Corrected: An earlier version of this story gave Doris Santoro’s previous title. She is now a professor.
It’s been a long, hard few years for teachers, but things might be looking up: Teachers report feeling more satisfied at work than they did last year, when job satisfaction levels appeared to hit an all-time low.
The promising results come from the second annual Merrimack College Teacher Survey, a nationally representative poll of nearly 1,200 teachers conducted by the EdWeek Research Center and commissioned by the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. The survey, which was fielded in January, was designed to replace the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, which ran for more than 25 years and ended in 2012.
The results this year describe a battered workforce that’s regaining some momentum. Two-thirds of teachers say they’re satisfied with their jobs, up from 56 percent last year. Twenty percent say they’re “very satisfied,” up from 12 percent last year. Fewer teachers than last year say they’re planning to quit teaching in the next two years, and teachers also feel more respected as professionals than they did last year.
“I’m delighted to see those numbers going up because teaching is an incredible job, and we depend upon teachers to be happy in their work and satisfied in their work,” said Doris Santoro, a professor at Bowdoin College who studies teacher morale. “To me, this is an indication that teachers want to be teaching, and what we need to do is give them the conditions in which they can thrive.”
Still, more than half of teachers say they likely wouldn’t advise their younger selves to pursue a career in teaching. About half still don’t feel respected by the general public. And while many of these indicators have improved from last year, they are significantly lower than a decade ago.
In some ways, teaching has been easier this year than in the past two pandemic school years, teachers said in interviews. COVID-19 cases are down, so there is less disruption to the school calendar, teachers are less isolated, and students are readjusting to classroom routines and expectations, they said.
“The three things that we as teachers thrive on are structure, consistency, and community, and looking at [the last couple of years], we really didn’t have any of those things,” said Amber Nichols, 45, a kindergarten teacher at Eastwood Elementary School in Morgantown, W.Va.
Having a more normal school year “renewed my sense of just loving my classroom,” she added.
But in other ways, teachers are very much still grappling with the fallout of the pandemic, including gaps in students’ academic knowledge, an uptick in mental health challenges for both themselves and their students, and worsening student misbehavior.
“Socially and emotionally, children have changed,” said Nichols, who is her state’s 2023 teacher of the year. “They’re dealing with very large gaps in development. I had to … teach children how to play, problem-solve, persevere, use grit—it’s scary to me.”
The pervasiveness of technology has also shortened students’ attention spans and distracted them from instruction, she said.
“It’s exhausting for teachers to reinvent the wheel when the wheel is not a circle anymore, it’s a square,” Nichols said.
Teachers say they feel pressure to meet increased expectations and more student needs. And they’re frustrated that they’re now in the center of divisive political and cultural debates. A rash of state laws now restrict how teachers can talk about race and LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom, and it has fallen to teachers to interpret those laws and try to avoid running afoul of them.
[The message is] we’re all bad teachers because we’re indoctrinating the kids—I'm not. I’m teaching them to read and write and do math and be kind.
“I don’t think we’re out of the woods,” Santoro said of the new teacher satisfaction ratings. “I think it would be shortsighted to look at these numbers divorced of the political posturing we’re going to see happen as we ramp up the presidential election [campaigns].”
Most teachers feel respected, but concerns linger
About 8 in 10 teachers say they’re respected as professionals within their school, and three-quarters say they’re respected by students’ parents, on par with last year’s survey.
“I personally have never felt like anything but a rock star with my children’s families,” Nichols said.
Yet some teachers say they feel like they’re not treated as the educated professionals they are.
“My frustration is there’s a lot of talk about how we respect teachers,” said Katye Russell, 54, a middle school English teacher in Nashville, Tenn. “In the reality of it, no. We’re still getting more tasks put on our plates, more meetings—but there’s not ever a moment that [administrators say], ‘Listen, we know you have the education, the skills, so go do it the best way that you know how.’”
For the past two years, Russell’s school district has implemented a more prescriptive English/language arts curriculum for middle and high schoolers, which means she can’t decide for herself what texts to teach and how to teach them.
“It makes me feel like my sense of professionalism, who I am as a professional, and what my skills are are not being taken seriously,” she said. And it’s stripped away much of the joy of teaching, Russell added: “It’s so boring.”
Forty percent of teachers say they don’t have much control or influence over the curriculum they teach, and 17 percent say they don’t have much say over their own teaching or pedagogy, findings that are similar to last year’s.
“There’s no individualism,” said Karleen Michael, 59, an elementary teacher in Idaho, who is in her 35th year of teaching. She doesn’t think her administrators give veteran teachers the freedom to teach how they think is best: “Each teacher brings their own special sauce in the room, and you can’t do that [anymore].”
The respect teachers say they generally receive from parents and from within their schools doesn’t translate outside of their school communities. Just 55 percent of teachers say they’re respected and seen as professionals by the general public, up 9 percentage points from last year but down more than 20 percentage points from 2011.
If teachers were respected, “we’d be paid more, we’d be taken care of more,” said Amanda Galbincea, 43, an AP Physics teacher in Katy, Texas.
