Why public school teachers burn out

Public school teachers burn out because of poor working conditions, writes Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation on Pajamas Media.  He used federal data to compare public and private teachers.

Public school teachers have lower job satisfaction, less autonomy, less influence over school policy, less ability to keep order, less support from administrators and peers, and less safety.

“Public schools get nearly $11,000 per student and private schools charge an average tuition of only $6,600,” Forster writes. Yet public school teachers are less likely to say they have the instructional materials they need to be effective.

Administrators don’t provide as much support or leadership as in private schools, according to teachers. The sense of community is weaker.

Public school teachers are much less likely to strongly agree that there is a great deal of cooperation between staff members (41 percent v. 60 percent), that their colleagues share their values and understanding of the core mission of the school (38 percent v. 63 percent), and that their fellow teachers consistently enforce school rules (29 percent v. 42 percent).

Private schools can get away with paying less money to teachers because the working conditions are better.

In The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness, The New Teacher Project asks: If teachers are so important, why do we treat them like widgets? Good question.

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  1. furthermore, every time there is a budget crisis, the ax usually falls where it will cause the most damage – in the classrooms. We want highly motivated and highly educated people to come into education, but then they always face the possibility of losing their jobs, as is the case in California.

    Starting into my 9th year as an educator, I have faced the possibility of lay-off four times in my teaching career. This is insane.

  2. Why do public school teachers complain about large class size? Answer: Behavioral problems. Give me a class of 50 well-behaved, respectful, eager to learn fifth graders who have a good work ethic (even if some are academically below grade level) any day, over 25 students, many of whom are here primarily for babysitting or daycare.

  3. Here’s a richer state- and district-based set of data on teacher working conditions: http://www.newteachercenter.org/tlcsurvey/index.php.

    My colleague, Eric Hirsch, at the New Teacher Center, directs this effort.

  4. >Starting into my 9th year as an educator, I have faced the
    >possibility of lay-off four times in my teaching career. This is insane.

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but that is a very “entitled” attitude. Most people, at least in non-union jobs, face layoff continuously, without even the protection of yearly contracts. Most of us not only face it, but actually experience it on occasion.

    As for the “Widget Effect,” I think the answer is clear: teachers are treated like widgets because the unions have insured that, as far as the district is concerned, good ones and bad ones are just the same.

    LisaK: You’re right, but think about this scary angle: suppose we could turn back the clock to old behavioral norms where 99% or more of students respected their teachers and took the rules seriously. What percent of the overall education budget do you think it would save? I’d guess at least 10%, maybe a good deal more. Poorly behaved kids are costing us countless billions of dollars per year. Even worse, they’re leading to poorer outcomes for the well-behaved children, who then have that much smaller of a chance of doing well in life. Add to this the costs to society of all of those malcontents who use public services (and incarceration) at a huge rate and you see that poor parenting skills are probably one of the most expensive problems in the country.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    I am not certain that Forster makes his case. First, the data that he uses are largely perception data–that is, the attributions of teachers. We can be clear from this that public school teachers believe themselves to be less well supported than private school teachers believe themselves to be. Second, I am not at all clear how he is defining “burn-out.” The data that he cites have to do with the number of teachers who say that they will teach as long as they are able and the number of teachers who will teach until they reach retirement age. If leaving the classroom at retirement age is the same thing as burn-out, perhaps we should be speculating on the interaction of a guaranteed pension and teacher burn-out.

    Clearly he is supportive of various alternatives to public schools as we know them–as he admits in his narrative. And he extrapolates from his findings a suggestion of causality in the “monopoly” of government-run schools. I would be interested in some comparisons to the attitudes and beliefs of workers in other government-run monopolies: the post office, prisons, segments of government. I would also be interested in other key differences between the two groups he is comparing (public vs non-public school teachers): union vs non-union, rural/urban/suburban, populations served, classroom size, locus of decision-making (within the building or off-site in a central administration), salary and benefits, education and certification. By what baseline should answers be judged? Are they comparable to teachers in other countries? to workers in other fields? One in eight says that they don’t believe that their efforts can make a difference. Are these new teachers just incoming, or those on the way out, or evenly distributed. How does this compare to workers in other fields? How many doctors feel this way? How many social workers or psychiatrists?

    Otherwise, it is too easy to take an amorphous pile of data and use it to prove what you already believe.

  6. Homeschooling Granny says:

    In my homeschooling family the teachers set the policy, choose the curriculum, are able to maintain order, support each other and have enormous job satisfaction. I wish every teacher every where had the same.

    Maybe this relates to Joanne’s next post about the number of homeschoolers having increased.

  7. Rob, I worked in private industry (sans any degrees or jumping through the many hoops it takes to become a teacher) for quite a few years. I only ever faced lay-off once and was quickly rehired a few weeks later. My husband has worked in private industry for 30 years and he has never been laid off.

    You really think it is normal that for almost half of my teaching career I have faced the possibility of losing my job?

  8. I did not see any data about teacher attrition in public schools or private schools. Did I miss it? Maybe union members are just more skilled at complaining. From page 26 of the report: private school union membership = 7%, public school union membership = 78%. That’s a bigger percentage difference than any other difference quoted in the report, by far. Relying on surveys of opinion is inherently unreliable.

