Don’t Quit: Demoralization is Not Burnout

Don’t Quit: Demoralization is Not Burnout

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
Coaching Frustration with Mindfulness and Metacognition

Coaching Frustration with Mindfulness and Metacognition

Picture the scene:

A classroom full of students working on what looks like math problems. One student in the middle of the room begins to get restless. He starts making sounds of frustration. He snaps his pencil in half. The teacher recognizes the signs and becomes very authoritative and calm as she moves in to stave off the next stage. However, something sets him off before she gets there. He clears his desk with one sweep of his arm. She arrives at his desk, and he yells, “I can’t do this shit!” directly at her. Then, he quickly leaves the room. He walks into the main office and sits down. The woman at the front desk asks, “What do you need?” “Man, my teacher made me mad,” the student replies.

Now, switch gears and picture this:

You are an instructional coach observing a first-year teacher who has been complaining about a student losing his temper and “trashing the room.” The teacher is moving from student to student, giving very shallow feedback to each on how they are doing. She uses phrases like “good job” and “I’m so proud of you. Keep working!” Every once in awhile, she says, “That one’s not right, and you didn’t finish this one. I will come back in a few minutes, and I would love to see both of them done correctly.” She looks over as a young man snaps his pencil in half. She takes a deep breath. You’ve noticed the young man escalating some time ago. She starts to move toward him and is loudly trying to calm him down as she approaches. He clears his desk and yells at her that he can’t do the work, along with some profanity. He leaves the room, and the teacher goes about quietening down the remaining students. She then calls the front office to let them know that Dave has left class again. After the students have left and you are alone, the teacher bursts into tears and starts going on about how angry she is that nothing ever seems to happen to the student when he acts out like that. She says she tries to be helpful, but that he always blows up at her. She ends her rant with how teaching isn’t what she thought it would be. 


I have seen scenes like this play out in countless classrooms at both the elementary and secondary levels, including my own. After years of experience, I often can sense another person’s frustration before they even sense it within themselves. For sixteen years, I taught students with emotional/behavioral disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. There’s no way even to count how many teachers I have had to coach through their own frustration or guide them in how to address the feeling in their students.

Mindfulness and metacognition are handy tools to use, whether you are a teacher who wants to learn how to coach students through frustration or you are an instructional coach who needs to train a teacher to reduce acting out behaviors caused by frustration.

The Secret Jobs of Frustration and Anger

Frustration is an emotion I deal with every day, both within myself and with the teachers and students that I coach. I could easily choose to see frustration as a “bad” thing to push away, but then I would completely deny myself or the individual the opportunity to grow in really positive ways.

When I was going through a particularly challenging time wherein my anxiety was out of control, I found myself getting frustrated and angry often. My therapist explained that I must identify the emotion(s) behind the frustration and anger. 

Over the next nine months, through books and mindfulness practices, I would learn how to lean into the frustration, become completely mindful of what was happening around each occurrence, and apply metacognitive strategies to identify the roots and move through the frustration. 

Frustration is no longer an emotion I dread. For you see, it is a signal emotion that alerts you to pay attention to something that is going on. Frustration is the feeling of struggling to hold back another negative feeling. 

Individuals often hold back on expressing anger. Frustration then grows and can suddenly erupt into an outburst when something triggers the disruption of emotional self-regulation.

Something fundamental to note: Anger is a secondary emotion. It plays an active role in protecting the angry individual from another feeling that makes them feel more vulnerable, such as:

  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Embarrassment
  • Hurt (feeling betrayed falls in this category)
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Overwhelmedness
  • Overstimulation
  • Impatience

In the student scenario above, it stands to reason that the frustrated student was angry because he was either fearful or ashamed of his seeming inability to do math well. Additionally, he could have been embarrassed by the teacher calling him attention when he was in this state.

In the teacher scenario, her frustration and anger possibly hid that she was afraid of failing as a teacher or that she was ashamed of the anxiety she had been experiencing about coming back to work each morning for fear of how this student would behave each day.

Frustration signals that there are other negative emotions beneath it that need to be addressed to improve the situation.

Where Mindfulness and Metacognition Come In

Mindfulness practices will help you tune into the frustration at its early stages so you can identify and address the issues causing the negative feelings underneath. It will also help emotional self-regulation and other executive functions develop with practice.

Metacognition will help you to identify the path to take to address the frustration and its underlying causes. Metacognition is thinking about thinking.

For Hennessey (1999), metacognition is the 

  • “awareness of one’s own thinking, 
  • awareness of the content of one’s conception, 
  • as active monitoring of one’s cognitive processes, 
  • an attempt to regulate one’s cognitive processes in [relation] to further learning, and 
  • an application of a set of heuristics as an effective device for helping people organize their methods of attacks in general.”

To coach any individual through frustration to decisive action, is a simple process in theory. Remember, however, that the frustration you are seeing could either be from or cause a series of patterned behaviors that may be difficult and time-consuming to change. For example, procrastination, work avoidance, and lashing out can all develop because of poorly addressed frustration.

One Process That Has Been Successful for Me

  • After an episode of frustration, guide the individual (or yourself) to process through the emotions of frustration and anger using metacognitive strategies to identify the negative feeling(s) driving them. This phase will take a lot of active listening or deep introspection (listening to your thoughts as you ask yourself questions). 
  • Metacognition strategies for young students are foundational.
  • Here, use mindfulness practices to calm the nervous system and lead to clearer thinking.
  • Use reflective questions that are invitational to activate metacognition during this process. These types of questions help the individual go beyond reflection into problem-solving.
  • Support the further development of mindfulness practices so the individual can become more aware of when frustration is rising. Once they establish this awareness, they can begin to apply de-escalation strategies and the ideas that came out of their problem-solving stage. 

With this approach, the coached individual regains, retains, and develops their emotional self-regulation skills. It is a cyclical process: each time they experience frustration, they practice their mindfulness. Each time they practice mindfulness, they are able to better regulate their emotions and use metacognitive strategies to make a plan.

Their plan should begin with an analysis of what they can and cannot control. Then, they can make decisions or take advice on changes they could make and strategies they can use in those areas they can control. Continued support will likely be necessary as they change established behavior patterns and establish new, more productive ones.

Stay Tuned for Next Week…

I will cover accessible mindfulness practices for beginners and intermediate practitioners in my article next week. Please subscribe at the bottom of this page to receive future articles directly in your email in-box.

Stay mindful. Be intentional. You are not alone.

References

Hennessey, M. G. (1999). Probing the Dimensions of Metacognition Implications for Conceptual Change Teaching-Learning. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.