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Burnout, Demoralization or Disrespect?

Given the deep dissatisfaction amongst many teachers, school leaders are wise in trying to address the vital issue of staff morale. We know that many teachers are experiencing dissatisfaction and this is impacting on staff morale, retention of great teachers and attracting people to take on the challenges of teaching. However, like doctors, we must be careful to look for the true source of the problem in order to properly treat it. A headache can be caused by many things, from dehydration to concussion, but the remedies will be very different for those problems. Similarly, we need to identify the basis of teacher dissatisfaction so it can be treated appropriately.

I recently had the great pleasure of working with Gabbie Stroud (author of the insightful best selling book “Teacher – one woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching”). I found Gabbie’s memoir to be an awesome and eye opening read that I would highly recommend. Gabbie and I presented keynotes and workshops at the Festival of Teaching in Darwin recently. In discussions with Gabbie about our shared concern for the teaching profession, she brought to my attention the work of Doris Santoro, “Is it Burnout? Or Demoralization?”

The word “burnout” is commonly used to explain the dissatisfaction experienced teachers’ feel about their work and their subsequent departure from the profession. The word suggests a flame extinguished—that teachers have exhausted their personal resources and have nothing left to offer. According to Santoro, when we say a teacher has “burned out,” we suggest that there is something wrong with the individual. They do not have enough reserves to cope with the demands placed on them. This portrays it as a failure by the individual.

In the paper, Santoro suggests that a more accurate diagnosis may be demoralization of the profession rather than burnout. If that diagnosis is more accurate, then the remedy to address the issue is different.

Demoralization is a form of professional dissatisfaction that occurs when teachers encounter consistent and pervasive challenges to enacting the values that motivate their work (Santoro, 2018a).

Teachers who experience demoralization believe that the school practices or policy mandates that they are expected to follow are harmful to students or degrading to the profession and that their attempts to alter them have been fruitless. Demoralization is a moral type of dissatisfaction that needs to be understood as a problem of professional ethics.

According to Santoro the following kinds of situations may exacerbate teacher demoralization:

  • Failing to meet students’ learning needs due to a scripted curriculum or mandated textbook.
  • Following school practices that increasingly focus on academic achievement, even though students arrive at school with profound emotional needs.
  • Witnessing students feel worthless as schools are graded, ranked, and closed.
  • Being pressured by school leaders to pass students so schools can improve publicly available graduation rates.
  • Witnessing school leaders’ rejection of teacher expertise and initiative in favor of adopting expensive products and services that yield dubious results.
  • Observing the increasing use of alternative and fast-track licensure programs that degrade and deprofessionalize teaching.

The diagnosis of demoralization characterises the problem as a value conflict experienced as a result of policies, mandates and school practices. In this diagnosis the individual teacher has not failed. In demoralization, experienced educators understand that they are facing a conflict between their vision of good work and their teaching context (Santoro, 2018a). The values that teachers bring to the work (serving students and their communities, upholding the dignity of the profession) are still worthwhile, but are being thwarted by the conditions in which they work.

According to Santoro, by responding as if teacher dissatisfaction is the individual’s problem, school leaders can make the problem even worse and repel some of the strongest and most dedicated experienced teachers in their buildings.

However, I’d argue that there is a third diagnosis – Disrespect. Teachers and schools are easy targets for blame. The level of respect for the teaching profession has declined in the last two decades. Where parents should be partnering with the school and their child’s teacher many are now taking an adversarial role and attacking the school and teachers. In my opinion they are too quick to point the finger and lay blame. The media’s coverage of the recently released NAPLAN results are a prime example.

I have witnessed the tireless efforts of schools across Australia to improve the literacy and numeracy outcomes of their students. The focus on literacy and numeracy in the past ten years since NAPLAN was introduced has been very sharp with other areas of the curriculum receiving less emphasis as a result. I was shocked to see that according to the media results across Australia have not improved over 10 years.

Perhaps the efforts of schools in the past 10 years to maintain the ‘standard’ is hiding the issue of children not being ‘ready’ for school and busy parents not reading with their children.

Many schools are reporting that the oral language development of children entering school is very low. It has been suggested that this may be as a result of the iphone generation of parents. Instead of talking with their baby or toddler, many parents are on the phones, checking facebook. Without the basics of oral language, literacy development is hampered. Research indicates that it is VERY hard to close this gap when it emerges.

I’m looking forward to Gabbie Stroud’s next book where she writes an open letter to the parents of Australia…. that should make an interesting read!