Educators Are Demoralized. What’s the Way Forward?

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These days talk of low morale, and demoralization spans across education—in the nation’s K-12 schools and at colleges.

For those in classrooms and for school and campus leaders, the challenge is how to meet the many needs of educators during this time—social, emotional, intellectual and ethical.

EdSurge brought together a panel of K-12 and college experts last week at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas, to talk about the issue and propose ways forward.

Our panel included:

  • Katrina Bailey, director of school leadership at Austin Independent School District. In that role she works with schools to support the district’s strategic plan, and she has a view across the district. Bailey has worked in K-12 education for more than 18 years as a principal, an assistant principal, a dean and a classroom teacher.
  • David DeMatthews, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He does research on equitable and inclusive school improvement and has a national view on what’s happening at schools. He has written opinion pieces in Education Week, USA Today, The Dallas Morning News and many other publications.
  • Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He has become a leading voice on burnout and demoralization at colleges, writing about that in op-eds for EdSurge and for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

We bring you the complete recording for this week’s EdSurge Podcast. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What makes this moment different? Why are we hearing so much about educator burnout and demoralization now?

Katrina Bailey: Obviously the pandemic causes us to stop and really reflect on what we value in the work that we do. And having that extended period of time at home, you see your family in front of you, you had a lot of opportunities to reflect on what you valued. And they want to do what’s best for kids. They truly believe in it and are connected to the work.

But the accountability piece is still real, and it’s still there for a lot of educators. The accountability standards weren’t relaxed because we were in a pandemic for the most part. And so we’re really at a pivotal time where people are really reflecting on, ‘Did I get into this for what I’m currently experiencing? And if not, then I’m going to take the next ramp out of it.’ Burnout is temporary, but I think right now what’s different is folks don’t really see a way out of what they’re currently experiencing.

David DeMatthews: There’s a large [body of] research based on [burnout and demoralization], and in a lot of other professions and a lot of other helping professions, folks are trained in self-care. And sometimes professional standards emphasize this point that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others. And I feel like in the K-12 system as a teacher and administrator, I was never told to take care of myself. In fact, I was told to carry the burden for everybody else—which is why I’m in higher ed and not still working in the K-12 sector. So I think that has been a part of the K-12 sector, and the pandemic broke an already cracked foundation.

Because we’ve never attended to these needs while we kept adding more and more to the plate, and the system’s not changing. So what I hear from principals still is that districts are applying pressure and the states are applying pressure to increase student achievement while there’s five or 10 or 20 teachers absent a day. And while attendance rates are down and while teachers are needing to attend to social and emotional learning needs and all sorts of student anxieties and all sorts of disruptions with families. And so the job has gotten harder, but we have not provided educators with any of the tools or resources to allow them to be successful.

Kevin McClure: Many of the underlying causes for some of the things that we’re talking about predate the pandemic. And so as I’ve had conversations with college leaders, they will occasionally say, ‘You know, the pandemic’s crazy. If we can just get on the other side of this, then things will improve.’

First of all, there is no other side of this. This is kind of it.

When you look at what the underlying causes are [of demoralization at colleges,] there are things like low compensation, job demands that consistently and regularly outstrip resources, problems around recognition and reward systems, antiquated HR policies, [and] problems related to making transparency and communication. So the pandemic kind of dialed these things up and intensified them. But these were problems that have existed for a long period of time.

Where I think the pandemic has introduced a new variable to this is that there are job opportunities outside of education in a way that perhaps wasn’t the case even a couple of years ago. And so with my colleagues and with my students, they are recognizing that as educators they’ve got transferable skills. They are good at crisis management. They are good at communication. They are organized. They are resilient. They are comfortable with technology in some cases. And so they start interviewing with companies and organizations that are still connected to education where their background has value. And then they get their salary doubled and they say, you know what, I’m gonna go explore this new opportunity.

People think of education as a cushy gig—focusing on things like having summers off—when in fact it is a consuming and often exhausting job. How much is that mismatch between reality and perception exacerbating low educator morale?

Bailey: What I think is important in this moment is that we put the professional back in professional educator. Because teachers are professional educators and what a lot of teachers are experiencing right now with that demoralization of the profession is that they are not allowed to be seen as that professional educator. Everyone wants to tell them what to do and how to do it, and what to teach and how to teach it. But at the same time we say that we also value personalization of learning, and the best person to personalize learning for students is the classroom teacher that’s in front of them.

