what demoralization does to teachers

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“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.”

I’ve re-read that passage, published in what we’ll look back as at the middle of the pandemic, about thirty times. It’s from a Doris A. Santoro piece in EdWeek, breaking down the differences between educator burnout and demoralization, and I strongly recommend reading it in full — I’ve yet to read something that so clearly articulates the shortfalls of thinking of burnout as a personal problem, readily remedied by “self-care” or “better boundaries.”

Burnout, Santoro explains, is a form of depletion — but also posited as imminently solvable, if the teacher just draws on their reserves, their resilience, their deep love for the profession. Within this figuration, a failure to recover from burnout is an indication that you simply don’t love teaching enough.

Which is bullshit, of course. As Santoro writes, “our current predicament has many teachers running on empty, even those with good boundaries and solid self-care practices.” What educators are feeling right now — what they’ve felt over the last year — is not just frustration and fear inspired by the pandemic. It’s not just burnout. It’s way beyond that. It’s chronic burnout and deep demoralization as their labor is increasingly under-funded, under-valued, and under-resourced.

The profession has been at a breaking point for some time — and has remained in tact on the strength of teacher dedication. But no amount of passion can withstand chronic devaluation and exploitation.

Here’s how Santoro describes what’s happening:

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).

It’s about the pay, but it’s more than that. It’s about the effects of standardized testing, but it’s more than that. It’s about parents’ attitudes towards educators and their unions, but it’s more than that. So a few weeks ago, when a lot of the unions and school districts were still in negotiations about what back to school might look like — and others were closing in on a year of in-person or hybrid instruction — I asked educators to tell me about their own feelings of burnout and demoralization. The answers came flooding in, more than a hundred of them, many arriving late at night when teachers finally had space for something that wasn’t their work.

I’ve tried to offer a range of perspectives, but these aren’t intended to be wholly representative — just to give you some thoughts to sit with, and, hopefully, to act on. Teachers are great. But telling them so isn’t enough. If you value them, act, vote, and speak in a way that evidences that value. They have held a crumbling system together for so long. It’s time to give them relief — and reconsider its construction.

Some names have been changed to allow educators to speak freely and protect against retaliation; answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Tremendous gratitude to all who agreed to share their stories.

Rita, Public High School in the NYC Suburbs, 10+ Years as an English Teacher

Remote teaching has dulled all aspects of my job that I'm good at, but I'm incredibly enthusiastic about my subject matter. Even on days that I am so, so bored, teaching Macbeth for the fifth time that day, I still get excited about a weird turn of phrase with a double meaning, or the psychological implication of a random synecdoche. And I think that enthusiasm helps reach some kids who couldn't care less about English. I also try very hard to not take myself, or my class, too seriously. Like, I take literature incredibly seriously, but I am teaching teenagers here — I recognize that it is often more important to play a silly game than analyze the next chapter. I think it's more important that kids get a sense that I care about what they have to say about any range of topics than that we cover X number of books a year. And — this is pretty important — I like teenagers. This is a shit job to do if you don't.

I am normally a pretty happy person — not Pollyannaish, but generally upbeat and excited about things. Starting in October, though, I just started feeling sad, all the time. I'll finish the workday, go downstairs, and be like, "Jesus. I'm depressed."

It's become increasingly clear that many people in the community believe that a big part of my job is sacrificing myself for their children. I...disagree? It's a job (that doesn't pay so hot), not a martyrdom. I listen to the public portion of the board of education meetings, and it is rough. I think a good segment of the parents, especially those of younger kids, are truly at the end of their ropes, and I feel for them. But I think there is a sizable segment of the parents in the town that have long felt that teachers are overpaid, underworked, lazy, stupid, and overly protected by the union, and this year has given them free reign to launch all their pent-up vitriol at us.

Part of why I watch the board meanings is that they’re acrimonious and full of drama and I am truly starved for gossip, but also because — and this is ridiculous, I know — I think there might me an offhand chance that some parent of a kid I teach might call in and say, “Well, you know, my kid’s English teacher, she’s really been putting in the work.” But of course, that is never going to happen. The thing with teaching is, you can’t seek positive feedback about your work from the kids. It’s not their job to tell you you’re doing well, and they’ve plenty to deal with themselves. If they're like, "Oh, Ms. R., you're doing such a great job, I love this class," 7 times out of 10 they want something from you (which is okay!)

When you’re in the classroom, though, you can sense when things are working — laughing, engagement, a conversation after class or in the lunchroom. Remote? There’s nothing. Total silence. I’m going on 13 months of teaching alone, in my house, to silence. The only conclusion that I can come to is that I am garbage at my job.

The other day, I took my computer down to the living room and taught class on the couch. My husband overheard my class, and when I was finished, he said, "You really put your all into it, don't you?” It was the first compliment I’ve gotten on my work all year. I cried.

