Demoralization vs. Burnout

Being a pug: a demoralizing state of affairs.

Are you burnt out?  Or are you demoralized?

A recent article (passed on to me by a colleague) fits nicely with my series on teacher burnout that wrapped up last week:  sometimes what we call burnout is actually demoralization. The difference is in the cause.

I have been lucky enough to work mostly in contexts that value and support good teaching and effective learning.  Recently, though, there have been some administrative developments  at our college that prioritize bean-counting over student achievement and teacher sanity.  So far, resistance has been strong, and no sweeping changes have been made, but it is possible that, within a year or so,  we will be inundated with a lot of time-consuming paperwork in a perhaps futile attempt to keep our remedial English classes to a manageable size.  If this happens, I can foresee serious consequences for our morale.  And even now, before any concrete changes have manifested, there is tension and hostility between administrators and teachers the likes of which I haven’t seen at the college before.  This is definitely demoralizing, and threatens to be much more so.

I hear a lot of stories from teachers who are, not burnt out by the real demands of teaching, but demoralized by the conditions they have to battle against.  Doris Santoro (in the article linked above) describes demoralization as follows:

Demoralization occurs when the job changes to such a degree that what teachers previously found “good” about their work is no longer available.  Moral rewards are what bring many of us to teaching: finding ways to connect meaningfully with students, designing lessons that address students’ needs, using our talents to improve the lives of others. [Demoralization] is a sense that the moral dimension of the work is taken away by policy mandates that affect [our] teaching directly.

I would be interested to know about your experiences of demoralization in your job, whether it be teaching or something else.  In particular, I’d love to know how you’ve successfully battled demoralization.  Have you triumphed over policies or infrastructures that were compromising your ability to do your job?  Or have you learned to adapt, or adapt to, such policies to meet your needs?  Have you ever left a job because it demoralized you so that there was no turning back?

Image by BlueGum


15 thoughts on “Demoralization vs. Burnout

  1. This is going to sound crazy, but I hope you will understand where I am coming from. I have battled demoralization by just not giving a sh*t (pardon my language). Each and every day I am told what to teach, when to teach it, how to teach it, and how my “teaching” will have an effect on my student’s state test scores. But I don’t care. I go on each day teaching what I know NEEDS to be taught because I know that I know what is best for my students. It is my professionalism and commitment to doing the right thing that get me through.

    Now, I am fortunate. I work in a school in my district that trusts their teachers for the most part. My department head loves me, my administrators know that I am doing a good job and constantly tell me so, and no one checks in on my classroom or lesson plans to make sure I am doing what I am “supposed” to. I have friends that work at schools that are different. Where they have to turn in their lesson plans in advance and where they get observed to see if they are on task with what the school is making them do. I am sure that if my school were like that, I would be completely demoralized.

    I pray, each and every day, that my school stays this way. We have academic freedom in the face of state laws that say we shouldn’t, and that is mostly due to our principal and other admins. I also pray that the lawmakers in our state and in our country realize that they are getting nowhere by demoralizing their teachers and demeaning the profession. In fact, I am sure that they are only making an already tenuous and bad situation worse.


    1. TG: This is a fortunate situation, and much like the situation at my college for the most part. Yes, there are objectives that must be met, but no one is really telling us how to meet them. Of course there need to be standards, but there also needs to be trust.


  2. My mother works in a small, small town (pop. under 800) and she taught 30 kids in 4 different grades. What’s more, she had special needs kids in the same classroom. Our government decided to cut funding for assistants for special needs kids, and one mother of a special needs student went after my mum after the child’s grades began to suffer. My mum toughed it out for a couple of years, but decided to go on the T.O.C. list once that kid had moved on. I guess you could say she burnt out.


    1. Mahervolous: It’s too bad. In the end, though, a situation like that is so toxic that leaving really does seem like the only recourse. If we can’t do our jobs right, why stay if we can afford, albeit at some cost, to go?


  3. AT the K-12 level in many states, including mine (MI), teachers are under attack and being demoralized in many ways. Our governor decided to pass a pile of laws that change the very job we do, including taking away tenure as a way to decide what staff to keep or let go if needed, and basically dismantling collective bargaining.

    As someone who switched careers, jumped through the state mandated hoops to become a teacher, now my job and retirement are on the block. If a school district gets into financial problems, the governor can send in a Financial Manager who can override ALL agreements, even terminating elected local officials. It’s very scary.

    My coworkers and I try to remain positive and do our jobs, even as tons of extra paperwork is now being required, along with changing the state standards AGAIN. It really stinks. But at my age, there’s no changing jobs since there aren’t any available.


