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“A vicious cycle of disempowerment”: The relationship between neoliberal policies and teachers’ reports of morale and pedagogy in an urban high school

by Alyssa Hadley Dunn - 2020

Background/Context: This research is framed by theories of teacher morale and teacher empowerment and contributes to the literature on neoliberal educational policies and teacher burnout and attrition.

Purpose and Research Questions: The purpose of this study is to understand the intersections of teachers’ experiences with neoliberal policies, at one high school in the urban south. The research questions include: (1) How is the morale of exceptional urban teachers affected by the contextual factors of a neoliberal school climate? (2) How does their morale relate to teachers’ reports of their pedagogy?

Research Design: This study utilized a qualitative case study design and, in addition to traditional analytic methods used in case studies, drew on grounded theory methodology. I collected quantitative data from approximately 30 staff members in the form of two surveys and qualitative data from eight focal participants. These participants were all (1) veteran teachers, (2) recognized as strong/exceptional teachers according to both neoliberal and non-neoliberal indicators, and (3) represented a diversity of other identity markers. My analysis here focuses on the qualitative data, and I use the quantitative results as a way to contextualize the data of my eight focal participants. Types of qualitative data include: interviews (semi-structured), a focus group, participant observations (of meetings at the district and school level), document analysis (of district-produced documents, school newspaper articles, local newspaper articles, and teachers’ written reflections), and researcher journals and memos.

Findings/Results: Results indicate that: (1) Morale is influenced by a variety of contextual factors at multiple levels, and being in a “good” school or being labelled an “exceptional” educator is not enough to keep one from feeling the effects of disempowerment brought about by top-down mandates, and (2) Teachers overwhelmingly reported that low morale impacted their view of their own pedagogy, contributing to a “vicious cycle” of low morale, disempowerment, and less effective pedagogy. The focal participants, even though they were hailed as successful educators, felt discouraged and unable to maintain quality pedagogy because of restrictive educational policies. Thus, I argue that educational policies at the school, district, state, and national level significantly decrease teachers’ morale and have a negative influence on their perception of their pedagogy. In a vicious cycle, low morale makes them feel like less effective teachers, and their belief that they are less effective lowers their morale.

The quality of teaching is determined not just by the quality of the teachersalthough that is clearly criticalbut also the environment in which they work. Able teachers are not necessarily going to reach their potential in settings that do not provide appropriate support or sufficient challenge or reward. (OECD, 2005, p. 9)

I dont want to be the last one on a sinking ship. Everyone is discouraged, so everyone is leaving. What reasons do we have to stay? We cant control whats happening to us or the kids. Can we?

Urban high school teacher

As teachers of all levels know, one of the most rewarding elements of teaching is hearing from former students. Yet, over the past few years, students have been contacting me for a new reason: to tell me they are overwhelmed and demoralized in the profession for which I helped to prepare them. Indeed, in the midst of writing this manuscript, I received an email from a former student, titled, Venting . . . sigh. The author wrote, How do I stay positive in such a negative environment? . . . There are SO MANY demands on us. Like . . . how is this okay? I'm really trying to hang in there. This is one story of many. What happens to teachers amidst a climate where nearly 50% of new teachers leave within five years, turnover costs at least $2.2 billion per year, and job satisfaction is lower than it has ever been (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014; Ingersoll, 2003)? What happens when more teachers are given scripted curriculum, forced to reduce their instruction to test prep pedagogy, and frequently blamed for societal problems (Kumashiro, 2011)? Such problems are global in scope, and the polities discussed here are U.S.-based instantiations of an international education reform movement that argues for increasing accountability, testing, and competition in public education (Ball, 2012). Researchers argue that these challenges are even more acute in urban schools, where multi-level top-down bureaucracy, lack of funding and resources, and systemic racism infiltrate every aspect of teaching and learning (e.g., Stairs, Donnell, & Dunn, 2011; Lipman, 2011; Milner, 2006; Tyack, 1974). Despite these troubling statistics, trends in teacher retention and satisfaction appear to have been little noticed by researchers, policymakers, and the public (Ingersoll & Merrill, 2010, p. 14).

Much research focuses on the fact that the majority of teachers leave within three to five years after hire (Borman & Dowling, 2008; Ingersoll, 2002), and other scholarship, including my previous work, has examined why teachers leave and how their leaving is connected to oppressive educational policies, identity issues, and tension between the teachers they have become and the teachers they wanted to be (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Dunn, 2013, 2015;  Dunn, & Durrance, 2014; Ingersoll, 2001; Loeb, Darling-Hammond, & Luczak, 2005; Santoro, 2011). But what happens before teachers leave? If we think of teacher learning and development as a continuum (Darling-Hammond, 2008; Day, 1999; Feiman-Nemser, 2001) that begins with induction and ends with retirement or leaving the profession, there is a vast period in between entering and leaving. It is over the course of a teachers career trajectory that I situate this study of veteran teachers in an urban school, as I consider how they experience their profession and how these experiences impact their morale and pedagogy.

The veteran teachers and urban school are unique, however, in that they are contexts that one might consider to be above the fray, so to speak, in a neoliberal climate. Wilson High School, described in detail later, is considered one of the best schools in the district, commonly highlighted in local media and among city residents. It is a school that, for many years, remained under the radar in terms of top-down district- and state-level measures because of a historic legacy of being located near (and influenced by) a major research university. Further, participants chosen for this study were community nominated as exceptional educators, and I was interested in whether or not their evident talent would make them more resilient to some of the stressors and challenges of urban teaching. Sadly, they did not feel particularly exceptional and were just as likely to have low morale as their peer teachers. The context itself, and the teachers within it, are those who have the greatest chance of remaining insulated from the negative impacts of neoliberal policies on teachers morale and pedagogy. And yet, as the findings show below, there was no avoiding the web of destruction any longer, as they, too, fell prey to feelings of disempowerment and questioned their teacher identities and commitment to the profession.  

While this data was collected several years prior to publication, the findings here remain sadly relevant, as it continues to be difficult to recruit and retain teachers for urban schools. Even in the wake of large-scale teacher strikes around the United States, teachers are still writing public resignation letters about the difficulties of their profession (Dunn, 2018; Dunn, Farver, Guenther, & Wexler, 2016; Dunn, Deroo, & Van Der Heide, 2017) and seeing their salaries and benefits decrease at alarming rates. A series of Time Magazine covers in September 2018 illustrated the dire situations of many teachers today, working multiple jobs, paying off outstanding debt, and facing policies and practices that continue to deprofessionalize teaching (Reilly, 2018).

This research investigates the experiences of educators in one metropolitan high school over the course of one school year. In particular, the research questions include: (1) How is the morale of exceptional urban teachers affected by the contextual factors of a neoliberal school climate? (2) How does their morale relate to teachers reports of their pedagogy? Essentially, I explored how teachers were making sense of a climate that felt like a sinking ship over which they had no control and how a vicious cycle of disempowerment influenced the way they believed they were performing in the classroom.