I'd leave tomorrow if I could find a steady job with benefits. I feel like the past year has really unearthed what the community thinks about teachers, and I'm going to find it very difficult to continue to work in that environment without succumbing to really paralyzing resentment. But my answer might change; it's been a bad week.

I honestly think the change to sustain a lot of us is pretty simple: acknowledge how horrible this year has been on all accords and provide real, meaningful counseling and support for educators and staff.  We've had a huge focus on social-emotional learning for students, and I'm like — Hey?? What about us? We're suffering here too and we're taking on the emotional weight of 100 miserable students! I've personally managed to maintain professional boundaries with my job, and I don't feel burnt out, but I am more unhappy than I have ever been in my adult life. 

Violet, Public High School outside of Portland, 20+ years as a Visual Arts Teacher

It’s so interesting to me to see how sentiment towards teachers and schools has shifted over the course of the pandemic. In the early weeks, when parents were acclimating themselves to schooling their kids from home — and really struggling — there was a lot of love and support. I actually felt like we might be turning a corner in terms of finally being given a modicum of respect by our society. That sentiment faded and soured as the pandemic dragged on. Right now we are being blamed for holding up the economy and destroying the emotional health of our nation’s children. We’re also being called selfish and undeserving for being vaccinated at the front of the line. We didn’t ask to be vaccinated ahead of essential workers who of course should have gone first. We were placed at the front of the line as a form of political leverage to force us back into our buildings. 

I think it is important to point out that teachers are members of the community as well. We are parents. We have our own kids who attend schools. I think that the discourse often ignores that, as if we are somehow not also “stakeholders.”

I also think it’s important to also keep saying that we are still in a pandemic. There are 3 variants of Covid that are potentially a big problem. Our school was built with a terrible ventilation system and no windows that open. There’s no hot water in the sinks. Right now I have class sizes over 40. Even if students are split into cohorts, that still means I come into contact with 80-100 people a day in my classroom alone. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that the actual building is safe. I worry a lot about our most vulnerable populations who have been hit disproportionately by Covid. I worry about community spread. I know that I could not handle the emotional toll of knowing that any single person died because we decided to go back into the classroom. It’s just not worth the risk. I love my students, and because I love them, I don’t want them or their families to get sick. 

I am personally so grateful to have a union that protects me. Every worker in America should be protected by a union. Period. 

But many days I find myself unable to move through the rage I feel, my anger rising as our nation’s teachers are blamed for the failings of the downright cruel society we’ve built. Teachers are once again a scapegoat for all of the failures of all the systems in America. No matter what changes we make in our teaching, whether it’s our curriculum or our pedagogical methods, we cannot change the structure of a larger society that does not prioritize safety and the needs of families. 

The joy and the feeling of purpose has been sucked out of the equation, and that joy was one of the only things that kept teachers like myself returning back to the classroom year after year.  The backlash against teachers and schools feels like the final insult. I’ve given more to teaching this year than I ever have in my career. I’ve worked harder and longer, and given of myself more than I ever imagined I could. All the professional boundaries I worked so hard to erect, boundaries that ensured I’d have enough energy and patience and stamina to withstand another day, week or year in the classroom have been demolished. What I’ve been left with is the sensation of being seen as an expendable resource, not as a human being.  

Veronica, Public High School Teacher in the Rural Midwest, 15+ Years as a Social Studies Teacher Before Leaving for Higher Ed

When the Democratic party embraced neoliberal viewpoints about schools, the attack on public schools became mainstream. My liberal friends have openly criticized teaching and public schools to my face. I never thought I would have to defend public schools, but there I was, trying to explain the value of public schools to my gentrifying, bourgeois friends who wanted to move to the city and send their kids to charter schools. Yes, charter schools are technically public, but they siphon off money from largely black, urban schools, to schools controlled by corporations, not people.

But this neoliberal view of schooling is pretty dominant now, and it’s not going away any time soon. You’re already seeing the Biden administration requiring standardized tests to see how “far students have been left behind” or “how much learning has been lost.” No mention of mental health. No discussion of all of the social aspects of schooling. Just getting ahead and being successful. School is being presented as a zero-sum game: If I am going to get ahead, someone has to lose. 

So how much longer can I do this work? The rest of my life. Really. It’s the rage against this neoliberalism that keeps me going. I’m a GenXer. We’ve been pissed off against corporate America our whole lives. My job is to stay and speak my truth. However, I get it. Not everyone gets enraged. Many people get depressed. So, what needs to change? The Democrats need to abandon neoliberalism. Parents need to support public schools. Standardized testing needs to stop. Teachers need to be treated with respect, as professionals, without the panopticon monitoring their every move as a data set of standardized test scores. I seriously want to take everyone trapped in the gig economy and say to them, “You’ve been led astray! Be a teacher. You can truly make a difference.” But, then, society doesn’t believe that. They think teachers are idiots who are ruining their children. How do I change that? 

