Year after year, I have watched my fellow teachers selflessly give drastically more of themselves than they are required to by their primary job description because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. They spend hundreds of dollars (sometimes thousands) from their own income to create safe and inviting classrooms with activities that engage the senses of their students. Many tutor students during every free moment they have before school, during their minimal lunchtime, and after school has let out. Since much of their ‘planning’ time is taken up by conferences, meetings, and completing required paperwork, they chip at their personal time to manage the tasks that are impossible to complete otherwise.
I see the same thing with school administrators who assume the stance that they be the first one in the building and the last one out (which in my experience has been most). They plan and attend an extensive amount of school activities, juggle the mandates from the district and state, and attend to the constant flow of administrative requirements. They must do this all while attending to the needs and desires of their staff. They also chip away at their personal time to accomplish the seemingly impossible tasks of an educational leader.
Educator burnout has been cited as one of the leading causes for educators leaving the profession for as long as I can remember. However, many of the colleagues I have watched leave the profession citing ‘burnout’ described something far closer to demoralization. Though, I will admit that I did not recognize it until I read Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession and How They Can Stay by Doris Santoro.
The line of teachers entering the profession has gotten shorter and shorter. Going into the COVID-19 closures, we were already in a critical, nationwide teacher shortage. Veteran teachers were already feeling the strain of teacher shortages with larger class sizes, more duties, and the near-constant need to support long-term substitutes and new-to-the-profession teachers. Alternative certification pathways are rapidly becoming a lifeline for districts as they seek to fill vacancies, especially in their higher needs schools.
We are hemorrhaging good teachers, and there is no stockpile of qualified candidates to fill the voids. We have to stop the bleeding, and that means addressing the issue of demoralization, both for ourselves and our colleagues.
Demoralization Versus Burnout
One thing that has always irritated me was the way that ‘burnout’ puts the emphasis on the shortcomings of the educator. It centralizes the blame on the struggling educator for not being able to continue in the profession due to a lack of resilience, dedication, and skill sets. It is often dismissed by citing the low pay or the demands of a culture hell-bent on maintaining a standardized testing focus. People just assumed that more teachers were coming, so those who burn out are simply absorbed into other professions as the world kept spinning.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that is most often caused by prolonged stress. Educators who feel burnout describe feeling overwhelmed, emotionally spent, and no longer able to meet the constant demands of the profession.
Demoralization looks almost identical at this point, but there is one major difference: the presence of a moral source. When faced with consistent and pervasive moral conflicts with their work, educators can begin to feel that they have no power to alter mandates they believe could be harmful to their students or staff. They watch things happen that damage and denigrate the teaching profession while feeling powerless to make positive changes.
Resist the label of ‘burnt out.’ Describe yourself as ‘demoralized.’ Don’t let people tell you [that] you are burnt out, used up, or don’t have anything left to give,” she says. “You have things to offer. And, [though] the space to offer those [things] has become winnowed to the point the practice may look unrecognizable to you, you have to make decisions about how you can find the way to broaden that aperture again and find some ways to enact what’s most important to you in teaching.”Doris Santoro ~ Philosopher of Education, Bowdoin College (and former classroom teacher)
To put this in perspective, demoralization is one of many processes used during warfare to erode morale 0n the other side and to encourage enemies to surrender or defect. It is psychologically damaging to stay in a state of demoralization for both individuals and organizations. I do not draw this comparison lightly, nor am I implying that it is being done intentionally to educators. I simply want you to understand the gravity of demoralization in order to mobilize you to action.
Causes and Effects of Demoralization
The causes leading to demoralization are a little different for everyone, but there are some overarching themes.
- Lack of workplace trust
- Ineffective or absent emotional and mental health supports
- Having no voice and choice with regard to mandates and management
- Feeling micromanaged
- Being forced to take actions while feeling morally in conflict with them, especially if your struggle is not acknowledged
- Not receiving feedback and/or appreciation
- Casual disregard of time and workload by leaders
- “Lip Service” – being asked for advice and insight with no discernible response to concerns raised
Demoralization takes time as a process. We must catch it early. Then, we should focus on how to prevent it in the first place. It is important that you recognize that feelings of powerlessness play a huge role in the development of demoralization. When dealing with someone who is showing the signs of demoralization (even if it is yourself), finding where the powerlessness stems from is crucial to identifying how to intervene and improve the situation.
Dealing with Demoralization as a Teacher
As you have been reading, you may have developed or confirmed a suspicion that you are feeling demoralized. You are not alone. Chances are you work with several colleagues who are in the same boat as you. Your bosses may even be dealing with it. In truth, much of the nation is feeling demoralized, given the absolute chaos of the pandemic and social crises in our general lives.
The members of our society will be looking for us to manage our own feelings while providing for the needs of our community’s children. That means that the education community must pull together and address demoralization as a whole. It is the only way to stop the nearly constant loss of experienced and effective teachers and educational leaders. There is no option: We have to be healthy and empowered as individuals in order to provide our students with all that they will need.
Ways to address and combat demoralization for yourself:
- Build or become part of an authentic professional community (even if you have to leave your school or even the district to find one that fits)
- Address the frustration you are feeling
- Educate your social community and seek their support
- Become your students’ ally (they are dealing with demoralization, too!)
- Practice and maintain cognitive flexibility
- Educate yourself and progress your career
- Make sure your basic and higher needs are taken care of
- Get involved in policy-making or with organizations that affect policy-making
- Act on your passions in the field (start a club, join a task force, etc.)
- Seek the support of a trained, mental health professional
- Identify ways to address the physical and mental health components of demoralization (exercise, meditation, healthy routines for sleep and eating)
- Constructively communicate your needs to your leadership
- Practice self-care as a habit
Addressing Demoralization as a Leader
While I wrote the above section focusing on teachers, school leaders are also in a precarious position to suffer the effects of demoralization. All of the suggestions for addressing it listed above apply to school administrators as well.
Please note that by creating a school environment for your teachers that has components to address and prevent demoralization, you are creating an environment that can do the same for you.
- When a teacher brings a concern to your attention, look for the deeper moral concern behind it
- Recognize that most teacher concerns revolve around three key issues: their ability to be responsive to students’ needs, their ability to meet the demands of the job (time), and things that impact their wellbeing (emotional and mental health)
- Even if you disagree with a member of your staff on issues, you can still acknowledge their concern and validate their experience
- Be the gateway for issues and initiatives that will impact your teachers. Recognize what is non-negotiable and help them navigate what can be ignored or sidelined
- Frequently meet one-on-one or in small groups with your staff to provide support and encouragement
- Nurture a school culture that champions transparency, empathy, and empowerment
- Set the expectation that teachers self-care and provide resources/time for it