Teaching Profession The State of Teaching

This Is the Surprising Career Stage When Teachers Are Unhappiest

By Madeline Will — April 17, 2024 7 min read
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Call it a seven-year itch: After a couple of years in the classroom, teachers’ morale slumps for a few years before rebounding later in their careers.

While multiple national surveys show that teacher morale overall is low, the breakdowns by experience level reveal an inverse bell curve of job satisfaction. There’s no clear answer as to why, but the general theory goes like this: Teachers start their careers feeling relatively optimistic and excited. But a few years in, they start to feel disillusioned with the demands of teaching and the stagnant wages compared to peers in other industries.

“The first five years, [teachers are] just figuring it out. This is their calling, this is what they went to school for—they’re pushing through,” said Michelle Faust, an elementary literacy coach in Lexington, S.C. “When it doesn’t get easier in years five to 10, and sometimes it gets harder, it’s like, what in the world?”

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As teachers gain more experience, move up in the salary schedule, and learn how to better manage their workloads, the data show their job satisfaction improves—if they haven’t left the profession yet.

With the more experienced, more satisfied teachers, “you’ve got the folks who have figured it out, and who’ve chosen to stay, and who have found their lane and their purpose,” said Mayme Hostetter, the president of Relay Graduate School of Education, a not-for-profit preparation program. “They’re doing what they want to be doing.”

The challenge for school leaders, she said, is maintaining teachers’ morale after the initial optimism and excitement fade, so they can reach that more stable phase of their careers.

What the data show

The EdWeek State of Teaching survey, which polled a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,500 teachers in October 2023, found that teachers with three to nine years of classroom experience have worse morale than their peers who have either more or less experience. They are also less likely than teachers in other stages of their careers to say they’d recommend their own children, or those of a loved one, pursue a career in teaching.

Federal data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show a similar trend. When 4th and 8th grade math teachers were asked how much the statement, “I am satisfied with being a teacher at this school,” applies to them, the breakdown differed based on years of experience. This was the case among 4th grade reading teachers, too. (There wasn’t a high enough response rate for 8th grade reading teachers to make the same determination.)

Among 8th grade math teachers, for instance, 80 percent of newbies (those who had been on the job for less than a year) and 77 percent of seasoned veterans (those who had been teaching for 21 or more years) said being satisfied at their school sounded “exactly” or “quite a bit” like them—compared to 69 percent of teachers with three to five years of experience and 71 percent of teachers who’ve been in the classroom six to 10 years.

The COVID-19 factor

This phenomenon might be heightened by the extenuating circumstances of the past four years. Teachers experiencing that morale slump now were new or relatively new to the classroom at the height of the pandemic.

“They went through this period of extraordinary difficulty and uncertainty during COVID and anticipated that it would get better, and there would be relief,” said Doris Santoro, a professor of education at Bowdoin College who studies teacher morale. “Now COVID is over, we’re back to normal, and things should feel good. But ... it’s not easier for anybody right now.”

Students need extra help catching up on academic ground lost during the pandemic, and teachers are also contending with a reported rise in bad behavior and classroom distractions.

Yet teachers who are a few years into their career might not be fully equipped to tackle those challenges, Santoro said.

“If those zero to three years [in the classroom] were the COVID years, then they may be really experiencing a gap in skills and maybe never established the kinds of supports and professional networks that we know are necessary,” she said.

Layla Treuhaft-Ali, a middle school teacher in Chicago who is in her fifth year in the classroom, agreed: “I still consider myself a new teacher because I lost a year of practical experience during COVID—there were a lot of experiences I didn’t have,” she said.

Salary, workload may play a role

But there are evergreen factors behind this early-to-mid-career morale slump, too. For instance, teachers, on average, make less than similarly educated workers in other fields.

“I just compare myself sometimes to my friends who can take [paid time off] anytime they want, ... and they’re making twice as much as me,” Faust said, adding that the discrepancy is heightened for teachers when they’re in the early stages of their careers.

Also, teaching is “a flat career trajectory, so you don’t see that boost—not only in compensation, but in recognition,” Santoro said. “You’re not getting the, ‘Oh, you just made associate from junior [associate].’ ... There are no such things at most places as promotions, especially if you want to stay in the classroom.”

And while more experienced teachers may be looking ahead toward retirement, “people in that three- to nine-year range, they don’t see the end in sight,” Faust said.

Another factor: Teachers’ workloads are heavy, and that doesn’t always change with more experience. In fact, teachers with a few years of teaching under their belts may add to their own workloads by creating more ambitious lesson plans or taking on additional school roles.

“In the first couple years, you’re observing what other teachers are doing, then you try to implement [those things] yourselves,” said Miranda Mack, a high school physics teacher in Dallas who’s in her fifth year in the classroom. “Sometimes you overdo it. ... Teachers at that point can start to feel a sense of burnout.”

Meanwhile, she added, “Older teachers have figured out their boundaries.”

The gap between professional ideals and systemic challenges

Teachers with a few years of experience have formed a professional identity and corresponding ideals, but they often feel stymied by factors outside of their control, teachers and experts said.

“At the three-year mark, you start to feel pressure from what you have noticed about various policy issues,” Mack said. “You see the systemic issues going on, and you feel helpless to change them.”

Said Santoro: “It might be a moment where some teachers have the recognition of, ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’”

For instance, staffing shortages and inadequate resources might make it hard for teachers to do their jobs in the way that they’d like. And school leadership is a major factor in teachers’ sense of self-efficacy, Santoro said.

"[T]he commitment, hope, and optimism with which many teachers still enter the profession, unless supported within the school, may be eroded over time as managing combinations of low-level disruption from those who don’t wish to learn or cannot, or interfere with others’ opportunities to learn; increasing media criticisms; and lack of work-life balance take their toll on professional well-being,” wrote Christopher Day, a professor of education at the University of Nottingham in England, in a 2012 paper about teachers’ professional lives.

Day’s work builds on the research of Michael Huberman, who was a professor of education at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. In the 1970s and 1980s, Huberman charted out the phases of a teaching career, based on interviews with Swiss teachers with various levels of experience.

He found that after the first few years in the classroom, teachers begin to stabilize, finding their professional footing and committing to teaching for the long haul. But younger teachers can also experience a career crisis at this point, stemming from boredom, doubts about whether they made the right career choice, and workplace challenges.

Strong school leadership can help teachers be resilient and maintain a sense of purpose and well-being, Day wrote.

How can schools support teachers experiencing a slump in morale?

Experts said school leaders tend to focus a lot of their attention on brand-new teachers, which is important—but teachers still need support a few years in.

Facilitating a sense of connection and community among the teachers at the school is important, as is targeted professional development, Hostetter said. Teachers need to feel like they’re successful, she added.

“Competence breeds confidence breeds morale and enthusiasm that carries you through the honeymoon years at the start of the profession,” she said.

Treuhaft-Ali, the fifth-year teacher, said she wants administrators to give her grace as she continues to hone her craft.

Teaching is “an incredibly complex profession, and I love that it requires me to be good at a lot of different things, ... but it is impossible that every area is going to be your strength,” she said. “While you work to build that up, it can be so discouraging.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2024 edition of Education Week as This Is the Surprising Career Stage When Teachers Are Unhappiest

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