    1. Tar-Buns: It’s tough when we don’t feel we have an out. Most of my life, I’ve vowed that if I was in a situation that weighed me down, I would leave. (One reason I’ve never had kids: no exit!) That said, the troubles at my college now have me thinking. Will I just pick up and go if things get too bad? I can’t be sure.


  4. In the past year I made a tremendous change in my career, due mainly to what I thought was burnout, however having been presented with the concept of demoralization, I think that was the true nature of my situation. I taught in a high school that was not meeting the NCLB standards. The district’s response was to bring in an entirely new administrative team with the goal to turn things around. I don’t know for a fact, but just looking back on how they behaved toward the teachers, I really believe they were given the directive to “clean house”. Their message to us in not-so-subtle ways was one of their superiority in all things educational, and our complete inadequacy. After two years of being treated in a demoralizing manner, there was about 75% turnover of faculty, and some improvement in the standardized test scores, but not enough. This is when the worst began to happen. Our problem areas were math and graduation rate. In one year our math scores improved by 26%, and our graduation rate increased greatly.

    You may say, “Great!” But here’s the REAL story. During the days we were testing, several administrators walked into classrooms pointed to students and said, “You, you and you come with me.” These students were tested elsewhere, although their names and testing materials remained with the original room they were assigned and sent to the state as thus. Three brave teachers reported this to the state, but nothing was done about it.

    As far as graduation, that year many students walked the stage that were failing miserably only a short time before the ceremony. Six senior teachers reported to the central office that they noticed grades had been changed in their electronic grade book, but again nothing ever came of it. In all 92 seniors got their diplomas that were reported as not graduating only a month before the ceremony. For me? What I saw? I’m an elective teacher. Names of students whom I never had in class began to appear in my grade book, and a passing semester final grade along with them. Demoralized was exactly what I felt, and I quit mid-year to get away from this unethical environment.

    I wrote a book during my time off about all the things I witnessed and heard about, and titled it, “Orphaned: The Abandonment of the American Public School Teacher,” because thats exactly how I felt, abandoned. I submitted it last summer to 12 literary agents, and although their feedback was positive for the most part, they said I lacked a national platform and would be a risk to publish. I have thought about self-publishing, but it has gone on the back burner for the time being.

    I teach at the college level now, and love it! I have felt renewed as a teacher, but to do this I really had to take a risk, quit my job during a recession, attempt to sell my house, and move to where I could find work. In the end it was worth it, but it was hard going through it. I was fortunate I was able to do this, as many teachers cannot just uproot themselves and their families, and choose to go along with unethical practices, or look the other direction when it occurs. When the news about the scandal in the Atlanta school district hit the airways, I for one was not surprised having experienced something similar first hand. What I’m surprised about is that we haven’t heard about more instances of this.

    You’ve hit on a subject that really should be examined more. We’re having problems recruiting and retaining good teachers, and I feel demoralization of this profession is a central factor in this occurrence.


    1. Unheardof:
      What a disheartening story, but I’m so glad it has a happy ending for you! It is similar to other stories I’ve heard: people just want to teach, and then the real circumstances of their job become clear, and, if they can, they get out before their spirits are completely crushed. We at the college level may have our own struggles, but I think we need to thank our lucky stars.


  5. I have only been teaching for 5 years (2nd career teacher). I didn’t take a career change lightly. I left a higher paying job, put my youngest in after school care so I could attend classes at night, and put my family in financial debt so I could follow a dream. But I am already struggling with burnout (or maybe it’s actually demoralization as you call it). I’m just not sure how to get through it or if I even have the will left in me at this stage of my life to try.

    This is my situation: In trying to prove that our state can handle upgrading their own education system (after failing to meet NCLB standards) there is an undue amount of stress being put on teachers with a NEW evaluation system. Evaluations would be okay but what is in place involves 4 areas; planning, instruction, environment and professionalism broken down into 52+ “indicators” (on a rubric) and a teacher being evaluating on so many things that are out of our control. As a tenured teacher I have 4 evals a year where as a new teacher has 6. I feel sorry for the administrators who have to try and fit all those into their already busy day. No time for anything else.

