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Demoralized, Not Drained

The real reason teachers are leaving the profession (not burn out!) and how school leaders can help stave off this phenomenon.
Teacher burn out

It may seem that many teachers decide to leave the profession due to low pay, inadequate resources, or burn out, but it isn’t quite that simple, says philosopher of education Doris Santoro. Instead, Santoro says, another longstanding issue is the root of departures among experienced teachers: demoralization.

Doris Santoro

“I interviewed experienced teachers and they knew what they were getting into in terms of salary. So 15 years later you aren’t going to leave because of salary,” says Santoro, co-editor of the new Harvard Education Press title, Principled Resistance: How Teachers Resolve Ethical Dilemmas. “I don’t think teachers are paid well enough and should be paid more, but the discourse about teachers leaving due to poor pay is a bit of red herring.”

For the past 10 years, Santoro, a former classroom teacher, has interviewed experienced teachers and studied over a million teacher tweets in an effort to better understand what demoralization looks like in the profession, and to identify the best ways to combat it. Calling many of the teachers passionate, committed, mission-driven, and effective, Santoro says it’s important for school leaders to find ways to reconcile with the demoralized. “It’s such a loss if we can’t help [teachers and leaders] recognize value in the conflicts they are experiencing,” she says.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Santoro discusses common sources of demoralization in teaching and offers insight into how school leaders can take steps to stave off this phenomenon with their staff. She also gives sound advice for teachers who are experiencing these feelings.

“Resist the label of ‘burnt out.’ Describe yourself as ‘demoralized.’ Don’t let people tell you [that] you are burnt out, used up, or don’t have anything left to give,” she says. “You have things to offer. And, [though] the space to offer those [things] has become winnowed to the point the practice may look unrecognizable to you, you have to make decisions about how you can find the way to broaden that aperture again and find some ways to enact what’s most important to you in teaching.”

About the Harvard EdCast

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast featuring brief conversations with education leaders and innovative thinkers from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Jill Anderson, the EdCast is a dynamic space for discourse about problems and transformative solutions in education, shining a light on the compelling people, policies, practices, and ideas shaping the field. Find the EdCast on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

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