America’s Teachers Aren’t Burned Out. We Are Demoralized.
As a teacher, I felt fortunate. The first job I took in Chicago Public Schools in 2007 was at a school where the administration truly valued student and staff input. I remember sitting with students as we interviewed potential new teachers and the students saying things like, “This teacher doesn’t seem like they will be a good fit for our school family.”
The entire school staff worked incredibly hard to give our students every opportunity possible. The issue was that our school (like many across the country) did not have the resources it needed. We watched our already thin school budget be decimated by more budget cuts. We let go of administrators, counselors, librarians and teachers.
The reduction in school staff immediately impacted the students. They lost supportive adults who had built relationships with them. The inequity in the system was tragic and profound. As educators, we would tell our students they could become anything, while simultaneously teaching them in a school building that had no soap in the bathrooms, broken computers and a nurse for half a day, only on Fridays. We fought for more for our students and watched as our mayoral controlled school district refused to provide more funding, and instead returned with the decision to close the school. All of this was demoralizing.
These last two school years have been even tougher. Tougher for parents, for students and for educators. We’ve experienced a historic presidential election, an uprising to bring about racial justice, an attempted coup and a debate on whether schools are even a safe place to be during a pandemic. Educators were caught smack in the middle of all of this, hoping that our students and their families, as well as our own, were safe and healthy. Trying to help our students make sense of this world while we’re still figuring it out has been exhausting.
Often in education we hear that teachers are burned out, but that isn’t quite accurate. As teacher demoralization expert Doris Santoro says, “burnout tells the wrong story about the kinds of pain educators are experiencing because it suggests that the problem lies within individual teachers themselves.” Those outside education assume that the teacher can’t hack it in the classroom. But in reality, teachers are forced to operate in systems that aren’t functioning properly, which makes teachers feel demoralized, discouraged and overwhelmed. According to Santoro, demoralization occurs because teachers “care deeply about students and the profession, and they realize that school policies and conditions make it impossible for them to do what is good, right and just.”
As a 15-year educator in Chicago Public Schools, let me explain what demoralization looks like:
- Losing more students to various forms of gun violence than years I’ve been teaching, and being told educators are greedy for demanding more counselors, social workers, therapists, clinicians and psychologists for our students. Every day, as a 40-year-old, I struggle with these losses and imagine what it’s like for the 14-year-olds I teach.
- Watching 7-year-olds on a school night in February plead with school officials to not close their school.
- Watching parents and community members go on a 34 day hunger strike just to get a school open.
- Having to tape down broken asbestos tiles on our floor so the students and staff don’t breathe in a carcinogen.
- Supporting students who want to speak up and out, only to be told we are indoctrinating students who dare to challenge the status quo.
- Dealing with all these inequalities while trying to teach through a pandemic.
To survive in systems like Chicago, or anywhere really, educators eventually realize they need to control what we can, which is what happens inside our classrooms. We have kids sit in circles and talk about novels they read. We have debates about current events, we do amazing experiments and solve formulas. Students perform concerts and showcase their art. We form meaningful relationships with our students as we get to know each other over the year we spend together. We laugh with and at our students, and learn to laugh when they make fun of us.
But during all of those amazing days we also try to ignore that it’s only 60 degrees in our classroom in the dead of winter or that it’s over 90 degrees in our rooms in the summer. We try to ignore the mold in the ceiling tiles, the windows that don’t open, the blinds that broke and have not been repaired, ever, and the floors that haven’t been swept because every custodian has quit. Some days it just seems easier to work in a cubicle where at least the air conditioning works.
We try to ignore all of that so we can just teach. But no matter how hard we try we can’t help but see the inequities, the injustice, the hypocrisy in our education system.
We went from being heroes and essential workers during the spring of 2020 to being viewed as babysitters by politicians around the country. We fight for student safety and we are told to get back in the building, ironically by people working remotely. We challenge our students to question and are told we are indoctrinating them with “critical race theory.” We are plied with guilt and encouraged to normalize choosing our students over our own families and our own lives. Our love of students is regularly abused. We are pitted against each other by administrators or district heads who use terms like “super teachers” for some and “hell raisers” for others. We grow so demoralized and dispirited that some educators lose hope and motivation; they become so empty that they start to think teachers should go back to only worrying about our pay and benefits. That fighting for the common good of our students is too difficult to even think about.
All of this is intentional on the part of our school systems and those controlling them. All of this is demoralizing. We love teaching, we love students. All we want is a true say in how our schools are run.
Right now the educators may be in one of the greatest exoduses in history. Educators are leaving, and they will continue to leave in record numbers. Teachers will either leave silently or will leave fighting. We will be thanked for our service and left to rebuild our professional lives.
Some think tanks will try to replace us with some fast tracked program like Teach For America, only to watch them leave in faster time than educators who’ve been called to this profession, who are committed to honing our craft and improving year after year.
Educators know that bargaining for the common good, working with other organizations and advocacy groups who think about all parts of our students’ lives is what gives us hope. The late Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis taught us to bargain for the common good and to realize we are the experts.
We want community run schools, where the voices of parents, students, educators and administrators all matter. We want elected school boards and an end to mayoral controlled school districts. We want time to plan and to collaborate. We want equitable funding for our schools. We want to stop wasting our own time creating DonorsChoose projects to compensate for the ridiculous lack of funding our schools receive.
We want policy that actually shows that our students matter. But here’s the thing: We want to be a part of all of this work. We have the expertise, the experience, the degrees, the certifications upon certifications. We know how schools work. This is how we can attract teachers and re-energize the experts that we do have.
America’s educators aren’t burned out. We are demoralized.
The solution lies in understanding the difference.