Teacher demoralization and teacher burnout: why the distinction matters, by Doris Santoro

Creative Commons image by Flickr user cybrarian77

Which are you: burnt-out or demoralized? What’s the difference?  In my American Journal of Education article Good Teaching in Difficult Times: Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work*, I render a distinction between the concepts of teacher burnout and teacher demoralization.  Why aren’t these fine-grained and esoteric musings of a philosopher of education?  I believe the answer lies in the fact that these characterizations of teachers matter.  They matter in terms of what we presume the problem of teachers to be and how we then go about addressing it.  Burnout, I argue, rests on a highly personal psychological characterization of teachers and their challenges where demoralization hinges on how the work of teaching itself has changed.  Burnout suggests remedies that lie in treating the individual teacher while demoralization calls for an assessment of how good work can or cannot be realized in the profession.  Demoralization demands a collective and structural response rather than an individual one.

I make a distinction between demoralization and burnout primarily in terms of cause.  The effects – apathy, bitterness, depression, exhaustion, isolation – may, in fact, look remarkably similar.  Burnout is studied most frequently by psychologists who examine how an individual’s personality, physical and mental health, and coping strategies help to manage stress.  Burnout tends to be characterized as a natural by-product of teaching in demanding schools and leaves the problem of burnout as an issue of teacher personality and/or naiveté. Burnout is characterized as a failure of individual teachers to conserve their personal store of resources.

In demoralization, the resources – what I term the moral rewards of teaching, are embedded in the work itself.  Demoralization, as I describe it, occurs when the job changes to such a degree that what teachers previously found good about their work is no longer available.  Moral rewards are what bring many of us to teaching: finding ways to connect meaningfully with students, designing lessons that address students’ needs, using our talents to improve the lives of others.  When teachers feel they no longer find these kinds of moral rewards in their work, I call that demoralization.  It is more than just sadness or a sense of defeat, but a sense that the moral dimension of the work is foreclosed due to conditions that affect their teaching directly.

To avoid burnout, self-care and good boundaries are essential.  However, I would like to see teachers resist the label of burnout  if what they are really experiencing is demoralization due to systemic changes in the work.

Certainly, there are teachers who experience burnout.  They may not be fit for work that exposes the self to scrutiny each and every minute of the day.  They may subscribe to a misguided hero-mentality that positions them as the saviors of students and fail to preserve their own well-being.  Working for years in a toxic and unsupportive environment can lead to the erosion of personal resources in even the most hardy teacher. These are real conditions, and I do not want to dismiss them.

However, demoralization focuses on how we structure the work of teaching for teachers to find good within it.  For instance, many teachers reap moral rewards when they develop responsive lessons that connect subject matter with their students.  In this case the moral rewards may be attending to students’ academic, psychological and social needs or drawing on their knowledge of a subject to make it come alive for students.  When that source of moral reward (e.g., designing lessons) is supplanted with, say, scripted curriculum, teachers lose access to a vehicle to moral rewards.  Teachers may feel guilty, depressed, and exhausted. This is not burnout, a failure to conserve personal resources, but an inability to access the good in their work due to the way the work is structured.

To avoid burnout, self-care and good boundaries are essential.  However, I would like to see teachers resist the label of burnout  if what they are really experiencing is demoralization due to systemic changes in the work.  Demoralization indicates a problem with the profession and practitioners collectively can call attention to the ways in which the work is changing.  Demoralization is not a personal problem, so it cannot be avoided individually.  Naming and resisting policies that impede doing good work need to be addressed collectively and structurally.  There is no shame in demoralization – it is the work that has changed, not the failure of an individual to tough it out.  Teachers can ask themselves, colleagues, school leaders, policy makers, parents, whoever will listen: How are we able to access the moral rewards of our work?  What do we need to do to “remoralize” our teaching?

* http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/662010

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