Most of the research on teacher morale is now relatively outdated (Black, 2001; Ellenburg, 1972; Evans, 1997, 1998; Lumsden, 1998) and little of it relates to current educational policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Those few studies that do link contemporary policies to teacher morale (Byrd-Blake et. al, 2010; Santoro, 2011) call for additional research. Though this study is U.S.-based, similar global reforms around the world have impacted teacher morale and resilience in other countries, as well. For example, the work of Gu and Day (2013) demonstrates how teachers in British schools were impacted by factors embedded in the socio-cultural and policy contexts of teaching and in different personal, relational and organisational conditions of their work and lives (p. 22). Additionally, though several previous studies report why teachers have low morale, no empirical research examines the effect of low morale on teachers reports of their pedagogy.   

In considering why the research on teacher morale appears to have reached its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I wondered if research on morale was replaced with another concept or theory. Indeed, it appears that more current research deals with job satisfaction (or dissatisfaction), which is similar to but not completely synonymous with teacher morale. As far back as Guion (1958) and Coughlan (1970), scholars argued that morale extends beyond merely satisfaction. Guion (1958) defined morale as the extent to which an individual's needs are satisfied and the extent to which the individual perceives that satisfaction as stemming from his total job situation (p. 60). Extending this definition, Coughlan (1970) conceptualized morale as specific human needs and individual perceptions of the environmental sources for the satisfaction of these needs (p. 222).  

Interestingly, though Coughlans quantitative survey of nearly 1,200 teachers was conducted in 1970, much of it would undoubtedly sound familiar to contemporary educators. He found 13 factors that affected teacher morale, which he organized into categories of administrative operations, working relationships, school effectiveness, and career fulfillment (p. 224). I would argue that his categories are still relevant today, though some factors have been exacerbated by the current neoliberal policy context in which teachers have even less autonomy, time, respect, and collaborative opportunities. While teachers may not experience more challenges in a quantitative sense, teachers work today has been qualitatively altered a contemporary high-stakes, accountability-driven neoliberal environment, where the focus in many places is more about raising test scores through standardized curriculum and pedagogy than about educating the whole child and developing critical thinkers. Fullan (2016) concludes that teacher dissatisfaction and disengagement today is likely the function of adverse micro factors (local schools conditions) and macro factors (policy and attitudes toward the profession).


Within education, empowerment can be considered a process whereby school participants develop the competence to take charge of their own growth and resolve their own problems. Empowered individuals believe they have the skills and knowledge to act on a situation and improve it (Short, 1994, p. 488). Empowerment, like morale, is linked to feelings of autonomy and control, opportunities to contribute to organizational growth and development, and the intersections of the personal and the environmental. In a foundational theoretical argument, Short (1994) argues that there are six empirically-derived dimensions of teacher empowerment. Those dimensions underlying the construct include: Involvement in decision making, teacher impact, teacher status, autonomy, opportunities for professional development, and teacher self-efficacy. The dimensions advance the discussion about teacher empowerment beyond mere rhetoric (p. 488). For the purposes of this study, I consider teachers experiences in light of these dimensions. That is, are they involved in decision-making or given autonomy? What does it mean that their school-level status is as high-achieving and successful educators, but that they are working within a field that is consistently maligned and deprofessionalized in public policy?


Because morale and empowerment, as theoretical concepts, are deeply informed by the environments in which teachers work, it is vital to understand the sociocultural contexts of urban education today. One such context is the presence of neoliberal ideology and policy. Neoliberalism is, at once, theoretical, ideological, political, and practical. Neoliberalism as an economic theory emphasizes private over public interests and a reliance on market-based competition to spur innovation and reform (Giroux, 2004; Harvey, 2005). As an ideology, neoliberalism has become part of a global social imaginary, a symbolic force (Bourdieu, 1998) that has transformed states and state-run institutions like schools. It is now the normative order of reason that transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic (Brown, 2015, pp. 910). In this way, it does not matter which political party is in office at the time, as Democrats and Republicans alike are equally capable of practicing and performing neoliberalism: indeed, because the language of neoliberalism is one of civil rights and advancing democracy, a broad range of individuals find its tenets appealing (Dunn, 2018).

Practically, it is difficult to look at schools today without seeing evidence of neoliberalism in nearly every policy choice and impact. Policies like A Nation at Risk (1983) and No Child Left Behind (2001) have brought to education market reform ideologies such as competition, high stakes testing, standardization, vouchers, and school choice (Mungal, 2016, p. 6). Students and their families are viewed simultaneously as human capital and consumers of teachers human capital. Scholars have continuously demonstrated various incantations of neoliberalism in schools, including those mentioned above, as well as deregulation and devolution of control and oversight of schooling; emphasis on standardized tests . . . ; and weakening of teacher unions (Bullough, 2016, p. 64).

Neoliberal policies and reforms are not divorced from those who implement them: district officials, school administrators, and teachers. These stakeholders become policy-makers at the point of implementation (Anderson & Cohen, 2015, p. 15). Neoliberal policies have, by and large, done little to change the structure of achievement and opportunity in U.S. schools and instead have exacerbated the plight of teachers without furnishing the conditions for more fundamental, sustained reform in those situations (Fullan, 2016). Despite extensive research on neoliberal reform in education, few projects move into classrooms to see the effects of such policies on the lived experiences of educators and their students. Those that do point to the negative impact of such policies on many aspects of teachers lives. For example, Mausethagens (2013) review of literature on the relationship between accountability and testing policies and teachers lives found that the idea of policy implementation can be especially troublesome if teachers experience that the initiatives contradict what is seen by most teachers as the main purpose of teaching, namely, the caring and relational aspect (p. 23).  The testing discussed here is not that which is created by teachers and for local contexts; rather, it is imposed through top-down bureaucratic mechanisms with little input from school-level stakeholders. Similarly, Picower and Mayorga (2015) see neoliberal policies in education as a multi-headed hydra that infiltrates all aspects of teaching and learning, including the maintenance of inequity in teachers and students lives. In a final example, Stern and Brown (2016) argue that neoliberal policies can produce professional depression in urban teachers as they seek to maintain a commitment to activist education.


