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NEA News

Teacher Burnout or Demoralization? What's the Difference and Why it Matters

The root cause of teacher dissatisfaction may have more to do with how the profession has been degraded and less on a perceived inability to handle the pressures of the job.
teacher demoralization
Published: January 18, 2018

Why so many teachers leave the profession is one of the most often discussed topics in public education. While encouraging and long overdue, it is a conversation that can only be productive if we truly understand the reasons why so many dedicated educators make this decision. The exhaustion, despair, anger, and sense of helplessness many teachers feel is usually branded as "burnout."  But is this always an accurate diagnosis?

Doris Santoro, an associate professor of education at Bowdoin College, believes it is not. Teachers can certainly burn out, but Santoro argues that many are more likely to be demoralized by the direction of public education and the effect it has had on their profession. High-stakes testing, standardization, the stripping of teacher autonomy -  these and other trends have eroded what Santoro calls the "moral rewards" of teaching.

In her new book, "Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay," Santoro features stories from 23 teachers who have profound concerns about the state of their profession but who have not yet decided to leave. A better understanding of the root causes of teacher dissatisfaction, Santoro says, can empower  experienced teachers to "re-moralize" and help revitalize the profession.

The term “burnout” is deeply entrenched in the discussion about why teachers leave the profession. We’ve all used it to some extent. You’ve been making the case for a decade that it could be a misdiagnosis. What tipped you off that the term might be inaccurate in many cases?

Doris Santoro: I had this amazing colleague at the school I taught at in San Francisco in the 1990s. She was going to teach forever. She was a lifer. When she resigned years later, she sent me her resignation letter. When I read it, I thought to myself, ‘wait this doesn’t fit any of the narratives about teachers we’ve been fed.’ This teacher was not burned out. This woman was saying ‘I can’t teach the way I know I’m supposed to be teaching.’ The profession had changed. This isn’t burnout. This is demoralization.

When we talk about resilience in teachers, it’s usually centered around self-care... I believe in self-care. But that is an insufficient and entirely too passive way to address the problems teachers are encountering today." 

When I looked at the school staffing surveys that are conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences, they weren’t asking the right questions. So with my study, I had to go small and deep to find out what is going on with teachers who were like my colleague: teachers who are dedicated to the profession, and who have shown their dedication by teaching five or more years. I had these really in-depth conversations with teachers who could talk about having moral or ethical concerns with how teaching was changing.

But I didn’t want to just document that they were having problems. I wanted to know how they were addressing these challenges as well. I’m a teacher-educator in addition to being a philosopher of education, so I’m committed to having great teachers enter, stay, and thrive in the profession, for themselves, their students, and their communities.

In the initial conversations, were your subjects generally resigned to thinking they were just burning out?

DS: Yeah, I think they just thought they were burning out, although some had a hunch about what it meant to be demoralized due to the profession losing those moral rewards.

The burnout narrative comes down to, 'Sorry, you blew it! You couldn’t hack it, you didn’t preserve yourself.' With burnout, there’s nothing left, no possibility for regeneration. If you are demoralized, however, you are not done. For these teachers, it’s a new vocabulary.

The transformation that happens to these teachers when they can reframe what they are experiencing can be liberating and empowering. Teachers are able to access a whole new set of tools and possibilities when you are able to reframe your diagnosis.

And the term burnout – by suggesting that the individual is essentially at fault – leads to calls for teachers to show grit or be more resilient, two more pervasive buzzwords.

DS: Absolutely. If the focus is on the individual, then the problem is not systemic or institutional or policy-based. It pushes the resolution right back on the individual. It comes down to, 'If you were more this way, this wouldn’t be a problem.'

When we talk about resilience in teachers in teacher education, it’s usually centered around self-care. Now, I’m all for self-care, I believe in self-care, I participate in self-care. But that is an insufficient and entirely too passive way to address the problems teachers are encountering today.

