Discerning Teacher Challenges: Demoralization versus Burnout

After musing last weekend about teacher burnout, Marin Luther’s spiritual reformation, and Dilbert, I’ve come to realize the importance of discerning demoralization from burnout. Doris A. Santoro’s “The problem with stories about teacher ‘burnout’” provides this helpful distinction: Burnout suggests that a teacher has nothing more to give. However, teachers whom I would characterize as demoralized were most frustrated because they could not teach the way they believed was right.” As educators, we need to think more about this distinction and its relevance for current personal, professional, and public challenges.

Santoro’s article and her book Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay should be required reading and discussion for teachers, administrators, school board members, university education departments, and state education departments.

As alluded to in my previous post, I’ve been trying to use self-care strategies to help me recover the courage to teach. I was quite annoyed by a recent district PD event in which the keynote speaker admonished us to drink more water, make playlists, and watch funny movie clips.

In contrast, Santoro’s article provides me with a hyperbolic insight into my frustrations and my real problem: “Better hydration would not address the pain of the patient hit in the head by an anvil. Likewise, the proposed remedies for burnout (self-care, boundaries, resilience) are unlikely to alleviate the pain of demoralization.”

That helps me realize that my problem is actually a moral conflict over the pressures of what good teaching, learning, and a teacher’s self-concept should look like. Santoro notes that “[d]emoralization is a professional problem, not a personal one. It arises due to the context and conditions of the work, rather than with deficiencies in the individual teacher.” So, recommending more self-care strategies to demoralized teachers may be more akin to gaslighting than to supporting teachers.

Not only is morale part of demoralization but so is morality. The issue of demoralization is not merely psychological but moral and ethical. The essential nature of this problem invites some serious ethical and moral deliberation between teachers, administrators, other educational leaders, and policymakers. In practical terms, the consequences of neglecting such deliberations involve losing many teachers who are experienced, responsible, knowledgeable, and skilled. (I know that I’ve been looking more intently at the retirement chart in light of my own cumulative experiences with demoralization.)

To some extent, I think younger teachers (and teachers with family obligations) are more likely to encounter burnout and need good strategies for balance and boundaries, while older teachers are more likely to experience demoralization and need room to negotiate priorities that focus on what we’ve discovered to be essential for good teaching and learning work.

There seems to be a wide range of contributors to teacher demoralization, even though a commonly cited influence is too much focus on standardized testing. My own experience is that standardized testing can help focus school leaders on making literacy a priority, a priority that I’ve noticed fading in the wake of COVID conditions. For me at least, deemphasizing (or poorly approaching) literacy goes with demoralization.

Reconsidering Dilbert’s relevance to education, the corporate world has further connections to issues of demoralization. This morning, I was rereading Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft in search of some of his insights about demoralization in the context of corporate knowledge work and management.

Sure enough, Crawford surfaces the challenges against moral clarity that I think many administrators face:

"Managers may continue to have strong convictions, but they are obliged to check them at the door, and expect others to do the same. '[ M] oral viewpoints threaten others within an organization by making claims on them that might impede their ability to read the drift of social situations'" (140). 

Crawford implies that such moral driftiness can get exacerbated by the abstractions of knowledge work. A manager, therefore, is not an ethical or moral leader of the organization but is more focused on appeasing conflicting interests, keeping up attractive appearances, and managing the metrics of the organization to show some sort of profit or progress. In discussing this, Crawford references Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, and a perusal of that text helped me have a bit more compassion for the image-management challenges that corporate managers and school administrators face.

Sometimes it helps to realize that it’s not just you and you’re not just crazy–at least not because you’re lacking self-care skillfulness. Rather than mere self-care strategies, I suspect that many teachers need re-moralized in the face of our demoralizing situations. For me, some re-moralization comes with getting clarity on what the essential problem is that I’m facing. Re-moralization also comes from sharing that clarity with fellow strugglers and listening to the shared pain and frustration that comes from educators who care deeply about sharing the grace of great things.

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