A second body of literature upon which this study draws is teacher attrition and burnout. The research on teacher attrition is vast, especially in the United States. Countering popular rhetoric that there is a teacher shortage, empirical evidence continues to demonstrate that the larger problem is teacher turnover (Ingersoll, 2003; Ingersoll & May, 2011; Stairs, Donnell, & Dunn, 2011). Attrition disproportionately affects new teachers, teachers of color, and those working in urban and high-needs environments and can cost up to $2.2 billion dollars per year (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014). In high-needs schools, like those examined in this study, the turnover rate is about 20 percent per calendar yearroughly 50 percent higher than the rate in more affluent schools (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014, p. 3). Importantly, research has also connected teacher turnover to student achievement, demonstrating that teacher retention improves student success (Black, 2001; Ronfeldt, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2013). When veteran teachers depart, the novice educators who replace them may be

less effective than their more experienced peers because teachers improve rapidly during their first years in the classroom (Rockoff, 2004; Harris & Sass, 2011; Papay & Kraft, 2011). Also, persistent turnover can disrupt efforts to maintain instructional continuity and to establish a strong organizational culture in which teachers share best practices and work collectively to support struggling students. (Kraft et al., 2012, p. 4)

As demonstrated in study after study, teachers strongest reasons for leaving are based on working conditionsthose environmental and systemic factors that teachers argue make it more difficult to do their jobs, feel competent and confident as professionals, and have a voice in policies at all levels (e.g., Byrd-Blake et al., 2010; Dunn, 2013, 2014; Santoro, 2011). In a study of 95 urban teachers, Kraft et al. (2012) summarized findings that echo much of the research on teacher attrition, arguing that it is not the students who push teachers out but the systemic conditions:

Teachers repeatedly described how the school context either enhanced or diminished their relationships with students and their ability to teach them effectively. They reported that several factors were critical in facilitating their success with students: instructional support for meeting students diverse learning needs, supplemental social and psychological support for students who faced personal challenges, and disciplinary support in maintaining an orderly environment for teaching and learning. When these supports were present, teachers tended to say they planned to stay at their schools. When they were absent, poor working conditions compounded the difficulties of teaching, leading some teachers to transfer to more supportive, stable environments. (p. 2)

In sum, when teachers felt that their schools did not provide an environment in which they could be successful with their students, they expressed frustration and were more likely to consider leaving (p. 2). Specifically, Santoro (2011) writes of principled leavers, or those who leave teaching because they feel the current state of teaching demands that they compromise their ethics or morals. She sees principled leaving as a category of teacher attrition. More recently, I have analyzed teachers viral resignation letters and found that teachers resignations may, in fact, be a final pedagogical act of resistance and agency (Dunn, 2018). Similar struggles with teacher turnover have been revealed in literature about countries from England, to Australia, to Hong Kong, to South Africa (Allen, Burgess, & Mayo, 2012; Goddard & Goddard, 2006; Plunkett & Dyson, 2011; Xaba, 2003). However, all of this research examines teachers feelings after they have left.

In contrast, the research presented here investigates what teachers feel while they are still teaching, potentially uncovering spaces of possibility for improving not only teacher morale but also teacher empowerment and retention. Negative feelings while teaching are often classified as teacher burnout. Scholars typically describe burnout as being composed of three parts: exhaustion (physical and emotional), a loss of connection to ones work and colleagues (cynicism), and a loss of confidence in their ability to do their work (inefficacy) (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). These negative emotions may result from increasing demands at work or a lack of support to meet those increasing demands, and they may lead to things like low morale or attrition.

What would teacher commitment look like amidst challenging working conditions? Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) argue that treating teachers as professionals and recognizing their capabilities is key to improving teacher commitment to the profession. They also summarize existing research to argue that schools and teachers can reduce burnout and attrition by: (1) focusing on the career stages where teachers are demonstrated to most effective, between 8 and 23 years, rather than solely focusing on the induction years; (2) hiring and retaining strong leaders who can support teachers sustained commitments and professional development; (3) working in schools with supportive and like-minded colleagues who are also committed to professional growth; and (4) having a voice in creating curriculum and policy and reducing workload. The authors show, as supported by findings in this study discussed later, that the biggest challenge to teachers declining professional commitment is increasing workload and policy regimes. Overall, work on teacher professionalism demonstrates is the importance of aligning status with quality, or giving educators the opportunity to be professional and be a professional at the same timeto have status and autonomy and be trusted and able to make informed judgements effectively (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012, p. 81, emphasis original).


This study utilized a qualitative case study design and, in addition to traditional analytic methods used in case studies, drew on grounded theory methodology as a way to inductively understand the relationship between teacher morale and pedagogy in a neoliberal school climate. As a case study, my research focuses on the school context and the experiences of a small group of educators at one school at one point in time. This in-depth methodology allowed for the collection of thick, rich descriptions and participant narratives, all of which are important features to add to the existing body of literature on teacher attrition and morale that is primarily quantitative in nature. In addition to an array of qualitative data from focal participants, I also collected quantitative data from approximately 30 staff members in the form of two surveys. My analysis focuses on the qualitative data, and I use the quantitative results as a way to contextualize the data of my eight focal participants. Below, I describe the context and focal participants, as well as the variety of data sources and my analytic methods.


From the outside of the building, Wilson High School (pseudonym) could pass for any elite, private preparatory school. Its imposing bell tower (though no one knows if it ever worked) and impressive brick façade belie the reality facing many students inside. Picnic tables ring the lane for school busses, and well-trimmed bushes guard the massive staircase to the front entrance. A new addition was built several years ago, with new science labs and additional space for classrooms. From this vantage point, no one would know that some classrooms do not have enough desks for the students; that textbooks are falling apart, outdated, or non-existent in some classes; and that the singular computer lab is so often booked for computerized state testing that few teachers are ever able to take advantage of even the outdated computers.  

Yet, despite these challenges, Wilson has remained one of the best schools in a major metropolitan area, which I will call the Glendale School District, in the southeastern United States. I have conducted research in Glendale for over six years (Dunn, 2013). Glendale is one of the largest districts in the region. The table below illustrates demographic factors for the district and the individual school studied here.

Table 1. Demographics of Glendale School District and Wilson High School


Glendale School District

Wilson High School


136 schools

1 high school

Student Population

~100,000 students

~1600 students

Racial/ethnic makeup

~88% students of color

~70% students of color

Economic makeup

~70% on free- or reduced-lunch

~50% on free- or reduced-lunch


13,000 staff

100 teachers

Graduation rate

no consistent data available

81% (steadily dropping from the high 90th-percentile)

Glendale, like many urban districts, is consistently plagued by a lack of resources, decreasing budget, and top-down bureaucracy. Teachers were furloughed, their benefits were decreased, and, at the time of the study, they had gone without raises or cost of living increases for six years. At the same time, the district received federal funds from a Race to the Top grant that requires teacher effectiveness to be tied to students standardized test scores. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were implemented with little consultation from teachers, and the number of accountability measures increased.

The participants in this study have lived through a number of policy changes since they began teaching, whether that was five or fifteen years ago. They saw No Child Left Behind planned, implemented, and then altered into Race to the Top. (At the time of this study, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA, The Every Child Succeeds Act, had not yet been introduced. Teachers were still operating under guidelines from RTTT.) They witnessed up to four different systems of state standards for their content areas, most recently with a switch from a state-developed system to the CCSS. They were evaluated under three different sets of professional requirements and rubrics, based on the current standards and policies at the time. The changes, as one survey respondent noted, either come at a rapid pace or appear out of nowhere, so just as we get used to something, there is something new in its place and we have to be trained all over again. Another teacher confirmed, The only thing we can be sure of in this district is that the plans will change, not what they ever actually will be.

