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Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Tragedy of Disheartened Teachers

There are three kinds of teachers: disheartened, content and idealistic, according to a new study released by Public Agenda. Disheartened teachers comprise a huge 40% of the teaching force, but it is not like they are randomly distributed. Some students are very much more likely to have a disheartened teacher than a content or idealistic one.

The view that teaching is “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out” is remarkably pervasive, particularly among the Disheartened,—they are twice as likely as other teachers to strongly agree with this view. Members of that group, which accounts for 40 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States, tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists, and more than half teach in low-income schools. They are more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and the undue focus on testing. Only 14 percent rate their principals as “excellent”” at supporting them as teachers, and 61 percent cite lack of support from administrators as a major drawback to teaching. Nearly three-quarters cite “discipline and behavior issues” in the classroom, and 7 in 10 say that testing are major drawbacks as well.

I am going to come back to the disheartened in a bit. They deserve more attention.

The “content,” a group almost as large as the disheartened, likewise are not randomly distributed. In fact, “complacent” might be a better description of this group.

By contrast, the vast majority of teachers in the Contented group (37 percent of teachers overall) view teaching as a lifelong career. Most say their schools are “orderly, safe, and respectful,” and are satisfied with their administrators. Sixty-three percent strongly agree “teaching is exactly what I wanted to do,” and roughly three-fourths feel that they have sufficient time to craft good lesson plans. Those teachers tend to be veterans—94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years, the majority have graduate degrees, and about two-thirds are teaching in middle-income or affluent schools.

Ironically, veteran teachers fill the ranks of both the “disheartened” and the “content.” When veteran teachers from both groups get together, it is like they come from different planets. The old locus of control issue threatens camaraderie.

A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)." (Zimbardo, 1985, p. 275)

The content believe they are happy and successful because they are great teachers. The content sometimes take a judgmental view of the disheartened. Discouraged teachers, in the view of the content, should take matters into their own hands and pursue every avenue to becoming a better teacher. Yep, that's their problem, they are disheartened because they are not good teachers, or so the content console themselves. The disheartened have been so beaten down by forces outside their control, they see the content as hopelessly na├»ve in their cushy high-end schools. Once upon a time, both groups of veterans started out as young “idealists.”

However, it is the Idealists—23 percent of teachers overall—who voice the strongest sense of mission about teaching. Nearly 9 in 10 Idealists believe that “good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.” Idealists overwhelmingly say that helping underprivileged children improve their prospects motivated them to enter the profession (42 percent say it was “one of the most important” factors in their decision, and another 36% say it was a “major” factor). In addition, 54 percent strongly agree that all their students, “given the right support, can go to college,” the highest percentage among any group. More than half are 32 or younger and teach in elementary schools, and 36 percent say that although they intend to stay in education, they do plan to leave classroom teaching for other jobs in the field.

If accurate, Public Agenda's characterization of idealists causes me angst. What we do not know is the extent to which the percentages overlap and describe the same people. I am willing to go out on a limb and guess that most of the 36 percent who intend to leave the classroom are among the nine out of ten idealists who believe that “good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.” Furthermore, the vast majority of the same 36 percent who intend to leave the classroom said that “helping underprivileged children improve their prospects” was the most important or major factor in their decision to become teachers.

So who is left to actually become the high-value experienced veteran teacher who can make a difference to underprivileged children? The tragedy is that in our education system, teachers who start idealistic end disheartened.

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