all unlearn our assumptions that teachers must sacrifice their own needs in order to best serve their students.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2023 edition of Education Week as Teacher Stress Is Not Inevitable