It is amidst this political climate that Wilson High School exists. Wilson has been able to stay, according to a participant, above the fray in Glendale for many years. Wilson is located in the north part of the Glendale district, which is home to more wealthy White families than in the southern part of the district. As one of the oldest schools in the area, it has benefited from a historical (and many would say racist) legacy of serving White students and having an active and influential parent base. Thus, while the majority of students at Wilson are students of color bussed in from neighboring areas, the influence of the wealthy, White parents social capital is palpable. For example, White students are disproportionately represented in AP and IB classes. Further, Wilson has previously benefitted from a relatively stable administration and teaching staff, particularly when compared to a district where it is common practice for the central administration to transfer principals every two or three years and relocate assistant principals in the middle of the year, and where some schools lose an average of 10 teachers per year. However, in the five years leading up to this study, Wilson has succumbed to the same pressures faced by majority Black schools in the southern part of the district, as their faculty and staff have been cut due to budget shortfalls, classrooms have become overcrowded with a district policy to raise class sizes, and teachers have been forced to administer more benchmarks and assessments during class time. Their major subgroups of Black, Asian, Hispanic, English language learners, and students with disabilities did not meet the passing rate on standardized exams in the year prior to this study.


At the time of this study, there were five administrators (one principal and four assistant principals) and approximately 100 faculty at Wilson. Within this group of faculty, I recruited my focal participants through purposeful sampling, looking for those who were: (1) veteran, (2) recognized as strong/exceptional teachers according to both neoliberal and non-neoliberal indicators, and (3) represented a diversity of other identity markers.

In particular, because much research has been conducted with new teachers, who commonly leave urban schools within five years, I was interested in the experiences of veteran teachers who had surpassed this tipping point. Teachers are defined as veteran by the district if they have taught for five years or more. I also sought out participants who were recognized by peers and administrators as exceptional teachers. They were leaders of popular extra-curricular activities, had been nominated or selected as Teachers of the Year or Star Teachers, and consistently received accolades for their skills and dispositions. I was interested in whether or not their evident talent would make them more resilient to some of the stressors and challenges of urban teaching. However, beyond these factors, the teachers selected here would also have been deemed effective according to neoliberal measures, such as how their students scored on standardized tests and other district- and state-level benchmarks. They had all received the equivalent of highly effective or effective on recent supervisor evaluations. Additionally, I also sought to diversify participants by subject taught, years of experience, teaching background (traditional or alternative preparation), level taught (general, advanced, or AP/IB), and age. It was difficult to diversify by race and gender because the school reflected the national trend that the majority of teachers are still White and female (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). Focal participants are described in Table 2.

Table 2. Focal Participants




Years of Teaching Experience

Content Area and Level





Foreign Language (General and IB)





Social Studies (General)





Language Arts (IB)





Social Studies (AP and IB)



African American


Language Arts (General and Advanced)





Fine Arts (General)





Social Studies (General and Advanced)





Mathematics/ Special Education (General, inclusion)

Beyond the focal participants, I also distributed a survey to the entire faculty at two points during the year (January and April). Approximately 30 participants completed each survey; some participants overlapped and others completed only one survey, though it is impossible to know how many participants completed both as their responses were anonymous. Participants in the surveys had between 1 and 15+ years of experience and also represented a variety of content areas, ages, and genders.

Also important for this study are contextual issues related to teacher communities. The participants worked in a right to work state with no collective bargaining options, no active state- or local-unions, and no active professional teacher organizations. In fact, to be seen as a teacher who was engaged in collective organizing was to be seen as a threat to the status quo, as a radical or a rebel.


This study utilized a variety of data sources, which I collected in an attempt to most fully understand teachers experiences around morale and pedagogy in their urban school context. The general categories of data include: surveys (close- and open-ended questions), interviews (semi-structured), a focus group, participant observations (of meetings at the district and school level), document analysis (of district-produced documents, school newspaper articles, local newspaper articles, and teachers written reflections), and researcher journals and memos. Table 3 includes additional details about each data source.

Table 3. Data Sources





- Given two times during the year to the whole school, distributed by email

- Late January and late April

- Quantitative scale items and qualitative open-ended items

30 teachers, including the 8 focal participants


- Semi-structured interviews, at several points during the year

8 focal participants

Focus Group

- January 2013

4 focal participants

Participant Observation

- School board meeting in February

- Faculty meeting/ brainstorming session in late April

48 teachers, 2 administrators

Document Analysis

- Written reflections from teachers

- Documents from the district

- School newspaper articles

- Public newspaper articles about topics/issues that were happening at the time and that teachers discussed


Researcher Journal

- Memos taken throughout the research process, especially those taken after interviews, focus groups, and participant observations

- Author

Semi-structured interviews formed a substantial amount of the data presented here. Data were collected at approximately three points per participant across one school year, beginning in September 2012 and ending in May 2013. The interviews used a semi-structured protocol guide that allowed for clarifying and probing questions when needed (Rubin & Rubin, 2011). Interviews lasted between one to two hours each, for a total of approximately 35 hours of transcribed interview data, plus a two-hour focus group.

As noted above, my data analysis closely aligned with grounded theory methods (Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, 2014). I was interested in studying what was happening to urban teachers amidst a climate that I viewed as devaluing them, their skills, and their students. As a former teacher, this arose out of a genuine concern that, when talking with my friends who were still practicing educators, we constantly reverted back to discussing how demoralizing and overwhelming it is to be in the classroom today. Because grounded theory method begins, as inherent in the term, from the ground up, my research began with informal conversations with current teachers and colleagues. Groundedness was achieved through an iterative process of moving between these informal conversations, current literature, and data collection and analysis. Later, as I began my inquiry, I compared my initial findings to related literature, that which you see above, and to the existing theoretical framework of teacher empowerment, when the data revealed the links between morale, pedagogy, and empowerment. As is typical in grounded theory research, I assumed this approach in order to best represent participants experiences and explain how these experiences inform a theory that is grounded in the data (Charmaz, 2006; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Through this thematic analysis, I also remained attuned to what counterfactuals may have been emerging, or when teachers may have had positive feelings about policies, morale, and pedagogy. The only time these positive feelings emerged was when they discussed what one participant called potential morale boosters during the focus group, but this notion of booster was summarily dismissed by the group (including the original speaker) when they said such morale enhancers (like free breakfast or wearing jeans on Fridays) were no longer enough to balance out morale busters. An example of my coding procedures can be found in Table 4, which illustrates a variety of data sources and original codes that I eventually collapsed into a final condensed code related to District-level, Corruption and Scandals.

