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Is It Burnout or Demoralization?

The word ‘burnout’ is commonly used to explain the dissatisfaction of experienced teachers and their subsequent departure from the profession. The term “burnout” suggests a flame that is extinguished – that teachers have exhausted their personal resources and have nothing left to over.

However, in a recent article in Educational Leadership, Doris A Santoro challenges whether it is burnout that is causing the dissatisfaction of many of the staff who work in schools. Quoting her 10 years of research Santoro notes that the reason may be more pervasive than burnout: demoralization.

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, 2018).

Teachers who experience demoralization believe that the policy mandates that they are expected to follow are harmful to the students and not aligned with their personal values and beliefs. The issue is one of professional ethics. Demoralization reaches its peak when teachers believe that they are violating basic expectations that educators should embody: Do no harm to students, support student learning and engage in professional behaviour.

Whilst there is much research to support that many teachers are dissatisfied, we can not conclusively say that the problem is burnout per se. We know that teachers are experiencing dissatisfaction (Keigher, 2010), but, 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 a concussion but the remedies will be very different for those problems. Similarly, school leaders need to get to the root of teacher dissatisfaction so it can be diagnosed and treated properly.

When it is said that a teacher has “burned out,” we suggest that there is something wrong with the individual. We imply that teachers come to the profession with a finite amount of personal and professional resources. The logic of burnout suggests that if these resources were not in abundance or were not properly conserved, then they will dry up and the teacher will have nothing left to give. The remedy for burnout would therefore focus on building a greater reserve or preserving what we have. This can be achieved through supporting the individual’s well-being and providing a school culture that supports them to do their best work and utilise their reserves efficiently.

However, a diagnosis of demoralization characterises the problem as a value conflict experienced as a result of policies and mandates that teachers feel powerless to influence. The individual teacher has not failed, there is a conflict between their values and beliefs and what they perceive they are being asked to do.

Santoro suggests the following strategies for responding thoughtfully to teacher’s moral concerns:

  • Facilitating discussions about what good teaching entails. Learn what staff members believe supports them or prevents them from engaging in good teaching.
  • Becoming curious about teachers’ resistance. School leaders can find out about the principles that guide teachers’ work in these conversations.
  • Inviting teachers to develop proposals to resolve or address value conflicts in their work.
  • Separating government imposed initiatives into three categories: nonnegotiable, desirable, and better-off-ignored. Protect teachers from unnecessary new initiatives. Sustain focus on the initiatives that advance the goals and mission of the school. Communicate the relationship between the mission and goals to the expectations you have for staff.
  • Sharing responsibility for difficult decisions with teachers (for instance, passing or suspending students). Avoid passing the buck.
  • Instituting exit interviews and collecting data on why teachers leave a school or district.