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It's Not Burnout

When I was in college I had an amazing educational pedagogy teacher. She had fiery red hair and a passion for preparing teachers that matched. When describing her experiences with teachers who complained about their frustrations saying they were burned out, she would respond “you have to be on fire before you can get burned out.” I took those words to heart and tried to bring a devotion to my students that exemplified that depth of commitment.

But what I am learning from teachers today isn’t that they are burned out. They still love children and want to do all they can to help them. What these dedicated professionals do feel is demoralized.

Reading a recent issue of the NEA Magazine brought this topic to mind. They interviewed Doris Santoro who wrote a book called Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay. Given the turnover rate in Oklahoma schools, I thought it would behoove me to learn more so I could help Putnam City keep our best teachers.

Santoro points out that burnout implies you are done with the profession, that you don’t want to give anymore, but she found that was not how these teachers felt. They want to stay in their classrooms, but the uphill challenges they face in trying to do the right things for their students make them feel demoralized.

Burnout implies the individual is at fault and then causes leaders to tell those teachers to be more resilient, or toughen up. Santoro says if we blame the person, then the system -- which may actually be at fault -- is not to blame.

Luckily, Santoro presents a solution that I think could really transform a school in a few conversations. She suggests that we start by defining what good work in teaching looks like. What do we need to reach that level of work? What is preventing us from getting there? The goal is to uncover things that can be done to get us closer to the vision of good work, but she points out this is deep work. The process itself is remoralizing, which is great, but major shifts will require flexibility from teachers and leaders.

I wholeheartedly endorse the concepts from Doris Santoro’s book. It’s those little things that prevent us as teachers from doing our best that really niggle at us. The copier doesn’t work – ever. The schedule is not clear. There isn’t enough time to teach. Some of these things take time to correct, but others could be addressed easily. If they were, teacher’s voices would be heard, and we’d be farther down the path to keeping our best educators where they want to be -- in class.

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