Table 4. Sample of Coding Progression

Quotations (source)

Originally coded as

Final condensed code

Im not sure how, but things have gotten worse in [Glendale] in terms of scandals. Just when you think youve seen it all, the new superintendent quits while the other one is on trial, were at risk of losing accreditation, and the school board is filled with incompetent leaders who wouldnt know what was best for kids if it was staring them in the face. So, I ask you, how are we supposed to work like this? Even more, how are kids supposed to LEARN like this? (Michelle, interview)

Scandal (district)




Losing accreditation


Incompetent leaders


Working conditions


Student learning conditions

District-Level: Corruption and scandals

They [students] know [their district] is corrupt. Why would they care about their education when the people at the top obviously dont? And then we look like idiots when the things were telling themlike to apply themselves, work hard, care about more than just the testsare not echoed by the board and the central office. (Lynn, interview)

Corruption (district)


Student learning conditions


Conflict between values and reality


Disconnect between district and teachers

District-Level: Corruption and scandals

I know there are other schools and counties facing things like this, but I dont know how they handle it in the short or long-term. (Survey respondent, January)

Corruption (district)


Comparing to other schools/districts


Dont know how to handle it all

District-Level: Corruption and scandals

Wed like to interview you about the potential for [Wilson] because its part of [Glendale] to lose accreditation. We are interviewing some other people about what this means for our graduation and college acceptance. Your interview would focus on how this news makes our teachers feel about their jobs and what they do every day. (Email from student journalist)

Loss of accreditation


Teachers feelings


Teachers working conditions

District-Level: Corruption and scandals

Another day, another story in the [local newspaper] about whats going on in [Glendale]. This time it was about the Board scandal. An interviewee noted that at least it wasnt a cheating scandal, but this continues to get big news coverage and I imagine it will be regional if not national soon. It makes me wonder what it feels like to be a teacher in [Glendale] right now, waking up every morning to read about these big things that impact your lifebut not hearing about them firsthand (since they said they didnt), having to find out about them in the media or by rumors in the teachers lounge. (Researcher memo)

Board replacement scandal


Public perception


Teachers feelings


Lack of information provided to teachers

District-Level: Corruption and scandals

. . . placed on probation Monday after a six-month-investigation into scores of complaints of mismanagement. In a scathing report . . . [agency] accuses [Glendale] officials of engaging in bickering and nepotism while letting district finances wither . . . the district had allowed academic achievement to slip. (Newspaper article)



Loss of accreditation




Financial issues


Achievement decrease

District-Level: Corruption and scandals

I engaged in the common analytic processes of grounded theory methodology. First, I engaged in theoretical sampling, whereby I simultaneously collected and analyzed data, and my early analysis guided later data collection. For example, upon finding an emerging concept of control, I adapted my interview guide to specifically include reference to teachers feeling like were or were not in control of what was happening to them. Next, I engaged in constant comparison by comparing and contrasting my data at multiple levels of analysis. These levels of analysis included two rounds of coding: open coding in which I labeled particular ideas of interest and relevance to the research questions, and focused coding in which I moved from general labels to specific categories, especially those that occurred most frequently. Finally, I honored the process of theoretical sensitivity, in which I relied on my unique interpretive lenses to move from categories to larger inter-related themes that appear in my theoretical framework.

A potential limitation of this study is that the case is bounded to one school in one school system with a small sample of focal teachers. However, upon comparing my findings to other existing theories and literature, I find the results to be consistent with other scholarship. Further, the data in this study may seem outdated by the time it reaches publication. Yet, in the intervening years, neoliberal policies have continued to dominate school policies and discourse, with the addition of neoconservative policies with the rise of the Trump administration. The findings, I argue, are as relevant for today as they were several years ago.


I was closely connected to the participants and felt strongly about their desire to be successful teachers. I know the teachers and their families well. I have kept in touch with most of them since the conclusion of this research, and I am deeply invested in their professional and personal goals, all of which amount to trying to make the world a better place, whether they remain in the classroom or not. I am also a former urban teacher who left teaching for many of the same reasons that teachers identify here as affecting their morale. As Ive written in other manuscripts, it is challenging to now prepare students for a profession that I left, for a profession that I am afraid will burn them out and challenge justice-oriented practices and beliefs (Dunn & Durrance, 2014). To exercise self-reflexivity and be consistently aware of my positionality, I kept a researchers journal and memoed frequently as I engaged in data collection and analysis.

Yet this study is more than research for me, as is the case for many scholars of justice and equity. My ultimate goal is to improve education for youth in urban schools, and that improvement cannot happen if teachers are consistently demoralized and deprofessionalized. The injustices faced by teachers and students at Wilson, within the Glendale district, and around the country are a daily reminder that we live in an unjust society, with those in power bent on maintaining and perpetuating White supremacy and others forms of oppression upon marginalized groups. Further, as a White scholar-activist, I see it as my responsibility to name White supremacy, to connect neoliberalism as a policy and practice to issues of racism, and to work in my teaching and my research to dismantle and decenter Whiteness.


Findings from this study reveal the complex and multilayered nature of morale in an urban high school. The teachers at Wilson reflected Byrd-Blake et al. (2010) and Santoros (2011) findings of low morale and a difficulty maintaining their commitment to the profession. Like 100% of the teachers who responded to both surveys (in January and April), the eight focal participants, during interviews, rated their morale as average or below average. Though participants stated that there were points during the school year where their morale improved (such as right before winter vacation, during school spirit week, or in anticipation for the end of the year), none remembered having extended periods of high morale in recent years. Additionally, there was no significant difference in ratings of morale based on teachers years or experience.

In sum, results indicate that: (1) Morale is influenced by a variety of contextual factors at multiple levels, and being in a good school or being labelled an exceptional educator is not enough to keep one from feeling the effects of disempowerment brought about by top-down mandates, and (2) Teachers overwhelmingly reported that low morale impacted their view of their own pedagogy, contributing to a vicious cycle of low morale, disempowerment, and less effective pedagogy. Importantly, when participants discuss neoliberal policieseither specifically or more generallyI have chosen not to temper their language or feelings about the policies, and the attitudes reflected in the sections below attempt to represent participants own feelings about their situations rather than my own.

The focal participants, even though they were hailed as successful educators, felt discouraged and unable to maintain quality pedagogy because of restrictive educational policies. Thus, I argue that educational policies at the school, district, state, and national level significantly decrease teachers morale and have a negative influence on their perception of their pedagogy. Thus, findings reveal a vicious cycle of disempowerment, as described by one participant. The conceptual model below that illustrates the relationship between contextual factors, morale, empowerment, and teachers reports of their pedagogy. That is, in a vicious cycle, low morale makes them feel like less effective teachers, and their belief that they are less effective lowers their morale.

Figure 1. Teacher-Identified Factors that Influence Morale


In the sections below, I first turn to exploring the contextual factors themselves, or the social and political conditions that made such a cycle both possible and probable. Then, I focus more specifically on the relationship between morale, empowerment, and pedagogy, highlighting what pedagogy looks like in classrooms where demoralized and disempowered teachers struggle to maintain their so-deemed exceptional pedagogy.


Upon walking into Wilson High School one October morning, I noticed something different than on prior visits. It was eerily quiet. Classroom doors were closed, no one was in the principals or guidance counselors office, and the cafeteria, auditorium, and gym were also conspicuously dark. My researchers journal from that day reveals more:

Where is everyone, I wonder? It seems like school is not in session, but I know there are thousands of students somewhere behind these closed doors. I find the principal, sitting at her desk surrounded by walkie-talkies and small screens showing the live feeds from the cameras around the school. When I ask her what is going on, she shakes her head and says, We dont know if theyre coming here today or not. They are the ExternalReview Team, appointed by the state accrediting body, to investigate complaints related to school system governance, leadership, resources, and support. Principals around the district are on alert, she tells me, for the next two days, as the Team interviews district officials. They may drop in at any moment to any of Glendales many schools. As a result, the principal has told teachers and students they must be on their best behavior. This means that classrooms have standards written on the boards, that Word Walls are in place, that hallway passes are distributed only in emergencies. . . . In short, it means that Wilson looks and sounds more like a prison than a school, and they are waiting for the   Warden to appear and tell them theyre not in compliance. Who can have highor even averagemorale in an environment like this?

