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143: What we can do about Teacher Demoralization, with Doris Santoro

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This year has not been kind to teachers. After a surge in gratitude and trust at the beginning of the pandemic, and talk of creative education reform, this year has brought intense pressure towards educators. Pressure to somehow force things back to normal, and myriad new responsibilities and requests alongside less trust instead of more.

So many experienced, creative teachers are asking themselves if it’s time to leave the profession. And administrative calls for teachers to participate in more “self-care” are not helping. Because in most cases, teachers are not experiencing emotional and physical exhaustion due to a lack of personal boundaries, a lack of mindfulness, or a lack of desire to take care of themselves. And while activities like meditation and exercise might help a bit, they are not really the solution to the larger problems facing the world of education.

My guest for the podcast today, Doris Santoro, of Bowdoin College, is here to talk about what she calls teacher demoralization, a different way of looking at what is so often labeled “teacher burnout.” In this episode, you’ll find out how demoralization might be playing a role in your own life in teaching right now, why it’s completely different than burnout, with different kinds of solutions, and more importantly, how to start moving toward those solutions.

You can listen in on the podcast player below, or on your favorite podcast player.

How it all began

Years ago Doris Santoro worked with an excellent teacher, Lisa. Lisa was a successful, experienced educator, who one day sent out a letter to her colleagues letting them know why she was leaving teaching. And it wasn’t because she was frustrated with her students, or unsuccessful in the classroom. It was because she felt the system wasn’t allowing her to serve her students.

This reason didn’t match the traditional research about why teachers leave the profession, and it got Doris thinking. How many other teachers were frustrated with their work or actually leaving for the same reasons as Lisa?

Teacher Demoralization is often Confused with Burnout

Teacher demoralization can look a lot like burnout – a teacher might feel exhausted or depressed as a result. But the causes are very different. In the traditional narrative, a burned out teacher has nothing left to offer. Because they didn’t have boundaries or didn’t practice enough self-care, they gave everything to their work and now have nothing left to give. While this can happen, many experienced, successful teachers who love their work are actually demoralized, not burned out. They’ve got plenty to give, they know what they need to do, they can simply no longer do their work the way it needs to be done.

Doris’s research is based on the concept of “Good Work,” where ethics and excellence meet. In this conception of good work, work fulfills a social function and is done in an ethical way recognized by a professional community. In cases of demoralization, teachers have a clear sense for what good work could be, but they are not able to enact it. They experience persistent, chronic conflicts over being able to do their good work that seem insurmountable.

Is any of this sounding familiar to you?

Self Care Strategies can’t help with Demoralization

While strategies like mindfulness, meditation, gratitude, and exercise are wonderful, helpful strategies in life, demoralization cannot be solved in the internal self. It’s about external problems. Getting a massage can’t solve those external problems. Traditional self-care strategies all presume that something needs healing or fixing inside the teacher, and reversing demoralization is not an inside job. It’s actually a call for policies outside the teacher to shift.

As Doris says, “To look at people and say ‘the way to fix what you’re feeling is to meditate more’ is incredibly insulting and frustrating.”

Focusing the problems onto teachers in this way, as if self-care would make all the difference, can actually contribute to attrition in the profession. This is compounded by the fact that the teaching profession is heavily female, and there is a common refrain toward women that “the problem is you, fix yourself.” This common narrative is not helping anyone. “We can do a lot of damage suggesting that this is an inside job,” say Doris.

Moral Blackmail

Have you ever been told that if you really cared about your students, you would do what the system tells you to do and not what you know is right? Having to choose between what they know to be helpful to students and what the newest highly paid consultant wth “research-based strategies” and “evidence-based curricula” is touting is a common problem for teachers. Resisting new policies at the school puts teachers in a bind, as leaders may then imply that they don’t really want their students to succeed, rather than viewing teaching as a highly relational practice and respecting teachers’ intuition and experience.

Read more: Cassandra in the Classroom: Teaching and Moral Madness

Moving toward Remoralization

The metaphor of burnout is so disheartening. If you think of a candle burning down to the bottom, there is simply nothing left. But with demoralization, the problem so many teachers are experiencing, it is possible to move through the issues and experience remoralization. Demoralization doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

Through the course of her research, Doris and the experienced teachers she worked with were able to identify five core categories for remoralization. For every educator, there are different combinations that will feel right – depending on so many factors in your life and work. You can access these strategies according to your own interests, gifts, and needs.

#1 Professional Community: Are you connected to people who share your values? Having a community of people who feel the same way you do about teaching (though you won’t always agree about everything) and are on the same path to find solutions can make a big impact in how you feel about your work. This community can be online or off, but it usually won’t be the mandatory PLC assigned to you at your school.

#2 Voice: Are you writing or speaking about what matters to you in your work? Maybe you start a blog to help parents in your area, get going on a professional Twitter account, launch a teaching website, write letters to the editor or the school board, or speak at school board or union meetings. You can raise your voice anonymously or publicly.

#3 Activism: Moving into an activist role puts you in a more public role than raising your voice in writing. If you’re ready for that, activism can be a satisfying way to try to help change a system that is not working for you and your students.

#4 Teacher Leadership: Would you like to create community for others? This could look like gathering a group at your school to talk about issues or pedagogies that matter to you, or starting one online.

#5 Student-Centered Action: This could look like making choices that you know are in your kids’ best interests, and then either speaking up about them to help create change, or simply checking the boxes of what’s required as quickly as possible so you can move on to what really matters in your classroom.

As you consider which of these steps might help you toward remoralization, Doris suggests it’s worth remembering that the further from community you get, the more risk you take in your action. Power in numbers matters as you stand up for your beliefs and take action.

Taking a First Step toward Remoralization

This wealth of possibilities may seem overwhelming at first. Consider this: what makes your work good? Why did you enter this work?

Say it out loud to yourself. “I love teaching when…” or “I got into teaching because…” Then say to yourself, what is one small way I can do that today? Achieve that today?

If you can’t figure it out, find a community to talk to about it with and ask them how they’re dealing with the situation and still doing that one thing that helps you love your work, or that got you into it in the first place.

Connect with Professor Doris Santoro of Bowdoin College

Professor Santoro is a philosopher of education who conducts empirical research to study and theorize about the moral and ethical sources of teacher dissatisfaction and resistance. She is a teacher educator for pre-service and experienced practitioners, and examines how norms and values are communicated in professional communities. Professor Santoro is a Senior Associate Editor for the American Journal of Education.

Connect on Twitter

Discover more of her work through her page at Bowdoin College.

Purchase the book, Demoralized: Why Teachers leave the Profession they Love and how they can Stay

Check out her recent workshop, “Educating in a Pandemic: Burnout and Demoralization”

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