February 16, 2023

John Thompson: Coming Back From Burnout

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John Thompson is an Oklahoma educator and historian.

I was especially looking forward to the Zoom meeting, Discussing Demoralization vs. Burnout: What Educators, Activists & Our Unions Can Do, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Citizens for Public Schools, & the American Federation of Teachers-MA. It brought together behavioral health and social scientists; researchers with pre-K to 12th grade classroom experience; and researchers who had listened to thousands of teachers. But, I quickly realized that this discussion was different. It was presenting research-based insights into issues I’d been unsuccessfully wrestling with.

By the end of the meeting, I was energized in a way that I hadn’t been since Covid kept me from guest-teaching in high schools. My adrenaline was pumping as it had been during the crack and gang era when bonding with kids who were victims of the War on Drugs, (but whose education was later undermined by corporate school reform.)


Having spent decades with kids from extreme poverty, from segregated neighborhoods lacking social capital, who had endured multiple traumas, I understood teacher “burnout.” But I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t explain why the stress that teachers face today was worse. Listening to Doris Santoro, the author of Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, and Olga Acosta Price, co-author of Structural Supports to Promote Teacher Well-Being, I realized that it is the combination of burnout due to “unusually demanding school environments that lack appropriate organizational supports (especially when students face multiple traumas), and ‘demoralization.’”  As they explain, “Demoralization is a specific form of dissatisfaction that arises when teachers feel unable to access the intrinsic rewards of their work.”

Solutions for burnout and demoralization both require trusting relationships, as well as a team effort to address interconnected challenges. Santoro and Price opened my eyes to the ways that the forces that caused burnout, as well as my generation’s lack of understanding of demoralization, have come together in today’s crises.

Even though I saw too many of my best and most dedicated colleagues die too young, I thought I could manage the stress of worrying over kids unconscious in the hallways, visiting so many hospitals, and attending so many funerals.  But as I started to get sick at my stomach when covered  with my students’ blood, I retired from full-time teaching at 58 years-old. Even then, I’d return to teaching student felons, prison inmates, and TANF recipients. The reason why I kept coming back was the moral core of my students.  It had been especially on display when my father died, and “my kids,” who deeply missed their own fathers, comforted me so much.

On the other hand, teachers as well as administrators had to go along with the norm, “Pick your battles.” And that became more demoralizing after No Child Left Behind. After a decade of compromising with my principal over “reform” mandates, that nobody to my knowledge believed would work, she finally burst loose, “John, you don’t believe I believe what I say just because I said it?”

At a meeting with top district administrators when they announced they had to renege on the deal they made with the union on teaching to the Standards – not standardized tests – a district leader got out of her chair and put her hands on my shoulders, saying, “John, I always say ‘you don’t make a pig heavier by weighing it,’ but this is politics. We have no choice.”

As The Every Student Succeeds Act targeted individuals who resisted soulless, skin-deep, worksheet-driven instruction, more and more of our best teachers, who had long been recruited by magnet schools where they would be allowed to teach in a holistic, meaningful manner, would eventually give in, abandoning the inner city where they were supposed to focus on test scores, not students. I’ll never forget the words of a fantastic English teacher when I tried to persuade her department to resist stakes being attached to weekly benchmark tests. She said, “You are just like my parents. Your generation could have unions and fight back. We can’t.” That policy regarding English and Math scores forced about 25% of the tested 10th graders to drop out in the first Nine Weeks.

Then, the first semester after I retired, several of our students were killed or wounded, as we became the lowest-performing mid-high in the state (meaning that test scores became the school’s overwhelming priority.) Previously, our parent liaison and several administrators and teachers would have gone into the community, meet with, listened, and supported families, in a team effort to curtail the gang violence. When I asked the best assistant principal I’d ever seen what was being done to reach out to the neighborhoods and how I could help, she said that the school didn’t do that anymore.

Until Covid shut visits down, I would go back to many schools and guest-teach about the Oklahoma City Sit-In movement, the Tulsa Massacre, and the 1619 Project. Young teachers and students repeatedly told me that they would like to return to culturally relevant instruction, but it’s hard to do what they had never seen before. This week, as I listened to Santoro and Price, I realized that what I had seen was demoralization.  It was “dissatisfaction that arises when teachers feel unable to access the intrinsic rewards of their work, believe they are complicit in wrongdoing, or find that they are incapable of meeting their ethical obligations.”  No longer could they push back against “compliance [which] often result[s] in low levels of teacher buy-in and adoption.”

My efforts to work within the system for policies that administrators and teachers wanted to openly practice required me to keep my mouth shut, even as trusting relationships were further undermined by corporate school reform. For instance, we had to accept the reality that about the only way we could learn what district leaders really believed was conversations in the parking lot after meetings where dissent was not welcomed.

Fortunately, Santoro and Price offer solutions. They seek “a more precise diagnosis that is born out of ongoing value conflicts with pedagogical policies, reform mandates, and school practices.” The answer to demoralization is remoralization. Demoralization is “reversible when educators are able to tap into authentic professional communities and shows that individuals can help themselves.” This requires, “a culture of mutual trust, respect, and open communication among teachers and school leaders [which] allows them to work together to improve practices and solve problems.”

Their conclusions remind of the times I ducked these bigger issues in order to work within the system. They also remind me of the most successful collaboration I have ever seen in Oklahoma City schools.

On the eve of No Child Left Behind, a nonpartisan coalition of businesses, philanthropists, and educators brought John Q. Easton of the Chicago Consortium on School Research to a community meeting. Easton said that there has never been a transformation of high-poverty, high-challenge schools without first building trusting relationships. In the parking lot afterwards, the district’s top researchers warned that NCLB would replace Norm Referenced Tests (NRTs) with Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs). That would corrupt our data by putting teach-to-the-test and “jukin the Stats” on steroids.  But, we still hoped that the city’s top leaders would help give the school system the confidence required for a trusting culture.

Now, Santoro and Price provide the evidence that we must “assist communities in leveraging partnerships, aligning resources and embedding best practices through policies, procedures, and practices to achieve lasting change.” And that requires, “A culture of mutual trust, respect, and open communication among teachers and school leaders [that] allows them to work together to improve practices and solve problems.”

Even though I’m no longer in the classroom, I expect the insights they just taught me will be crucial to understanding the combined threats to educators, so I can better participate in defending our students’ schools.

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