Teachers spoke of morale both collectively and individually, referencing both the overall climate of the school and of their personal feelings. All participants in this study reported being negatively affected by the contexts in which they were teaching, including all teachers who completed the surveys and all focal participants. What are the reasons behind low and, according to some teachers, consistently decreasing morale at Wilson? One teacher said these reasons were akin to a web of destruction that was ensnaring good teachers and students and preying on our hearts and minds.

Based on the factors that teachers identified as having a significant influence on their morale, I created several thematic categories that can be seen as overarching conditions for the conceptual model of the vicious cycle: school-level, district-level, state- and national-level, and personal and relational level. Figure 2, below, illustrates these broad categories and the specific elements within each. Though the personal and relational factors are significant, they are beyond the scope of this article. Below, I elaborate on those elements that teachers identified most frequently, focusing most specifically on the unique features of this case, at the school- and district-level.

Figure 2. Relationship between Contextual Factors, Morale, Empowerment, and Pedagogy


School-Level Factors

For many years, Wilson High School had beenand in some ways still maintained the reputation of beinga place where teachers want to teach for many of the reasons identified in the school description above. In fact, in their discussions of morale, teachers often differentiated between the environment at Wilson and the environment in the district at large. While Wilson was described as good, Glendale is lame. Several teachers wrote that the only thing keeping them in the profession was their ability to work at Wilson versus other schools in Glendale. I cant imagine what its like anywhere else, one wrote. Melody commented, If this is what its like here, what is it like at other schools? How does anyone survive?

Many teachers attributed this relatively positive climate to the principal, Ms. Grant, who had been at Wilson for 12 years, first as a business teacher and later as an assistant principal before becoming the head administrator. Teachers referred to her as supportive and flexible and recognized that many of the decisions she makes aren't hers. Ms. Grant instituted several initiatives that she hoped would improve morale, though, according to her, she recognized that these are just short-term things that I can do, nothing as big as what they need. For example, sometimes the teachers would arrive at 7:00 am to find doughnuts for breakfast, or they might be allowed to wear jeans on Fridays. She also created a Principals Advisory Council, made up of one elected representative from each department. The group met once per semester, off campus, to discuss ways to improve the school climate. As a result of an idea shared at a council meeting, Ms. Grant created a particularly tongue-in-cheek box called Praises Without Raises and placed it in the front office. Teachers submitted slips of paper with positive notes about their colleagues, and Ms. Grant read them aloud at faculty meetings.

During the second half of the school year, there was a rumor circulating that Ms. Grant might be transferred, as was the common practice of the Glendale central office. Typically, principals served two or three years at one school before being transferred to another school, a move that baffled teachers and administrators alike. Teachers appeared to be trying to strike a balance when talking about this possibilityat once, they wanted to talk about it so they could adjust if we need to and yet not discuss it because its almost too terrifying to think about. Such comments alluded to another finding of a climate of district distrust and uncertainty, discussed more in depth below. It was clear that she is the reason many of us stay. Charlotte, who taught social studies, stated, I dont want to imagine [Wilson] without [Ms. Grant]. If so many teachers are leaving already, it is unlikely that any good teachers would stay if she left. If theyre going to move her, they better do it after we leave for the summer, or else theyre in trouble. Yet Charlotte also had a critique of Ms. Grant, though she did preface it with an acknowledgement that her hands are likely tied, too. Charlotte commented, when describing how district-level changes were communicated to the staff, [Ms. Grant] says shes just passing on the message. Shes just the messenger. Dont give me that. Give me more support and say Im not going to allow my staff to do that. Im tired of that canned answer.

Yet there were other significant elements of the Wilson school climate that contributed to low morale amongst its teachers. One of these factors was the other school administrators. Wilson had four assistant principals: attendance, instruction, and two for discipline. Teachers were frustrated with the lack of consistency in disciplinary policies and procedures and felt like there was no support for us discipline-wise. Others expressed challenges working with the assistant principal of instruction who doesnt understand how to make a master schedule and was not supportive in structuring common planning time for people teaching in the same department or co-teachers, so they would have time during the day to meet.

Additionally, teachers expressed concern that their morale was affected by a lack of time and space. Though this will be discussed more in-depth in relation to district-level factors because much of what teachers felt was occupying their time was district-mandated, there were others who argued that the Wilson administrators had very little respect for teacher time and frequently scheduled meetings during their planning periods. Further, because of a lack of usable space, teachers had to float into other classrooms, meaning there was no place to hold meetings of their own, to grade or eat lunch during their planning periods, or even make a phone call to parents. Focal participants especially indicated this was an area of concern because they felt they were always tapped for additional responsibilities, in part because they were presumed to be able to handle it because were good teachers. This is a finding unique to this study because it demonstrates that exceptional teachers can be subjected to additional morale stressors because of their exceptional status.

District-Level Factors

Commentary about the Glendale School District occupied most of the discussion time during interviews with participants. It is easy to understand why, when in recent years, Glendale has suffered from all of the following: superintendents charged with criminal acts, two temporary superintendents, allegations of corruption at the district level and on the elected school board, a budget shortfall of $11 million and then a sudden finding of missing funds, and institution of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and related Race to the Top (RTTT) policies like value-added teacher evaluation measures. At the time of the study, the governor forcibly removed the elected school board over criminal allegations and appointed a new board under a new superintendent. Almost every week during the school year, there was another scandal, headline, or concern brewing in Glendale.

As a result, on the whole, district-level factors played the biggest role in lowering Wilson teachers morale. Grace stated that the central office is my biggest obstacle, and a survey respondent pointed to the constant red tape coming down from high-paid incompetent hacks. Overall, the district-level factors that negatively affected teachers morale were centered on: (1) salary and benefits, (2) respect and workload, and (3) corruption and scandals, each discussed in more depth below.

Salary and Benefits

Some teachers felt that district-level ineffectiveness was directly related to their salary; as one teacher put it, teachers pay is the place to go to cover for [administrative] incompetence. Teachers in Glendale had not had raises for six years at the time of this study. They had suffered through furlough days for the past three years, which meant that, in some cases, teachers salaries were lower than when they first began. Benefits were also a major concern, as the district stopped paying subsidies for health insurance so teachers were left to pay more out-of-pocket for their healthcare needs. Recognizing that teachers health played a major role in their effectiveness, Melody remarked, Ironically, we pay more for healthcare, which makes me feel more stressed out and get sicker, which means I have to pay more for healthcare. Figure out how that is sustainable. But [Glendale] gets away with it! And then Im absent more often, which means Im not as good of a teacher as I could be because Im either here and sick or out and sick.  