Kate, Public High School in North Carolina, Special Education Teacher for 4+ years

I love my job and I love the kids. I’m not looking to make a change anytime soon, but I definitely think I’m the exception. The biggest thing that would help retain good teachers longer and keep good teachers more than the required 30 years is actually paying us for our expertise. It really is as simple as that. A person with my experience and schooling in any other field would be making at least 10k more than I make a year. Salary indicates value, and it’s very clear that we aren’t valued.

Dean, Public Charter School in the California Suburbs, English Teacher for 10+ Years

My partner is also a teacher, and this big Facebook group for union teachers in the district where my partner works is just FULL of people absolutely shocked that teaching is being disrespected and teachers so openly denigrated. And I just wanna be like "Where ya been?" Because yeah maybe I've been a little taken aback by the intensity and openness of the vitriol, but the general attitude of "Teachers work for us; we pay taxes, they should do what we say, even if what we (the public and parents) say is gonna kill a few of them. Teacher unions are communist and evil they get what they deserve for wanting workplace rights and a fair wage for their labor." 

That attitude? That attitude isn't a surprise at all to me. That's not new. There's some "saying the quiet part loud" happening, but the quiet part was always there pre-pandemic, too, and the "we don't have to be coded about how reactionary and closed-off we are" thing is happening with right-wingers in pretty much all arenas of public life at this point in our country I think. There was a brief moment early in the pandemic when there was this upswell of appreciation for teachers (since everybody had their kids at home and were recognizing how difficult teaching actually is) but that moment fizzled in the most predictable and deflating way when teachers had the gall to be like "I'd like to be vaccinated before I go spend my day in close proximity to 100+ other people."

This is the career I've chosen because it matters, because I'm good at it, and because I enjoy it. And by dint of personality, I'm not likely to fully burn out, because I have a decent mostly-innate ability to balance the importance of my work with the need for all aspects of my own life not to be overwhelmed by my job. But even if that weren't the case, I don't think a mid-career eject button would be in the cards for me, because the good (for me) still outweighs the bad. Maybe that's Pollyanna-ish, but it's how I feel. For now. But also, I'm not naive about this stuff. There really are malign forces trying to radically change how much autonomy I have in my profession, how organized my fellow education workers are, and that fight is just part of the deal. I accept that.

Sima, Public High School in Northern California, English Teacher for 20+ Years

I was not a traditionally successful student when I was in high school.  I was a mixed race kid at a big comprehensive wealthy and white high school.  I struggled with trauma related to sexual assault and addiction.  I actually took the GED to graduate because I hated being at a school where I saw my perp everyday.  However, I was lucky to have two amazing English teachers who made a difficult four years not only bearable but worthwhile.

I say all this to frame my approach to teaching now.  I think what makes me a good teacher is that I’m an uncompromising advocate for students.  I don’t mind being “difficult” or a “bitch” when working with adults who are not putting kids at the center, even if they are well meaning.  Adult fragility — similar to white fragility — in the face of unequal education systems, just really riles me up.  

I reflect back to students that I see them and that I will fight for them.  I do this in my feedback on their work.  I also do this through my class structure, texts, curriculum and choice of assignments.  Finally, I do this by developing relationships that are long-lasting.  I tell students I am their school mom and most believe me.  I cultivate a role that is relentlessly positive when it comes to the kids, particularly in this remote environment: I believe in you. I know you may be having a bad day; I know that your wifi is shitty and your mom just got COVID and you’re probably not in the greatest position to learn anything new at this moment, but I’m really glad you are on this call. 

The conversations about re-opening and getting back into the classroom are never actually about what’s really the issue: we have no control and we are scared.  There are systems (like education) that have worked fairly well for some and now, those systems aren’t working very well for anyone.  Instead of actually trying to rethink the systems, there’s a push to reopen.  That push is implicitly not about redesigning a broken system, it’s about re-establishing a status quo.  The voices of those who really matter are still not at the center of the conversation.

With that said, almost all the teachers I know, across three districts, have now received their first dose of a vaccine.  This feels significant, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that this has been a year unequaled in its challenges.

Lily, Public Middle School in a Large East Coast City, Science Teacher for 10+ Years

My eyes hurt constantly. I'm tired all the time, physically and emotionally. I can barely concentrate on any one thing at a time, because I have two monitors and a million tabs open. Managing online class on your own as a teacher is like the Wild West. (Have you noticed when adults are running a Zoom meeting, there's often one facilitator leading, one monitoring the chat, and one dealing with various tech issues? Teachers are doing all of that at once.) I cried the night before a holiday break ended, because I knew I had to go back to work. I haven't dreaded going back to work since I was a first-year teacher. In a lot of ways, I feel like a first-year teacher again. 

