Possible Remedies for Teacher Burn Out

For the last couple of days, I have been following a thread of discussion on LinkedIn. The topic is teacher burn out and what might be done about it. Some solutions that were offered in one article were pretty superficial, I thought. The suggestions included offering a social time for teachers, for example, so they could get together and relax every once in a while. The other suggestions  were okay as far as they went, but they didn’t go nearly far enough in my opinion.

Teacher burnout is a serious issue and it is one that needs to be treated seriously although I don’t think enough people are truly paying attention to it. The fact is, however, that a growing number of teachers are feeling disillusioned about their chosen profession. What I hear on a regular basis from the teachers I work with is that they still love their kids, but they don’t feel like they are teaching anymore. They are, instead, delivering a canned curriculum and then administering test after test after blasted test. The fun has been sucked out of teaching and it is a sure bet the children they are teaching aren’t having much fun either.

I felt compelled to offer some thoughts on the thread and this is what I said:

“While it is certainly important that teachers be offered times to socialize and de-stress, feeding teachers’ souls is a lot more complicated. The teachers I know who are stressed and might be in danger of ‘eating their children’ are overburdened by paperwork, impossible demands at every level, lack of support from administrators and parents, debt because of low and stagnant salaries, feeling berated by people in power like the Secretary of Education who misses no opportunity to criticize teachers, and strangled by policies that have sucked absolutely all the fun out of teaching. I am also a life coach and a stress management coach whose niche are teacher leaders, teachers in distress and teachers in transition. When I conduct my workshops I always run into the same overall theme. Teachers feel overwhelmed, under appreciated and generally maligned. A social hour with colleagues will help to bond the colleagues together, but they need a lot more than TLC to help them feel better about themselves and their profession. They need to feel respected, and they need to be paid a professional salary while they are treated like professionals instead of widgets in the larger system that is doing no one any good…least of all the students they teach.”

I really believe that we are in the middle of a serious crisis with regard to public education in our country, and I fear for its future. Just today, I heard a snippet of an interview with Arne Duncan that pertained to what the President might say tonight in his State of the Union speech. One of the things I heard Secretary Duncan say was that we have been making progress…graduation rates are up and drop out rates are down…but he went on to say that the progress we have made isn’t enough and we “need to be changing faster.”

The trouble with Mr. Duncan’s premise is that he assumes that the changes we are currently making will get us where we need to go…that his policies and those coming out of his Department are actually doing anything other than creating more and more demoralization among teachers and students alike. Mr. Duncan loves to talk about our “failing schools” and how we are lying to our students when we tell them they are doing well. He also loves competition, so all of his major initiatives are based on the false notion that in order to promote public education and equity for all we need to make it about racing to the top and innovating around more and better tests instead of focusing on authentic teaching and learning.

If anyone were really serious about addressing teacher burn out…and I don’t think anyone really is serious about it or they would be doing something about it…they would stop telling teachers to “do more with less.” They would lighten up on the testing regimen because there are only so many tests that a child can take that they even have any meaning. They would forget the crazy notion that a child’s test score is a measure for whether or not to keep an otherwise effective teacher on the payroll. And they would stop fighting about Common Core and let a few states pilot it without drastic negative consequences for everyone involved in the meantime.

Public education is a value that I grew up believing in. I grew up poor, but because of educational opportunities and my belief that an education would provide me with an opportunity to thrive economically, I have thrived. As public school funding shrinks in favor of ideological arguments for choice, vouchers, and charters, I fear that the poorest children will get left behind and dropped through the cracks. We are at a real crossroads in this country, it seems to me. While the haves continue to thrive, the have nots are struggling. In the past, getting a solid education was the ticket to a better life. That seems to be growing less and less the case these days.

I know that teacher burn out is a real thing. I just don’t think that offering a social hour is the answer to it.

Arne Duncan Sticks His Foot In His Mouth–Again

I am no fan of Arne Duncan’s, and I never have been. I want to state that up front so that my bias is known to the reader from the get go. If you like Arne Duncan…if you think he has been a good spokesperson for teachers and students and if you think he is doing a fine job as the Secretary of Education for the United States, you may want to skip this post. I won’t mind, I promise. But if you are as offended by some of the things Mr. Duncan says about teachers in general and about public education in particular as I am, you may want to continue reading.

Mr. Duncan’s most recent egregious remark was made at a meeting of the state schools superintendents on Friday. He said that he found it “fascinating” that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who–all of a sudden–their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Yes, he really said that.

Of course, Arne Duncan’s disdain for public education in America is well known and documented. He has said many things along this line ever since he was appointed to the post of Secretary of Education by President Obama. His frame of reference is Chicago’s public schools, and he has yet to broaden his perspective to include the many successful schools that are operating all over the country every single day. He has measured his assessment of the nation’s schools based on that Chicago experience, and he is apparently sincerely convinced that most of the schools in this country are under par. Furthermore, he is of the opinion that a large percentage of America’s teachers are so bad that they should be fired immediately.

Duncan has an arrogant tendency to dismiss those who disagree with him, much the way we might swat at a fly or wave off a gnat that is bothersome but generally inconsequential. Indeed, Duncan’s tendency to dismiss detractors and critics was the subject of an article written by Dr. Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC. in yesterday’s Huff Post. She commented that he “uses the word ‘silly’ a lot these days to describe people who have points of view that differ from his on the topic of education reform, both K-12 as well as higher education.”

I honestly haven’t decided yet how I feel about Common Core Standards. I know that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) have offered support for them, and I think I understand why. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the standards are necessarily bad. I understand from some concerned critics of the standards that they are developmentally inappropriate, and if that is true, that is certainly worrisome and a legitimate source of concern. Having said that, I can appreciate the argument that having standards that have been adopted by every state might help students who move from place to place in this ever increasingly transient society. Students who move from California to Maine might benefit from having a more or less standardized curriculum so that a move doesn’t set them back because the curriculum in California is so markedly different from Maine’s curriculum, and vice versa. But I question the rush with which the standards are being implemented and the high stakes nature of the tests that continue to be tied not only to the standards but to teachers’ ability to get the students up to benchmarks which may or may not be realistic. Certainly the ultimate goal set for No Child Left Behind was not attainable. I wonder if it is possible that new goals being set by non-educators are similarly unrealistic and unattainable.

I don’t have an opinion about Common Core Standards, but I do have an opinion about Arne Duncan, and that is that he would do everyone involved a favor if he would step down and go to work for some for profit charter or testing corporation instead of abusing his current position the way he seems to be doing. A Secretary of Education should be a champion of public education. A Secretary of Education should be an exemplary educator. A Secretary of Education should have a deep understanding of the challenges that teachers face whether they are in our urban schools or our poorest rural schools. A Secretary of Education should believe that poverty is no excuse but not take away the resources that teachers need in order to work with the 16% of our students who live in poverty every day (20% of students under the age of 6 live in poverty). Mr. Duncan doesn’t get it, and unfortunately it doesn’t look like he is ever going to. He just continues to stick his foot in his mouth again and again. He continues to do more harm that good in the long run. I wish we had a champion as our Secretary of Education…but I guess I will just keep wishing for now.