Some teachers expressed that they felt disempowered because they were getting paid almost $5,000 less than other school districts, plus higher insurance payments. Additionally, as I described in other research, several teachers, like Lynn, Melody, and Katherine, were strongly considering leaving the profession because of continued low compensation and decreasing benefits (Dunn, 2013). Summarizing the connection between salary and morale, Grace remarked, If you cant give me a salary, protect me more. . . . Give me an environment where I feel good.

Respect and Workload

A lack of respect for their skills and abilities also impacted teachers morale. Teaching has long been referred to as a thankless profession, but policies and rhetoric of the bad teacher have, Kumashiro (2011) argues, shifted the national discourse to blaming teachers for nearly everything that is wrong with education. One teacher who responded to the survey stated she struggled with feelings of unimportance. As Oliver, a social studies teacher stated, I respect my students, I respect my school administrators, and I even respect the [Glendale] central office people, though they make it hard. But its never been a two-way street with them [district officials]. I dont feel like they respect me.

As an example of this lack of respect, teachers pointed to one clear indicator: the current district procedures for signing their contracts for the following school year. They were given the contracts to sign in March, and they had one week to make a decision about whether they wanted to stay at Wilson if their administrator approved their continued contract, stay in the district but request a move to another school, or leave the district entirely. If they signed in March and later changed their mind, teachers risked harsh penalties, including fines for breach of contract or even rescinding of their state teaching license! They argued that the procedures illustrated how they were treated as less than professionals and were entrapped by the way Glendale made them commit to teaching so far in advance of the end of the school year. In April, participants explained that signing the contract made them feel trapped, uncertain, and unsettled and rushed. At best, survey responses were that teachers were not excited, resigned, and feeling generally weary about returning the following year. At worst, one participant wrote about being depressed: Signed my contractfeeling general weariness about my job, despite liking teaching. Im so burned out, Im low-grade depressed kind of all the time.

An outcome of a lack of respect, according to participants, is that they were given increasingly more duties and work, specifically related to paperwork, documentation, and testing. As Michelle remarked, she believed the two were linked because, If they respected us for professionals and valued our time, they would not give us meaningless things that take our time away from being professionals. Participants specifically highlighted the outrageous demands of additional testing, additional duties and meetings related to new teacher evaluation measures, and increased class sizes. At the time of the study, the class size cap was an astonishing 36 students. This size exceeded the fire code limit for many of Wilsons classrooms, not to mention was more than the number of desks that would fit into one room. One teacher noted: The reality of this jobs unrealistic workload sets in. . . . [There are] absurdly large class sizes. Grading 100+ research papers is a daunting task and helping kids one-on-one is hard in big classes. All of this other stuff was a distraction from what teachers felt like was their main purpose: instruction and student support.  


Teachers were not surprised by the scandals themselves, as Glendale has a history of corruption, but they were concerned with the increasing frequency and severity of the allegations, as mentioned above. Two participants lengthy comments illustrate the powerful impact of district-level corruption on their morale and their students motivation:

Im not sure how, but things have gotten worse in [Glendale] in terms of scandals. Just when you think youve seen it all, the new superintendent quits while the other one is on trial, were at risk of losing accreditation, and the school board is filled with incompetent leaders who wouldnt know what was best for kids if it was staring them in the face. So, I ask you, how are we supposed to work like this? Even more, how are kids supposed to LEARN like this? (Michelle)

They [students] know their district is corrupt. Why would they care about their education when the people at the top obviously dont? And then we look like idiots when the things were telling themlike to apply themselves, work hard, care about more than just the testsare not echoed by the board and the central office. (Lynn)

Michelle and Lynns comments not only point to the impact of district corruption on teachers, but on students, as well. Though the particulars of the corruption may have been unique to Glendale at one time in one place, teachers also mentioned seeing stories of other urban districts in the news as they faced similar struggles. Additionally, when a group of journalism students found out about my research and asked to interview me for an issue of the school newspaper, it became immediately clear that students were thinking about the effects of corruption on their teachers. While they were concerned with how a loss of accreditation might affect their future graduation plans, they were more concerned with, according to a student interviewer, what this means for how our teachers feel about their jobs and what they do every day.

State- and National-Level Factors

Teachers were also demoralized by the increased focus on testing and teacher evaluation measures. As one wrote on a survey, I feel that changes from the top (RTT, [teacher evaluation measures], testing, etc.) feel permanent and unfixable, and Im seriously losing steam. Another teacher concurred: The testing mania is demoralizing. . . . Too many tests given to students and tests are used in a punitive way to punish teachers, students, and schools. This is wrong for many reasons. Finally, another remarked that there is a feeling that no matter how good a job we do here, in our classrooms and in our building, we are going to get dumped on by the [district] and state. This final remark illustrates the increasing awareness that Wilsons legacy and reputation were no longer enough to protect them from the specter of neoliberalism.  

Testing occupied much instructional time in Glendale, especially at the secondary school level. At the time of the study, for example, Wilson students had to complete: multiple choice benchmark assessments every three weeks in each core subject (math, language arts, science, and social studies), end-of-course tests in core subjects each year (though the tests were curiously given with one month left of school), and a high-stakes writing assessment in their junior year. Additionally, teachers also had to administer state-mandated and tracked Pupil Outcomes. These pre- and post-tests (with multiple choice and short answer questions) for certain units of study had to be administered, scanned, scored, and then entered into a special online system. Teachers were also concerned that the assessments did not align with the CCSS or with the textbooks. These poorly-written, time-wasting assessments, teachers reported, were sometimes filled with content errors or grammatical mistakes. Some teachers reported administering Pupil Outcomes for as many as 20 instructional days, in addition to the days devoted to the above tests. Lynn sighed heavily when describing how administering Pupil Outcomes assessments impacted her pedagogy: It makes us look powerless. We dont believe in it and they [the students] know we dont believe in it. What hypocrisy and rhetoric . . . when Im telling [my students] you have the power to change certain things, and Im powerless. Troublingly, it was students progress on these assessments that was tied to teachers evaluations.

Teachers were equally concerned about the new methods for teacher evaluation in their state. As required by Race to the Top, the state received over $10 million in federal funds to design a new teacher evaluation system that was based, in part, on students test scores. Participants found this confusing, unjust, and demoralizing. According to a survey respondent, morale is also crushed when the onus of student achievement is placed on teachers with very little responsibility placed on students and parents. Another teacher wrote, Unless we reverse the very wrongheaded influence of tests over schools, teachers, and students, I can only see morale getting lower. It is completely demoralizing to be held accountable for something over which you have no control. Chance, who taught a large number of struggling readers and writers in her English classes, shook her head in disbelief as she tried to make sense out of value-added evaluation measures: I just cant believe they are going to evaluate us based on the kids scores. It doesnt make sense. As much as I think about it, as much as I read, it still doesnt make any damn sense. When was the last time a doctor was judged to be a good doctor based on whether or not their patients were healthy? Here, Chance contradicts what is assumed to be common sense, neoliberal logic that teachers can be judged by students scores, a policy that has also been questioned and remonstrated by major professional organizations who question the validity of value-added measures (American Educational Research Association, 2015; American Statistical Association, 2014).