    The rubric being used is on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best. They say to aim for a 3 but if you get straight 3’s it’s not good enough and you will be put on probation…….. Our lesson plan has to fit into a nice neat little box, just the way the rubric says. And the evaluator has to observe you doing the entire lesson (every indicator) or you are docked for it, even if the lesson is going well and the students are engaged in learning and participating. I was told (after receiving a 2 in “grouping” and two other areas) that I should have stopped the lesson grouped my students and given them the activity planned for later in the lesson, just so the evaluator could see me do it… wasn’t good enough that it was written in the lesson plan to be carried out (I couldn’t carry the lesson over to the next day). If your numbers drop below a “3” you are considered a below standard teacher and could lose tenure or even your job eventually. I did well on my planning eval. (3’s & 4’s). But on the instructional one I got a “5”, several “2’s” and the rest 3’s and 4’s. I was told when the 52 indicators are averaged together in the end the 2″s won’t hurt too much!

    Unfortunately it’s right now that they hurt. I don’t know if it’s the teacher in me or the perfectionist but I just can’t get past the numbers…… As a perfectionist it’s hard enough to accept that I probably won’t get 5’s, but 2’s are just unacceptable…….. They undermine my confidence and after just 5 years of teaching I was just beginning to feel good about what I was doing. All these evaluations have accomplished with me is to make me think that if I’m not even “a “3” (average) then I shouldn’t be doing this……. If you google tennessee education reform you can probably read about it. I’m extremely frustrated to say the least. Demoralized? YES definitely! 😦

    I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in 4 years? My daughter will graduate and if things don’t get better I will probably pursue something else with my degree. She is attending my school out of zone right now because I teach and I don’t want her to have to change schools……..I might throw in the towel otherwise……..Thanks for letting me vent,
    Made a career change at 40…can do it again at 50!


  6. Hi facsteacher101,
    Last year I switched to teaching at the college level, I had my master’s degree, AND turned 50 also. It was a good change for me, and sounds like it would be a good one for you too. I didn’t realize how much the demoralizing environment was causing so much stress in me until I got out from under it.

    Hang in there, and know there are other options out there for teachers!



  7. Interestingly I recently found your blog as I am interested in taking up teaching as a career. I currently work in the commerce industry and love the theoretical side of the sector but not so thrilled with the actual corporate world. I have always wanted to become a teacher but a lot of people I have sought advise from have adviced me against it. This saddens me and I am really enjoying catching up on your blog.
    I am currently feeling demoralised at my current job. Always the hgh achiever, I now feel useless and have no sense of purpose which is very frustrating.
    My mind often turns to the joys I think teaching may bring. I am passionate about business and history so have two very interesting fields to teach…

    If you have any words of advice for me (as a young gradute in the corporate world considering leaving it all to teach) I would love love love to hear it!


    1. MHE: it’s a big decision. A while ago, someone asked me a similar question, and I wrote the post below in reply; maybe it will address some of your questions too:

      Dear Auntie Siobhan: Should I Become a Teacher?

      In particular, you might want to check out the link at the end of the post, to a series on burnout, recovery and the joys of teaching that I wrote a few years ago:

      Triumph Over Burnout: How I Saved My Teaching Career

      Let me know if any of this is helpful!


      1. Actually I read your triumph over burnout posts already. They were excellent. I really enjoyed your “Should I Become a Teacher Approach”.
        It is a big decision. I am currently working in investment banking which is a highly stressfull and intense job. I never know when I will be leaving the office and really do not enjoy the work. I have always loved the idea of teaching but worry I am looking at it with rose coloured glasses.
        I did teach a few classes as a tutor at university. I got to take classes, mark papers and set assignments. I actually really loved it.
        I also think teaching would be a great way to incorporate my love of theoretical business studies and history.
        In all I really appreciate your opinions and love reading your articles. They are very enlightening for someone in teaching or considering it…


  8. Yes, I have left a job-marriage-life because I was demoralized and it would not work out. I am fascinated by the idea that ‘demoralization’ means that the “moral dimension” of something important to me has been undermined. Wow. Small earthquake happening here.


  9. The two go hand in hand. I just studied for a total of 30 plus hours for a test, knew everything, but had to make stupid mistakes because the test was too long for me to finish, which left me rushed.. I had a 45 minutes to answer about 50 fill in the blank w/discussion questions based on calculated enzyme kinetic parameters on top of about 25 multiple choice/TF questons. AFTER I spent all that time studying HARD, in the end it made absolutely no difference. So yeah i’m a bit burnt out and demoralized, and it has nothing to do with what I DID, but what the teacher did to me. You want to test all my knowledge, give me time in the proper environment to do it. Its not like I have been studying this stuff for 30 years now, unlike you.

    An analogy would be teaching someone to drive ONCE, then letting them do it on there own, but not allowing them to enter the interstate. Then plopping them down on the interstate and telling them they have to drive 100 miles in 1 hour.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s