During the initial school shutdowns in 2020, teachers were hailed as heroes, she said. Now, she has parents intentionally sending their children to school sick without any regard for her own health, she said. And last year, voters in the community voted against a tax rate election that would have funded teacher salary increases.
“As a whole, all of us felt kicked in the head by our own community,” Galbincea said.
We’re not doing this for the money, we’re not doing this for the accolades—we’re doing this for the kids. But it’s unsustainable when you pay so little and expect so much.
The political climate doesn’t help. The claims that K-12 students are learning about critical race theory are frustrating to hear, said Michael, the Idaho teacher.
“[The message is] we’re all bad teachers because we’re indoctrinating the kids—I’m not,” she said. “I’m teaching them to read and write and do math and be kind.”
More than a third of teachers still want to quit
This year, 35 percent of teachers say they’re likely to quit and find another job outside of teaching within the next two years. Last year, 44 percent said the same.
Connie Sanabria, 32, a high school French teacher in Maryland, is among those leaving the classroom at the end of this school year. There are several reasons: unwieldy class sizes that keep growing every year, the lack of air conditioning in her school building, and growing apathy and shrinking attention spans among students since the pandemic began.
“My patience has grown thinner since online teaching,” she said. “Last year, I was tired but, emotionally, I wasn’t [ready to leave] yet. This year, I’m emotionally there—I’m ready for a new chapter. Honestly, I need a break. I’m feeling drained.”
Sanabria doesn’t have a new job lined up yet. She’s hoping to have a baby soon—another reason to leave the classroom, she said, as there are few accommodations made for pregnant teachers, including a lack of paid parental leave.
One day, she might return to teaching, especially if she can get a job with higher pay and better working conditions, Sanabria said. In the meantime, she’s ready to prioritize her own well-being: “I’m in the position for the first time where I can choose to take care of myself, and I want to do that.”
Many teachers who say they want to quit will not actually do so, past research has found. Still, school district leaders continue to report vacancies in both perennial shortage areas, like special education and high school math, and even in historically popular fields, like elementary education. And the number of teachers enrolling in and completing preparation programs significantly declined over the past decade.
Nichols, the West Virginia teacher, said her elementary school would once post a job opening and get applications from 80 well-qualified candidates. Now, it might receive 10 certified candidates, with less of a guarantee of talent and experience.
“What is very scary is the writing’s on the wall—when we have this lack of personnel and lack of talent, our children will suffer in the long run,” she said.
Several teachers who have considered quitting say it’s not because they don’t still love teaching—it’s because of all the pressure and lack of support.
“I just want the rest of the world to catch up and realize we’re not doing this for the money, we’re not doing this for the accolades—we’re doing this for the kids,” said Galbincea, who said she loves sharing her passion for physics with a new generation. “But it’s unsustainable when you pay so little and expect so much.”
What can schools do to help teachers?
To keep teachers in the classroom—and happy at work—a focus on their well-being is key, educators and experts say.
Forty-two percent of teachers said their teaching and professional growth had suffered this year because of the state of their mental health. And more than half of teachers said that the mental health and wellness of teachers in their school has declined over the course of the 2022-23 school year. Just 10 percent said it had improved.
Yet district mental health programming for teachers is sparse, the survey results indicate. Only 2 percent of teachers said their district offers extensive programming to support employee’s mental health and wellness—about a quarter said their district offered no programming, 44 percent said programming was minimal, and 30 percent said their district made some effort to support staff mental health.
When asked how schools and districts can support teachers’ mental well-being, more than two-thirds of respondents cited a pay raise or bonus to reduce financial stress. Smaller class sizes, more or better support for student discipline, fewer administrative burdens such as meetings and paperwork, and more acknowledgment of good and hard work also topped the list.
Yet just 9 percent of teachers said their principal provides “a lot” of concrete support for teacher mental health and wellness. Nearly a third said their principal provides no support, another 35 percent said “a little,” and 24 percent said “some.”
“We see a lot of gestures toward, ‘Teachers need to engage in self-care,’” said Santoro, the Bowdoin professor. “Self-care is really important, but that kind of injunction just puts more labor on teachers if it’s not actually integrated into structural functions of school.”
For example, she said, school leaders could establish a system that allows teachers to take a break for a few minutes if they need to and have someone else cover their class (and then return the favor later on). Administrators could bring in therapists or social workers for employee use—and take care to connect teachers of color to diverse mental health providers who are trained in culturally relevant practices, Santoro said.
Also, having a dedicated substitute teacher who works full-time in one school building can make it more feasible for teachers to take time off when they need, she said. And administrators should consider pausing new initiatives while teachers and students recover from the fallout of the pandemic, Santoro said.
After all, teachers can’t do their best work when they’re struggling, Nichols said.
“If our teachers are healthy, our students will be healthy as well,” she said. And if that happens, she predicts, teacher satisfaction ratings “are going to increase.”
Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.
A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2023 edition of Education Week as Teacher Job Satisfaction Rebounds From Last Year’s Low. But There’s Still a Ways to Go