How Bad Education Policies Demoralize Teachers

Our educational system has difficulty retaining teachers. Research done in 2012 found that of the 100 percent of teachers who were initially passionate about their profession, only 53 percent were able to sustain that passion by 2015. Furthermore, a separate 2012 survey found that about a third of teachers surveyed were considering leaving the profession. Anxiety abounds among teachers, highlights Ellie Herman for the Washington Post  with the constant worry about whether they are “good” or “bad” teachers. So why do teachers feel so burdened? Survey says: Demoralization.

Demoralization vs. Burnout

Doris Santoro literally wrote the book on Demoralization in teachers. In her research on teacher burnout for Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and how They Can Stay, Santoro interviewed both current teachers and teachers who left the profession across experience levels and years active. Through these interviews she discovered a more covert adversary affecting teachers: demoralization.

First, we must distinguish between demoralization and burnout. Burnout deals with an individual’s ability to handle stress. Burnout, Santoro emphasizes, is about how and if a teacher is managing themselves and their energies appropriately. It can come down to the individual and if they are effectively caring for themselves by separating work from their personal lives.

Teachers experiencing burnout, though, tend to feel that teaching itself is a very personal profession. Even so, a teacher may have the right equation for balancing work and a personal life, but may stumble when on campus. School environments are also big contributors to burnout, from negative interactions with other teachers or administrators to more straightforward sources like obsolete facilities.

Demoralization, alternatively, happens when a teacher feels that there are no longer any positives to the work that he or she is doing. This is based on the idea of what Santoro calls “moral rewards” or the satisfaction teachers experience when doing their jobs. This focuses on the effort teachers put into their work: building relationships with students, creating lesson plans, brainstorming ways to approach student difficulties and their overall dedication to student success. The morality of teaching is based on teachers’ desire to ensure that the education their students receive is not limited to academics but encompasses all other aspects of life. Moral rewards are the central reason teachers are enthusiastic and get a sense of fulfillment from their jobs.

In demoralization, teachers still retain their passion for teaching and demonstrate a desire to endure. Despite that, teachers are met with limitations imposed by the educational bureaucracy, especially since academic achievement and morality are bound together. Teachers generally want to see their students succeed academically and that feeling it tied closely with the previously mentioned “moral rewards.” But because the definition of academic success is constantly monitored and modified, teachers feel conflicted. 


Teacher demoralization spans across all schools regardless of their access to or lack of resources, test scores, programs, or ranking. Unsurprisingly, it is found to be higher in teachers who work with disadvantaged, lower-income students. At its central point, demoralization is caused by three things: lack of resources, lack of support, and policy.

First, teachers lack resources. This statement may not be groundbreaking, but it still holds true. Some teachers might see resources as a fully stocked computer lab complete with iPads and Smart Boards. However, a larger number of teachers struggle with securing even the most basic resources: enough books, chairs, or desks in their classrooms. In some schools, a fair number of computers or a stable wireless connection is not guaranteed either. These things, Ellie Herman says, makes it difficult for teachers to perform their duties and serve their students productively.

Second, teachers do not have enough support. Because of the nature of the educational system, teachers and administrators alike have their hands full. Between pushing out curriculum, chasing academic milestones, and playing catch up with whatever arises during the school year, teachers begin to feel isolated and discouraged. With that in mind, Herman asserts that all teachers need a mentor who will be there to guide and encourage them. Teachers need a comrade in arms who understands their particular struggles and will support and validate them.

Moreover, teacher training is extremely lacking, forcing new teachers to learn on the job. Likewise, teacher training does not prepare teachers for the realities they face in the classroom, especially those going to underprivileged schools and neighborhoods.

Lastly, policy is the biggest stressor that leads to teacher demoralization. It permeates the classroom in various ways such as prescribed lesson plans. These lesson plans hinder a teacher’s creativity in constructing lesson plans and limits what they can do for struggling students. Testing and test scores have also become policy-dictated priorities in the classroom. Furthermore, teachers are under constant criticism, battling bureaucratic evaluations and expectations that all teachers must perform similarly despite glaring gaps. With all of these elements working against them, it is only natural that teachers lose their way.

At the end of each school year, districts are expected to summarize the year through report cards. Santoro believes that these report cards should include a questionnaire specifically addressed to teachers. It should focus on questions such as “When, why, and how do you find value in your work? What enables you to teach at your best? What prevents you from engaging in good teaching?” This would give higher-ups and related departments insight into what is happening on the ground, specifically how policy is either serving or working against students and teachers.

Demoralization cannot be simply reduced to burnout. It needs to be recognized as a response to working conditions in the educational system. Some teachers have found support and community through social media, but that will only provide momentary relief. Although it may sound unattainable, until the education system is able to create a policy that connects with teachers, they will continue to feel demoralized.

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