Voices in Education

Demoralization Can’t Be Fixed Solely with Restorative Practices
As the school year winds down, many teachers are making plans to recover from a demanding year so they can prepare to meet the inevitable challenges of the next. These restorative self-care practices are essential for teachers who spend the bulk of their days caring for others and juggling competing needs. This recharge is key to avoiding burnout.

However, restorative practices are insufficient supports for teachers experiencing demoralization. Demoralization may look remarkably similar to burnout. Symptoms often include exhaustion, depression, and frustration, but with the added dimensions of guilt and shame—moral emotions related to professional conscience. 

Demoralization is rooted in discouragement and despair that is borne out of ongoing value conflicts with pedagogical policies, reform mandates, and school practices. Demoralization occurs when teachers believe that they are complicit in causing harm to their students and/or damaging the profession by fulfilling the obligations associated with their job. 

Some sources of teacher demoralization include:
  • contributing to student distress by following policies and procedures
  • witnessing students feel worthless as schools are ranked and closed
  • failing to meet students’ learning needs due to a scripted curriculum of mandated textbooks
  • following school practices that increasingly focus on academic achievement, even though students arrive at school with profound emotional needs
  • witnessing the most vulnerable students receive the fewest resources and most pressure
  • school leadership that dismisses teacher voice and expertise
  • public teacher ratings based on test scores
  • crushing amounts of documentation—proving teaching rather than doing teaching
  • being asked to engage in dishonest or illegal activity by school leaders and colleagues
Treating demoralization is tricky because, as shown in the examples above, teachers are rarely in a position to alter these soul-crushing practices or policies on their own. My research on experienced teachers has proven to me that re-moralization is possible, but it is rarely achieved in isolation and it is definitely more than an “inside job.” Re-moralization requires outward action. It is least risky and most effective when undertaken in solidarity or cooperation with other educators.

Here are the five broad categories of re-moralization that I have identified, with examples of specific strategies below each one:

  • engage with local union
  • research forces shaping school reform
Professional Community
  • form alliances with university faculty
  • connect with like-minded educators beyond school/district on social media
Student-Centered Action
  • expand pedagogical repertoire
  • envision role as humanizing the system
Teacher Leadership
  • participate in state and district curriculum initiatives
  • view role as educating community, not just students
  • create an anonymous blog to share concerns with families/community
  • commit with colleagues to provide leadership with candid feedback
If teachers identify with any of the symptoms or sources of demoralization mentioned above, it is worth considering some of the many strategies that experienced teachers have found re-moralizing. These strategies are diverse and often guided by a teacher’s professional context and individual disposition. No strategy is more laudable than another nor is any strategy a guarantee to improve teaching and learning conditions. 

This summer, teachers can formulate a plan to realign their practice with the principles and purposes that brought them to the profession. 

About the Author: Doris A. Santoro is associate professor of and chair of the Education Department at Bowdoin College where she teaches courses in educational studies and teacher education. She is the author of Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay (Harvard Education Press, 2018).