Kathleen Knauth has had a rough school year. The principal of Hillview Elementary, near Buffalo, New York, has spent so much time typing teacher evaluations, entering data, and preparing for standardized testing, she barely had a minute to do what she used to do in her first 12 years of being a principal—drop in on classes, address parents’ concerns, or get to know students. When a school social worker stopped by her office a few months back to get Knauth’s take on which children might need her help, she realized she had hit a new low.
“Normally I’d say, ‘This one’s grandma is seriously ill. This child is going through a huge custody battle. This one has clothes that are too small. I could reel off six to eight things,” says Knauth. “But this year, I had nothing.”
Two weeks ago, after she was asked to raise the standards her students would be expected to meet for a fifth time this year, Knauth decided to resign and sent a public letter explaining that the educational reforms she’s been asked to implement are at odds with what’s important for kids.
Knauth is not the only one finding it tough to work in a public school these days—or, for that matter, detonating explosive public-resignation letters that only people with no hope of working in the public-school system again would send. (See, among others, the beautiful and heartbreaking retirement announcement sent by Syracuse social studies teacher Gerald Conti and the angrier but equally heartbreaking farewell sent by North Carolina math teacher Kris L. Nielson.)
Underscoring the frustrations of these disillusioned, vocal few is this year’s Met Life survey of the American teacher, which documents a broader dissatisfaction among educators. The report, which is based on surveys of 1,000 K-12 teachers and 500 K-12 principals, shows a precipitous decline in morale. The percentage of teachers who rated themselves “very satisfied” has dipped 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62 percent to 39 percent—putting it at the lowest point in 25 years.
Job satisfaction among principals decreased 9 percent in the same period, with 59 percent of principals now rating themselves “very satisfied.” Met Life, which conducted the survey in 2012 and released it in February, also found that more than half of teachers report feeling greatly stressed several days a week, an increase of 15 percent since 1985.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the number of people entering teaching programs has been declining, too. While overall enrollment in graduate and undergraduate schools swelled 8 percent between 2006 and 2011, as people took refuge from the tough job market, the number of students enrolled in graduate- and undergraduate-teaching programs during that same period dropped 7 percent, according to the most recent data available from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
There are likely many factors contributing to the retreat—and there are already a variety of proposed solutions. In California, where the number of people getting teaching credentials dropped 30 percent over the last five years and 12 percent in the last year alone, the legislature is now considering a bill that would make it easier for people to become teachers by changing the course requirements.
At Illinois State University, where applications to the teaching program have dropped 20 percent since 2008, the College of Education has decided to make a concerted effort to counter rhetoric around teaching that’s “laden with antagonism,” as Associate Dean Amee Adkins puts it. The school is planning to invite teachers to the campus to talk about the uplifting aspects of their jobs, and to screen documentaries that show the profession in a positive light.
Adkins says caps to teacher salaries and threats to their pensions—both of which have been on the table in Illinois—are likely playing a role in the drop in applications. The parents of potential students, she thinks, may be particularly concerned about these financial aspects of teaching and discouraging their children from applying. “Parents watch the news, see the newspapers and get very nervous when they think about their precious little ones’ long-term future,” she says.
Others insist that financial concerns are only the tip of the iceberg. Philip Kovacs, an associate professor of education at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, surveyed 600 local K-8 teachers to gage their morale. While half of his respondents said they wouldn’t encourage others to become teachers, “Maybe only ten of them talked about pay,” says Kovacs. In contrast, “most of the individuals who said not to head into the field felt very strongly about the negative impacts of high stakes testing.”
Kovacs points to research that shows that mastery, autonomy, and sense of purpose—all threatened by recent reforms—are also central to human motivation. “A lot of people come into my teacher ed program with these wide eyed dreams of being a change agent for kids. But that’s not what they’re going to do. They’re finding it’s much more of a grind.” As a result, he himself has taken to actively discouraging his students from teaching.
“My best and brightest students, I generally try to get them out of education,” says Kovacs. “It is so miserable at this point in time that I think their efforts can be better spent elsewhere."
Recent policy shifts affecting teachers, including the increased accountability that’s come with No Child Left Behind and the performance-based rewards set by Race to the Top likely have a role in the professional mood swing. Indeed, teacher morale has cycled along with educational reforms over the past few decades, according to Gary Dworkin, a professor at the University of Houston who has studied teacher morale and burnout since the 1980s.
Morale tends to plummet when the pendulum swings toward stricter accountability, says Dworkin. “And then it picks up as teachers discover they’re not being fired, and then a new reform comes in and morale dips again.” What’s different this time, he says, is that teacher burnout, which he defines as “a feeling of isolation that produces a sense among educators that their work does not matter,” has escalated to significantly higher levels than he has found before and is particularly affecting veteran teachers, who had grown accustomed to being able to control what and how they taught.
Those who work in low-income areas or who have come up against budget constraints appear to be disproportionately down about the profession. Teachers at schools where the budget went down in the last year were less likely to be satisfied and more likely to experience stress on the job, according to the Met Life report. Similarly, Dworkin has found higher levels of burnout in high-poverty, low-performing schools.
No doubt these findings can in part be explained by the challenges of dealing with the effects of poverty on children and the need for supplies and support. But they may also reflect the ways educational reforms are playing out in different communities. While attainment standards and standardized tests are just that—standard, and being set by state and federal government—the decision to tailor curriculum accordingly, or “teach to the test,” is a highly local decision.
“Some of the schools where parents are themselves highly educated, where schools are well-funded, there is enough resistance to these movements,” says Arthur E. Wise, president emeritus of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) in Washington, D.C. In poorer districts, he says, that’s not the case.
As for the future, Wise, who has worked in education since the 1970s, says he could see it going either of two ways. One possibility is that “teaching will become less attractive and therefore the micromanagers will continue to create new policies to micromanage.” This, in turn, will make the economic divide even more pronounced, creating “a two-class system, one half focused on drill and kill, and the other that’s trying to hold onto the more effective ways to serve students.”
Or, speculates Wise, “people will come to realize the futility of the current practice, and turn back.”