In your 2011 article in which you first laid out the distinction between burnout vs. demoralization, you cite high-stakes testing, punitive accountability systems, the narrowing curriculum, and other policies as main causes. In working on the book, were there any factors that contributed to teacher dissatisfaction that surprised you?

DS: First of all, I should stress that it’s not just the high-poverty urban teacher who is feeling demoralized. We’re seeing this happening in some of those schools that show up in the U.S. News list of top schools in the country. I realized that I needed to address that more in the book after many NEA members who read the 2012 interview reached out to me.

What I also learned traveling from state-to-state doing these interviews was that all these teachers are struggling in the exact same ways around these student learning objectives. They talked about profound administrative confusion, the amount of time they put into it, and the frustration that grew out of being told they were doing it wrong, then, 'no, here’s what we meant.'

Another piece is technology. Not in the sense of ‘I don’t want to use tech in the classroom.’ This is more about the record-keeping technology, the use of proprietary software to build lesson plans that the district purchased, or entering assessments. The time teachers waste just entering data, for example, may on one level seem insignificant, but you’re talking about this being compounded by all these other changes. For the teachers, it's not a case of 'I don’t like to do this or I don’t know how to do this.' It’s because they are being taken away from what they're supposed to be doing as a teacher.

Whether it’s about new technology or something else, teachers who raise concerns often get tagged with being self-interested. Talking less about burnout and more about demoralization might expose them to more of this critique. How can we avoid this pitfall?

doris santoro
​​​​​​​ Doris Santoro

DS: Much of the rhetoric around teacher-bashing and the need for these so-called reforms is because teachers are largely seen as doing what they want.

For the teachers I talked to, the discussion was always around a bigger concern about the well-being of the profession, the integrity of the profession, the well-being of the students and whether they are caring for students in the way that they deserve to be treated.

But we’re totally deaf to the moral concerns of teachers. The ways teacher dissatisfaction is captured, like in the IES staffing surveys, is mostly from a self-interested position, rather than giving them the space to express concern for students or about being stewards of the profession. Instead, it’s all about, for example, 'This interferes with my family life,' 'I don’t like the school leadership,' 'I don’t have autonomy,' and so on.

So when a teacher says, 'I can’t be creative in the classroom anymore,"  what she may mean is 'I can’t be more responsive to my students' needs, and I can’t take something that they are interested in and connect it to the lesson.'

We obviously need more policy shifts to create a better climate for teaching, but what are some of the steps schools can take to help the re-moralization process?

DS: I hope schools would have a series of conversations with teachers. It could start with talking about what good work looks like. What do you need to engage in good work? What’s preventing you and what can we change right now to move us a little closer? Obviously we can’t remove all the obstacles, but what small shifts can we make?

Some of this is about having school leaders who are willing to have these types of conversations or are willing to think about good work over and above just following policy. Flexibility is key and real change isn’t going to happen in three 40-minute faculty meetings. This is deep work, but the work itself is re-moralizing because it’s helping create an authentic professional community.

In the book, you address some ways leaders can be sources of teacher re-moralization, including unions. What were the teachers you interviewed looking for in their unions?

DS: The teachers I talked to were excited when unions articulated the ideals of the profession. Obviously the bread and butter issues are important, but whenever they heard language articulating their moral concerns about what was happening to the profession coming from the union, they felt supported and connected. Here is what the profession of teaching is all about, here is what our students deserve, and this is what we are going to do to stand up for you and your autonomy as a professional.

Also, when they heard their union acknowledging problems that they were experiencing and talking about collaborative projects together, they were very interested.

That’s a big piece of re-moralization –- involving educators in initiatives to find solutions. Whenever teachers are brought in to investigate and develop interventions, you’re creating opportunities for authentic community and taking action, in a way that feels less isolating. Unions can be an incredible source of support for teachers and help create those communities that can make change.


The Upside to Teacher Resignation Letters Going Viral

While heartbreaking to read, the letters reveal that educators are leaving the profession because they feel complicit and no longer want to be a part of a system that is harming students. The lesson for administrators and policymakers is clear.

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