Jesse Soza, Ed.D., was a classroom teacher for twelve years but chose to leave after experiencing high levels of frustration and burnout. He now researches and consults with schools and districts about teacher satisfaction, which, as he describes in this post, is intimately related to working conditions for educators.
A Conceptual Misunderstanding of Teacher Satisfaction
As the 2016 – 2017 school year gets under way, one of the goals many school districts will undoubtedly have will be the retention of quality teachers. While the objective of keeping talented and skilled employees would (and should) be a best practice of any self-respecting organization, education in particular has had a difficult time succeeding in this arena. With a standing attrition rate hovering around forty percent for teachers in the first five years of service, losing high numbers of educators has become a norm for the American system. Furthermore, as a result of an almost fatalistic acceptance of this norm, a dangerous notion has emerged that teaching can be approached as a “transient profession,” implying that sustained commitment to students, colleagues and the work itself is an unnecessary trait for teachers. As high turnover rates limit teacher quality and incur high monetary costs for districts, there is little doubt that this combination is devastating for education. Districts and schools are desperate to do whatever they can to keep quality teachers.
It is not surprising, then, that there is a lot of conversation around the idea of teacher satisfaction. Districts know that happy teachers are far more likely to remain teaching than those who are experiencing dissatisfaction. Thus, significant time, effort and expenses have been marshaled in an attempt to provide incentives that might lure teachers to the profession and, more importantly, keep them teaching. Example incentives include signing bonuses, financially supplemented graduate degrees earned during the first years of teaching and/or job security in the form of extremely quick tenure (this is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what districts may be willing to offer). On the surface, these common-practice incentives appear desirable. One could reasonably assume that a teacher who is able to attain them should have a noticeable increase in satisfaction and thus be more likely to stay committed to teaching.
Yet data seems clear that these and other incentives have not had the desired effect of increasing retention. No matter what teachers are being offered, overall levels of satisfaction have failed to increase and the result has been a continual hemorrhaging of young, talented teachers (not to mention the high levels of burnout experienced by veteran teachers).
After studying teacher burnout and attrition and interviewing teachers across numerous sites and systems about their feelings around what it means to be an educator in the current system, I have come to an important conclusion about teacher satisfaction: What satisfaction actually is and how it is generated is not well understood within the educational community. As long as satisfaction remains ambiguous or ethereal, attempts at building and implementing meaningful action to address satisfaction will continue to be ineffective. Therefore, the primary issue at hand becomes turning the nebulous concept of teacher satisfaction into something more accessible, and thus workable, for those who seek to engage it.
What makes satisfaction such an interesting phenomenon is that, while people experience it in a variety of situations on a daily basis, they often encounter difficulty in placing precise parameters around what exactly is going on. The overall concept, however, is fairly simple: Satisfaction is the resultant feeling that occurs when an internal desire or expectation is either fulfilled or denied (to a degree) by conditions of reality; the more fully reality fulfills an expectation, the greater the satisfaction one feels. When reality denies actualization of an internal expectation, dissatisfaction occurs. Levels of satisfaction are thus constantly generated as desires or expectations interplay with people’s experiences. However, what makes satisfaction difficult to analyze and measure is the sheer number of variables that influence it. Indeed, the devil is in the details. In the case of education, understanding teacher satisfaction requires insight into how the desires and expectations of teachers are interplaying with the conditions that make up their work environment.
The Desire to “Make a Difference” Versus the Reality of Teacher Work Environments
The vast majority of teachers enter the profession with the intent of “making a difference” in students’ social, emotional and academic lives. While the specific details of how that is carried out will vary from teacher to teacher, the expectation and desire to “make a difference” assuredly sits at the core of teachers’ passion and drive. Teacher satisfaction, then, must be considered a measure of how well a teacher is able to actualize those expectations and desires. The more they are allowed to work towards “making a difference,” the more likely teachers are to find satisfaction. However, if they perceive that they are unable to do so, dissatisfaction is likely to set in.
Unfortunately, teachers all too often find their expectations and desires of “making a difference” at odds with the current conditions of teacher work environments. These environments, heavily influenced by well-intentioned but deeply flawed reforms such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, emphasize prescription and rigidity to meet metrics, requiring teachers to adopt pedagogy, methods and values that are not their own. Teacher autonomy, creativity and expertise (qualities normally attributed to professionals) have been sacrificed for formulaic, teacher-proof methods that mandate curriculum, instructional delivery systems and behavior management procedures, among other things. Reform meant to improve the system has actually created an educational culture that actively works to deskill teaching, although few would describe it as such. The institution defined by teachers carrying out the act of teaching is, in fact, becoming increasingly adept at stripping its workforce of its ability to do so. Fueled by what often seems like distrust and a lack of respect for teachers and their craft, various forces within society continue to deny teachers the ability to practice their vocation and, as a result, the opportunity to fulfill the expectations and desires that constitute their passion, drive and expertise.
When working conditions strip from teachers the ability to actualize the expectations that make up their passion and drive, they become alienated from the job and, because of the personal nature of teaching, themselves. Combined with teaching’s abysmal compensation and poor social status, it should not be difficult to imagine why attrition and burnout rates remain high (and will continue to be so in the future). Instead of honoring teachers as passionate, driven experts, the current trend is to view them as high-level technicians, merely carrying out dictums that have been passed down to them. The more teachers are forced to adopt the educational values, purpose, methods and strategies set forth by others, the more separated they become from their own values, purpose, methods and strategies.
This cultural invasion within education marginalizes teachers and undermines opportunities for them to find satisfaction. In a somewhat ironic twist, the passion and drive that keeps teachers in the classroom in spite of poor compensation, long hours, lack of resources, etc. is the same passion and drive that education is actively stripping from them. Without this passion and drive, there is no reason for an individual to commit to such a maligned profession, which explains the problems our system is experiencing today.
When writing about workers laboring in conditions where they cannot find meaning and purpose, Karl Marx noted, “[the worker] does not fulfil [sic] himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased.” This, unfortunately, accurately describes the current state of the American educational system and its relationship with its teachers. Education, as a human endeavor, cannot continue to operate in a way that dehumanizes those who work within it. Indeed, teacher satisfaction will only be realized in systems where teachers’ expectations, desires, passion and expertise are truly respected and honored.