Many Frustrated Teachers Say It’s Not Burnout — It’s Demoralization
A few years ago, Chrissy Romano-Arribito began to experience something that may sound familiar to a lot of teachers: burnout. Or not burnout, exactly, but demoralization.
Romano-Arribito is an EdSurge columnist and has spent about 27 years in the classroom teaching everything from first grade to middle school in her home state of New Jersey. But while teaching middle school a few years ago, she began to feel the squeeze from high stakes testing, administrator turnover and battles over curriculum scripting. It was making it hard for her to do good work. Worse, it began sapping her love of teaching.
“I did get to a point where I saw that the kids were coming in and their love of reading and writing was just slowly going out the door,” she says. “They were just coming in and sitting down, reluctantly opening up their books. But I felt the same way.”
Experts like Bowdoin College education chair Doris Santoro, author of the book “Demoralized,” define the concept in moral terms. According to Santoro, almost all teachers have moral reasons for getting into the profession. But systemic pressures, such as top-down initiatives or punitive evaluation systems, can deplete teacher autonomy. As a result, teachers may feel they can no longer tap into what “makes their work morally good,” she says. They can start to feel frustrated or ashamed of the work they’re doing.
In short, they no longer feel like they can be good teachers.
Santoro and Romano-Arribito, along with teacher Danielle Arnold-Schwartz, join us this week on the EdSurge podcast to discuss the serious impacts of demoralization—and also whether it can be overcome.
The U.S. in the midst of a growing teacher shortage, which according to researchers at the Economic Policy Institute is only getting bigger. By some estimates there are as many as 100,000 job vacancies for qualified teachers going unfilled. Today, there are more teachers leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement compared with the 1980s. To some experts, at least part of that retention crisis is caused by teacher dissatisfaction—which is also on the rise. And demoralization could be a serious contributing factor.
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“Some sort of dissatisfaction is the major source of why teachers leave the profession,” Santoro says. “So I’m going to say that if a major source of teachers entering the profession is because of moral reasons, a significant number of those are going to be leaving for moral reasons as well.”
Demoralization is systemic—meaning teachers really don’t have control over it. It can feel like new rules are supplanting the old order, which makes good, moral teaching more difficult or even impossible.
“I think demoralization happens when you are in situations with chronic and ongoing conflicts, value conflicts, that you can’t resolve,” Santoro says.
A few years ago, Pennsylvania teacher Danielle Arnold-Schwartz wasn’t feeling burned out per-se, but she was getting frustrated with what she calls “corporate education reform,” which to her includes things like pointless new jargon and changes to the teacher evaluation system that she says was more like a checklist than a conversation with the principal. But being in the suburbs, it felt to her more like a creep than an outright deluge.
When asked to describe what demoralization feels like, she says it was actually something of a relief when she discovered the concept—almost like giving it a name and a definition allowed her to start addressing it.
“The best way I could describe it is like I was going through all of the stages of mourning, and I felt like I was walking around with a weight on my shoulders when I was at work,” she says.
“I couldn’t shake it—and you know, the stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. So I’m still fighting the good cause. I really believe in public education and haven’t given up quite yet. But there’s an acceptance that I don't have the control.”
For Chrissy Romano-Arribito, the issues leading to demoralization were simple enough to name: testing and curriculum. She says she loved working in elementary school but the switch to middle school was tough. She had taught younger grades before with end-of-year tests, and while it was stressful it didn’t rise to the same level. Looking back, the earliest flags of demoralization, she says, came from her school’s administration.
“It was a great atmosphere in the first year or two, but then there started to be a turnover in the administration,” she says. “It was just this constant turnover of administrators. And that really took its toll on the culture and climate and morale in the building.”
Romano-Arribito says the school climate was also roiled by a rigid adherence to scoring well on the end-of-year test. And that began to crowd out what makes teaching special for her, which is engaging students in learning, making it fun and getting to know her students as individuals. But that was getting harder and harder for her to do.
“Everything that we did was focused on the test, so that surely is demoralizing,” she says.
That’s when she says students began losing their love of reading and writing, which really saddened her. Her response was to go to bat for her students. She thought back to how she reacted when her own children were younger—when she would review their projects and their connection to state standards and take her concerns directly to teachers and administrators. And she thought her students deserved an advocate who would fight for them just as hard—even if it put her at odds with her school leaders.
After years of requests, she received a transfer to an elementary school, where she now teaches second grade. She loves second grade and has fully thrown herself into the challenge, tapping into the second grade teaching community on Instagram along the way.
But becoming a re-moralized teacher isn’t always so straightforward, and switching grades or schools might not always solve the problem. In response, Santoro created what she calls a “menu” of options teachers might explore for reconnecting with their moral centers and making changes. Among her suggestions are getting involved in leadership roles in local teachers unions or in politics; writing or working to galvanize parents and inform them of structural issues that make teaching and learning hard; and carving out new positions, either in or adjacent to the classroom where there’s a need.
Another piece of advice: Connect with people who are feeling like you are, and who want to make change. Even before her transfer, Romano-Arribito began attending Edcamps, which are impromptu educator conferences that encourage organic discussion. She made new friends on social media and began meeting teachers from across New Jersey for Sunday coffee. Now she believes in the power of surrounding herself with positive people.
To Santoro, who spoke with more than a dozen educators for her book, these efforts at remoralization are a good sign. But she says the fact that there’s a need for them in the first place is “heartbreaking.”
“It makes me really angry that people with this degree of talent and energy and passion are being stymied in this way,” she says. “It makes me worried as a teacher educator about sending new, talented teachers out into this environment, but at the same time, I have a lot of hope from speaking with these folks.”
For a more detailed discussion of demoralization and how to fight it, check out the audio version of this article, part of the EdSurge podcast.