Teachers Are Increasingly Frustrated With Their Work, And That’s Bad For Students

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. So some folks thought it might be a swell idea to ask teachers how “appreciated” they feel. The short answer? Not so much.

Results of a wide-ranging new survey of 3,328 K-12 classroom teachers finds the nation’s frontline educators are committed to their students and generally satisfied with their schools and their colleagues but are deeply frustrated with how they’re being treated.

Most teachers believe their voices are ignored by policy makers at the district (76 percent), state (94 percent), and national (94 percent) levels.

Although most teachers say what would really help their work would be smaller class sizes and more time for planning and collaboration with colleagues, what a majority of them report is too much emphasis on testing, especially in high- and medium-poverty schools where teachers say they are way more apt to spend more than a month on test-prep activities for district and state tests.

“A majority of teachers believe they spend too much time preparing students for state-mandated tests (62 percent) and district-mandated tests (51 percent),” the survey summary states. “Very few teachers believed they spent too little time preparing students for district and/or state-mandated tests.”

In the meantime, the tests have an impact on the evaluations of most teachers, even though a majority of these teachers say these evaluations are only minimally or not at all helpful.

The discontent teachers feel in the workplace is actually the continuation of a long and alarming trend with undoubtedly negative impacts on students.

Teachers Are “Clearly Frustrated”

At USA Today, education reporter Greg Toppo notes, “In the survey sections that invited open comments, teachers wrote in almost equal measures about their desire to help and support students and their frustration with an education system that is too focused on testing.”

As a result of these disconnects between what teachers want and what they’re getting, most (60 percent) say their enthusiasm for teaching has lessened, and nearly half say they would leave teaching soon if they could get a higher paying job.

“They’re clearly frustrated and they’re clearly feeling overwrought,” Toppo quotes Maria Ferguson, executive director for the Center on Education Policy, the organization that released the survey.

The level of frustration teachers feel may be affecting the supply of good teachers available for our children’s classrooms.

“These survey results may shed some light on why a growing number of school systems are having trouble recruiting and retaining teachers,” CEP surmises in its survey report, citing data from studies pointing to poor retention rates for new teachers and the declining population of students enrolled in teacher preparation programs.

A Long, Depressing Trend

The level of frustration teachers feel is a continuation of a long and depressing trend. Four years ago, when I last made Teacher Appreciation Week an opportune time to check in on teacher morale, I linked to findings of the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, an annual polling of teachers no longer carried out.

In that survey, roughly one in three teachers said they were likely to leave the profession in the next five years, noted a report in the New York Times. The Times article noted that dissatisfaction rate had risen from a rate of one in four recorded by the Met in 2009.

The specific complaints teachers recorded in the 2012  are similar to teachers’ objections today – larger class sizes, unhelpful evaluations, and cuts to arts, music, and other programs, which are outcomes of the increased emphasis on test scores in math and reading.

The Times summary also noted the Met teacher survey of 2012 recorded the highest level of job dissatisfaction among teachers since 1989.

So what we see is a very long trend line of teachers being increasingly frustrated with how they’re being treated in their work – with dissatisfaction rates over the past seven years going from one in four, to one in three, to now nearly one in two. The survey instrument changed, but the trend can’t be denied.

How are government leaders responding?

Politicians Don’t Get It

As I noted in my 2012 post, we’ve recently had a rash of Republican governors – such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, and New Jersey’s Chris Christie – who have pushed education policies that are exceedingly harsher on classroom teachers, challenging their rights to collective bargaining and due process, subjecting them to unfair and inaccurate evaluation processes, and threatening their health and retirement security.

At the federal level, in 2012 President Obama and his then-challenger Republican Mitt Romney generally agreed on key issues affecting teachers, favoring teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores, expansions of charter schools instead of investing more in teacher pay and existing public schools, and creating competitive merit pay programs for teachers.

Most politicians – with a few notable exceptions – now take on clashes with teachers’ unions as a badge of honor.

So how’s that working out?

A Rising Volume Of Discontented Voices

When people aren’t listening to you the natural response is to raise your voice.

Teacher discontent is spilling out of the schoolyard and into the streets. As the Christian Science Monitor notes, in its summary of the CEP survey, “Teacher strikes have made headlines in recent months as teachers in Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere have organized large-scale protests both in support of their fellow teachers and against an education system they say is failing them and their students.”

In a series of “school walk-ins” earlier this month, teachers speaking out about the conditions in their schools were joined by students and parents. In coordinated actions in 75 cities and counties around the nation, public education activists demonstrated at local schools and then walked into their buildings en masse to show their support for teachers and public schools.

The walk-ins are organized by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), a coalition of community and national organizations and unions, as “a positive action that says that these are our schools and our communities.”

In an overview of this month’s walk-ins, Mother Jones notes, the walk-ins that began last spring “have doubled in size since February.”

It’s true, changing economic conditions, such as a new employment downturn, could alter the trend in teacher shortages in schools and in the preparation pipeline. And many policy leaders are calling for increases in teacher pay, including President Obama.

But making meaningful changes to teachers’ work conditions has to go beyond filling jobs and increasing pay. Teachers need smaller class sizes and more opportunities for planning and collaboration with their peers. They need to be relieved of the emphasis on standardized testing and the use of test scores in their evaluations. And our schools need to support the broad range of curricula that teachers know students benefit from, including the arts and music.

The reality is teachers’ work conditions are inextricably connected to their ability to engage in quality instruction and to develop cultivating relationships with students. Teachers know this, but people in charge won’t until they start listening to them.


4 thoughts on “Teachers Are Increasingly Frustrated With Their Work, And That’s Bad For Students”

  1. “Teachers know this, but people in charge won’t until they start listening to them.”

    …and people in charge won’t start listening to them, as long as the private-sector profiteers are funding their campaigns. They don’t want to know the truth, because their motivation is profit, rather than actually benefiting students.

  2. Thanks, Jeff, for this important article. Basically, I agree and find your summary and your call to listen helpful. Nonetheless, it would be more accurate to say “most” politicians” rather than “virtually all” take clashes with teachers’ unions as a badge of honor. It would help, also, to point briefly to an exception or two. This situation could, maybe, turn around, and noting a place or two where the relationship is cooperative/collaborative could assist, imo.

  3. Today I read some practice test material related to the Common Core agenda. Questions regarding a short story about a boy and his dog seemed frustrating and unlikely to encourage young students to enjoy reading. A test-maker’s analysis of a famous Robert Frost poem was questionable at best. While STEM is getting attention and funding, parents who want to help their children may be baffled by the latest approaches to math. Those of us concerned that joy is being eliminated (tested out) of the learning process should consider developing programs that aid parents and other caregivers, not just their children. It’s obvious that corporate professional test makers don’t want test taking to be fun. A revolution seems necessary to allow students being tested the opportunity to go over the answers with teachers after taking a test so they can learn from the experience.
    Doug Giebel
    Big Sandy, Montana

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