  9. Burnout can come and go, too. You can be pretty burned out for a couple of years, then get the drive back again. Or, you can ask me if I’m burned out in March, and I’m going to be feeling pretty close. Ask me again in August, not so much.

  10. FuzzyRider says:

    I burned out-and quit- after 17 years of teaching. I researched the topic of burnout in an attempt to understand what was happening to me and what I could do to reverse or somehow change the process. Based on what I discovered I concluded that it was not really pay or benefits or recognition or lack of control, etc.,these were only convenient excuses to hang the blame on. The real, underlying reason was that my expectations of my job and the reality of my job had diverged to such an extent that the strain had become unbearable. Faced with giving up my expectations (and becoming a useless classroom cipher waiting to retire)or my reality (i.e. job) I chose the latter as a point of honor and professionalism. I don’t recommend that ANYONE hang on to a job you have burned out in, for any reason; the negative impact you will have on your students will inevitably be great, even if you don’t believe that this is the case.

    “Not-teaching” has proved to be a great adventure and relief. My first post-teaching job was in the oilfield as a ‘mud-logger’ (wellsite geologist)- it is the perfect job that I recommend for any recovering teacher; they put you off in a trailer by yourself and if you do your job properly, everyone leaves you the hell alone!! After my sanity returned, I got a job where my talents, creativity and work are recognized, welcomed, encouraged and rewarded. It is a refreshing change from education.

  11. Tom West says:

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but that is a very “entitled” attitude. Most people, at least in non-union jobs, face layoff continuously, without even the protection of yearly contracts.

    No, that’s management incompetence. (Note, not facing layoff does not mean absolute job security.) From a strict business perspective, professionals value job security. In an environment where that job security is more or less absent, you’ll need to significantly increase pay to attract skilled applicants. (There’s a reason why contractors earn 1.5x – 2x as much as full-time employees – there’s no job security.)

    If, as I suspect, they’re not offering much larger pay, then it simply means that they’re attracting job applicants as if they were paying substantially less, i.e. a much less skilled. As well, they’re losing their better teachers to those boards who actually *can* estimate manpower and budgets needs competently.

  12. Tom West says:

    Indeed, I do think that much of burnout can be fairly easily attributed to the simple fact that the public system must *somehow* deal with disruptive students who do not want to be there.

    When push comes to shove, this means that teachers have no means of ultimately enforcing discipline. This makes their primary goal of educating somewhere between difficult and impossible. That becomes burnout. (Of course, there will always be a few amazing teachers who simply maintain discipline with force of will, but those are truly few and far between.)

  13. Ponderosa says:

    Tom, you said it well. I too think that sluggish, rude, and disruptive students do great harm to the system –by inducing teacher burnout among other things. As a culture, we must gain the will to get tough on these kids; in the end, it will be good for these difficult kids themselves, since firm discipline will make many of them shape up and start learning and start acting civilly.

    Most students are wonderful, yet sadly many of us teachers end the school day with the images of a handful of vile behaviors etched on our brains. This isn’t right.

  14. Nothing will improve until there is the political will to enforce behavior and performance standards. At the moment, public schools have a significant number (in some schools perhaps a majority) who have no interest in education; they are there because of compulsory education laws. In those cases, schools are merely babysitting/warehousing, while allowing those kids to disrupt the education of thr kids who value it.

  15. addendum: In my experience, behavioral issues are just asklikely to drive families to switch to private schools as are academic issues; in some cases even more likely. I have frequently heard such departures characterized as racism, but I have known a number of minority families who wanted to remove their kids from contact with same-race kids who saw academic achievement as a betrayal of their racial/ethnic status. They sent their non-Catholic kids to Catholic schools, even though their local high school was very good. A relatively small fraction of kids poisoned the rest of that ethnic barrel. Placed in a very diverse private school, both social and academic performance improved dramatically and the kids and families were happier.

  16. Karin Goldmark says:

    I am surprised and dismayed at the student-bashing in many of these posts. A gentle reminder–the students are children. Adults are responsible for creating the learning environments we call schools, and adults are responsible for the outcomes, including the student behavior outcomes.

    When I refer to adults, I am referring to people throughout the education and government sectors, including teachers and principals (obviously), but also including policy makers who create the frameworks within which we all work.

    We can debate the merits of compulsory education, and all kinds of questions about what the best structure is for schools, and teacher effectiveness or lack thereof, all we want–and we should, because getting to our best answers to those questions is the only way to change education. I just fail to understand why on earth it’s useful to badmouth the children.

    When there’s a dysfunctional family down the block from you and the kids run wild, do you chalk it up to “bad kids?” I doubt it. You probably chalk it up to messed up parents.

    Why on earth would you attribute the challenges in schools to the children?

    And by the way, to the person who left teaching and worked as a mudlogger–much respect! That’s the best explanation I’ve read of why teaching is such a challenging job.

  17. Ragnarok says:

    “Why on earth would you attribute the challenges in schools to the children?”

    There’s plenty of blame to go around; first and foremost society, then parents, teachers, bureaucrats, politicians, teachers’ unions.

    Nonetheless, some kids are inherently bad apples. You do no-one any good by denying this.

    In the same vein, absolving badly-behaved kids of responsibility for their actions hurts all of us.