Teacher Burnout or Demoralization? What’s the Difference and Why it Matters

A study led by Dr. Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania showed the staggering reality of the American education system; 15% of teachers leave the profession every year and 45% of new teachers leave within the first five years. The burning question behind these results is why?

When talking with educators, a common discussion topic is the soul-crushing, depressive, and futile nature of the profession. Now, many teachers are lucky enough to be in school districts where they are supported, listened to, valued, and not scapegoated by the administration, parents, and students for items that are not under their control but it seems this is becoming few and far between. In Ingersoll’s study, he focused one portion on first-year teachers who left their current school and polled them on the reasons why. The results, as seen in Figure 15 of the study linked above, are as follows:

  • 32% → School Staffing Action
  • 39.7% → Family or Personal
  • 31.7% → To Pursue Other Jobs
  • 44.4% → Dissatisfaction

Ingersoll and Perda state “On the other hand, high levels of employee departures are worrisome not only because they can be a symptom of underlying problems in how well organizations function, but also because departures can entail costs and other negative consequences for organizations and for the larger system (Ingersoll & Perda, forthcoming).”

Understanding the Difference

The important distinction to make is that these statistics are focusing more on teacher burnout than teacher demoralization. At first glance, these words may seem to be two ways to say the same thing but there is an important distinction to be made. When a teacher is burnt out it more than likely means that they are done. Gassed. Finished. Nothing left. Whether this burnout happened within those first five years of entering the profession or is the culmination of decades of their willpower, desire, and love of teaching being ground down the result is the same; leaving the profession. Ingersoll’s study focuses primarily on this issue.

What is not often discussed, is teacher demoralization which is really what goes on before teacher burn out happened. Teacher demoralization results in teacher burnout. This distinction is vital in addressing the problem within the profession because it allows intervention to be focused on the problem, teacher demoralization, instead of the symptom of the problem which is teacher burnout. 

Doris A. Santoro, an associate professor of education and chair of the education department at Bowdoin College, in her publication Is It Burnout? Or Demoralization? addresses this sentiment by saying “we know that teachers are experiencing dissatisfaction (Keigher, 2010), but, like doctors, we must be careful to look for the true source of the problem in order to properly treat it. […] similarly, school leaders need to get to the root of teacher dissatisfaction so it can be diagnosed and treated properly.”

Finding the Cause

The underlying problems that Ingersoll and Perda refer to are precisely the issues that result in teacher demoralization whether it is unruly parents with no administrative support, absurd class sizes with no mandated support, low pay, general lack of administrative support, forced to follow a rigid curriculum, overarching desire for better test scores at all costs, lack of autonomy, etc. The list is nearly endless and is what results in teachers having self-reported stress amounts equal to nurses and physicians according to Gallup’s 2013 State of America’s Schools Report

Once the difference between teacher burnout and teacher demoralization is made more clear, it can be more easily addressed. It will not be a quick change nor one without growing pains as the profession continues to suffer from these systemic problems but as the reality of these problems become more apparent and felt more by those outside of education, the policies and legislation hamstringing many of these ailments felt by teachers can be changed. 

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