So I think that instead of seeing teaching as a cliche—because it’s not babysitting, and we know that, right?—it really is instructing our next group of world leaders—our next group of doctors and lawyers and attorneys and also teachers. And so I think that … we need to trust teachers to do the job that they’ve been trained and came into the profession to do.

McClure: When I’m thinking about many of these issues [at colleges] I’m actually not thinking primarily about faculty as my frame of reference. I tend to think first about staff that are working at colleges and universities. And I would say that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to run a college. Probably the same is true about running a school, and about the number of people that are necessary to provide a high-quality education. It takes some serious expertise in order to pull this off.

And one of the challenges that we see kind of across the board in education is that we have increasingly managed professionals that are not able to bring their full expertise to bear on the enterprise of education—and to be educators. And particularly when it came to pandemic response we saw an undervaluing of expertise at institutions—some of which was motivated by politics, some of which was motivated by finances. There were many people at institutions whose true expertise in training was not brought into the conversation. And there’s nothing quite as demoralizing as saying, ‘I have spent years and years and years studying public health or epidemiology or how students respond to stressful situations, and I’m not even at the table.’

One thing we talked about in preparing for this panel was to not lose sight of the joy that educators have when they get to do what they came to do at schools and colleges, and why people got into this work.

DeMatthews: We need to take stock of those joyful moments because there’s so much joy in schools, even under these conditions. And we definitely want educators and school leaders to at least recognize them and be present for them and even feel them for a few more extra moments instead of just going from one fire to the next and being too busy to take stock of all the great things that happen in schools.

McClure: All of us are very invested in bringing people into this work. We are having conversations all the time about trying to say, ‘There is a career and life and an identity here.’ But we’ve gotta start having conversations that center on working conditions and working culture in education because, because there are those moments of joy. There are people who want to be in education. They want to work here. They are not running for the door, they are being pushed out because we have not had the conversations that we need to have about working conditions and working culture.

So what could be better? What are some solutions or novel approaches or innovations that people are thinking of to address these challenging and systemic problems?

DeMatthews: So in Texas right now we’re at a point where about 60 percent of our teachers come through alternative certification programs—many of which are through for-profit programs. And they don’t stay as long. So there’s a top-down push to provide more interventions and more services that the state hasn’t—[it hasn’t] done its job ensuring that there’s a high-quality, stable, consistent, well-trained teacher workforce. And so there’s only one way to make this work better. It’s investments in teachers. Teachers are the program. Teachers are ultimately the ones—and counselors and social workers … they need to be well-trained and supported.

That’s going to be the most critical avenue for any potential change is to disrupt the way teachers are viewed, the way teachers are trained and to push our states to fulfill their institutional obligations in providing public education.

McClure: So in terms of solutions, a couple of things that I try to convey. One is are you keeping track of this? Do you have data? Are you talking to people?

So if you are a school leader or supervisor, are you having exit interviews with people who are leaving? Are you collecting data on engagement and morale and burnout? And then are you using that data to actually inform your decision-making process?

I can say across higher ed, we are not actually having conversations about how people experience the pandemic—how they feel in the work now and what they want moving forward. And if we don’t have a good understanding of that, it’s really difficult to figure out the right kind of solutions that are gonna fit your particular context. Number two is we have to start thinking about people who work in education as talent and not as folks that can be replaced and replenished.

We’ve got kind of an Amazon warehouse model where people leave and we just replace them and replenish them. Many, many industries have figured out that that model can only work for so long—particularly in the context that we’re working in. And we need to be thinking about how we grow folks—allow them to grow in their work, but ultimately keep them. And that means figuring out some new ways of recognizing and rewarding people who are growing and not saying that you need to now find a new position in order to move up or to take advantage of those new skills that you’ve learned.

The last thing that I’ll mention is we need to be having more serious conversations about culture because it’s possible for folks to be engaged in the work, but to not feel included and to not have a sense of belonging or that the work is meaningful. And so culture is kind of a broader concept that allows us to recognize that somebody may be in the work and incredibly invested in it but not feel like this is an environment where they can bring their true selves and have that type of not just physical safety, but social safety as well.

We have a tendency to fall back on blaming policy sometimes, which is not to say that policy is what it should be, but there’s a lot that we can do at a micro level, at an individual level, and within a team that can help to improve some of these things, irrespective of the policy context.

Bailey: One thing to add at that micro level is don’t do something for me without me. When it comes to the implementation of policy and what that needs to look like in my lived experience and how it impacts me and my work—the answer is always in the room. But it’s the people who need to be in the room aren’t always there.

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