Every other day I find myself Googling new jobs outside of the teaching profession. I am so, so tired. Before Covid, I figured that I would be teaching for the rest of my life; now, I feel like I might barely make it 10 years. And it's a damn shame, because I'm good at what I do. In order for the profession to survive, teachers need to be treated like respected professionals, with salaries to match. We need to elect political representatives who support education and who actually listen to educators, instead of people who haven't taught in years, or only taught for two years. And we absolutely need strong unions.  

Teachers are going to quit, in droves, at the end of this year. The endless work with little payoff or recognition, the political tug-of-war that has been school re-openings, the decision to still pursue federal standardized testing this year, the vitriol being flung at us — it's just too much. I got into this work because I believe in the transformative power of public education, and because I love the creativity and energy of young adults. I did not sign up to be a sacrifice, or a scapegoat.  

Mike, Public Urban High School in Texas, 12+ Years as an English Teacher

The roll-out of remote learning in my district was a mess; parents were justifiably unhappy and demanded more out of the online content. The grace that had been extended to parent-teachers like myself dried up in the fall and I was being asked to be on Zoom calls from 8 am to 4 pm every day. I'd been moved to a new grade-level and was struggling to convert the curriculum to remote lessons for the beginning of the year, and my colleagues were growing impatient with my parenting responsibilities. My wife and I finally found a nanny-share we could afford, but the nanny got Covid-19 the weekend before we were set to begin. I didn't realize how much I'd been relying on the promise of childcare to get through the beginning of the year until our plans changed. 

I had two panic attacks that week. I managed the first, but during the second--when my daughter refused to get off the toilet while I was supposed to be in a planning meeting — I ran into the hallway and kicked a laundry basket, breaking it to pieces. I'd managed to hide my anxiety-fueled rage from my daughter but hadn't seen my dog lying next to the basket. My dog and I had been inseparable for eight years, and suddenly he didn't want to be in the same room as me. It was at that moment that I knew I had to quit.

The fact is, we were set up to be fucked over from the very beginning. The Trump administration could not have put up a more feckless defense against the pandemic and provided laughable guidance throughout their too-long tenure. This impotence trickled down to our state administration, on to the Texas Education Agency, and eventually to my administration, which I generally appreciated prior to the pandemic. It was like no one understood how difficult it was to do the job we were being asked to do, especially for the parents who had to teach while also caring for their children. Every day our leaders, from Donald Trump to my principal, implored us to stay positive, that we would get through this, that we had what it took. Soon, the toxic positivity became too much for me. I lost faith in every leader above me, and I don't know if that trust is likely to come back any time soon.

I knew I was good at my job, yet I would never be as good as I could be because I'd been set up to fail. The work was too hard, the load too heavy. I worked tirelessly to improve my craft, only to be saddled with added burdens that made me less effective. Added to this, due to inflation and skyrocketing housing costs, I effectively made less money in my last year as a teacher than my first (no, the $300-500 added to my annual salary did not make buying a house any easier). 

I consistently self-administered the Professional Quality of Life Measure to gauge my levels of burnout and compassion fatigue, so I was able to observe my growing discontent. Even before the pandemic, I had experienced high levels of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. It occurred to me that I was running out of gas, and no matter how good I was at my job or how much I cared about my students and their community, I was growing less effective.

I have always found TNTP's "The Widget Effect" report compelling because it argues that teachers are not treated like capable individuals but rather interchangeable "widgets" meant to serve a standardized task. The fact is that strong teachers like myself and so many people I had the pleasure to work with can have an immense impact on students' lives, but public education is not set up to recognize and promote strong teachers. We're left relying on guilt and martyrdom to keep the best teachers in the classroom. When teachers eventually do burn out, they are replaced by another widget. My principals consistently told me that I was becoming a master teacher, yet I felt like I was terrible at my job. The more I realized that it was the job and not me, the more demoralized I became. 

After suffering from my second panic attack in as many days, I messaged an assistant principal to let her know that I'd be shutting down my computer and phone and taking a mental health day. After a few hours, I'd managed to calm down enough to turn on my phone, and I called a few friends from work to let them know I was okay. All of them told me they also had suffered from panic attacks in the past and that the anxiety had grown worse; several would confide similar stories in me over the coming days.

I decided to quit that day and immediately it was like a 10,000-pound weight had been taken off my chest. I know that is cliche, but I don't know how else to describe it. I felt born-again in a way. I knew there would be a lot of guilt and regret, but eventually my dog would let me pet him and my daughter still thinks I'm a superhero. I miss the work, truly, but I was tired of trading my mental health for a meager paycheck and the promise of making a difference. ●

Things I Read and Loved/Found Compelling This Week:

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