When considering the impact of national-level factors, there were also things that lowered teachers morale. One of those elements was the general lack of respect for teaching that pervades society today. The popular rhetoric, advanced by neoliberal reforms and alternative recruitment programs like Teach For America, is that anyone can be a teacher, that being smart, caring, and committed are the only essential qualities for teaching effectively. During a focus group, two participants discussed another pervasive narrative about the teaching profession:

Katherine: The national climate around teaching is destructive. Its got me in this& [pauses and moved hands in circles, counterclockwise] complete reversal of all this   empowerment and notion of claiming myself as an agent over my choices.

Oliver: Yeah, its like, this constant message [mimicking robotic voice]: Accept everything youre given. Youre not a good teacher if you dont.

Katherine: Right. So if I dont accept all of these mandates without question, then Im a troublemaker [in air quotes]. Im a rebel who doesnt really understand what it means to be a selfless teacher. Talk about lowering morale- phew! [sighs audibly and grimaces]

Thus, according to participants, the definition of teaching as a vocation has been taken to the level where people presume that teachers should not ask for anything. Rather, they should just do whatever they are told and not question.

In sum, we see a variety of contextual factors influencing teachers morale. These factors appeared at the school, district, state, and national levels, but all coalesced into a general climate of disempowerment within which teachers struggled to remain satisfied in the profession and in their daily work. In the next section, I elaborate upon how these teacher-identified morale busters influenced their views of their teaching effectiveness.


The conceptual model above illustrates not only that neoliberal contextual factors influence morale and empowerment, but that morale and empowerment themselves are also influencing factors on teachers pedagogy. A key component of the connection between morale and pedagogy is teachers wrestling with the dimensions of empowerment. Control, for example, appeared frequently in interviews. Though not explicitly addressed in either of my initial research questions, teachers sentiments that they did not have any control over the factors that lowered their morale, I argue, is closely tied to my second research question about the relationship between morale and pedagogy. That is, because they felt a lack of control their morale remained low or dipped even further. When their morale dipped lower, they felt they were not as pedagogically effective in the classroom. Further complicating matters was that, when they felt they were not pedagogically effective, their morale was lowered even further. The cycle is based just as much on actual pedagogical practices as teachers perceptions of their pedagogical practices, as their perceptions became their reality.

In another article (Dunn, 2013), I uncovered a unique linguistic pattern in the way teachers wrote or spoke about this lack of control. Almost always, they spoke in metaphorical terms, or what I term the poetry of burnout, as if the situation was too sensitive, personal or overwhelming to speak concretely and explicitly. These images illustrated how teachers felt (1) trapped and (2) dehumanized. Like the sinking ship that Lynn described in this articles opening quotation, other teachers described being trapped under a pile, being in a rut, or being at the bottom of an avalanche. They also used metaphors to describe their feelings of dehumanization, such as describing administrators as leeches, sucking the life-blood right out of us who are unlucky enough to be in the water. One veteran teacher compared district policies (and the stakeholders who enforced them) as akin to aliens: Weve been taken over by aliens and we dont know what we need to do to stop them. Every time we think we have it figured out, their powers become greater and more terrifying. For this teacher, figuring it out meant creating ways to effectively subvert mandates that she believed were counter to a mission of social justice and equity. A final striking metaphor illustrated the enormous impact of state policies. In reference to new measures where teachers will be partially evaluated by students test scores, one teacher spoke compellingly about how she and her colleagues were afraid to question the guidelines and, as a result, had become complicit in a broken system. She wrote, Its like watching a bunch of lemmings jump off a cliff. At first, we watched them all jump and thought, Wow, its amazing they cant see theyre falling to their death. And now, we are the lemmings. We are following these procedures, these policies, these tests and measures, and more tests and more policiesand were following them right off the cliff, right to our death and the death of our students.

Alongside their concerns of being disempowered, participants overwhelmingly stated that their pedagogy was negatively impacted by low morale. They wrote statements like not effective right now, some elaborating that they feel pedagogy at Wilson has gotten worse, [because of] teachers giving up. A powerful excerpt from the focus group illustrates teachers frustrations with feeling less pedagogically effective because of low morale:

Chance: I wonder, what values have I held onto? What am I doing thats good? [looks up at ceiling and closes eyes] Am I doing anything good anymore?

Melody: Yeah, I think with everything we have to do now, Ive become more efficient, but not as effective. [long pause]

Katherine: But do you even have that conversation? How do you talk to colleagues about feeling like youre not a good teacher anymore? [lowers voice] Theres this sense of powerlessness. You cant even talk about it [because] its so bleak. [sighs audibly]

Melody: You know what would boost morale? We should believe in everything were doing. That would boost morale.

Chance: And it would help me be a good teacher again. Just having something--

Katherine: --anything

Chance: --to believe in.

This poignant commentary reveals that teachers see their identities as teachers as intimately linked to what both what they do (pedagogy) and why they do it (to do something good). Their concerns that they are not as good as teachers anymore speaks to the disconnect between their desires and the reality of working with policies that they do not believe in and that make them more efficient, but less pedagogically effective. When I asked participants if they could provide specific or concrete examples of how low morale impacted their classroom pedagogy, teachers responded with all of the following:

It [low morale] makes me experiment less. I use lessons Ive had for awhile instead of devoting time and energy to coming up with new creative things.

Honestly, its [low morale] changed everythingwhat I teach, how I teach. Its even impacting my grading. Im taking longer to grade things and not giving as much feedback, so I feel like that is a big part of my pedagogy thats been impacted.

Low morale means I dont want to be here as much, you know, so I spend less time in my classroom after school. This means I get less connected to my kids, like as whole people, and this means I connect less in class, too.

I spend less time wanting to collaborate with other teachers in my area or with teachers in other subjects. I believe in interdisciplinary lessons and cross-curricular learning. I mean, that is obviously the best way to teach. But I dont have time, and, as horrible as it sounds, I dont want to make the time because Im so beat down.

I like responding to current events in my classes. I like using technology and social media, all that good 21st century skills and learning stuff. But I find myself doing that less and less. I dont have the mental space, or maybe the mental capacity or drive, to do it all.

I dont know if I can give you a specific example. Its intangible, I think. Just this overriding but nebulous consciousness that Im not as good a teacher anymore. I dont even know if anyone else notices, but I notice. I feel it, very instinctively. And isnt that enough? My feeling? Isnt that proof enough?

Thus pointing explicitly to a connection between low morale and negative feelings about their pedagogy, the comments above forcefully illustrate the difficulty that teachers have balancing their own morale and their pedagogical commitments. Their remarks also reveal the variety of things that teachers consider to be pedagogy, ranging from content taught, methods used, time spent, and risks taken. Even when teachers did not have specific examples of how their pedagogy was impacted by low morale, they still believed there was a connection, expressed as an overriding but nebulous consciousness and stated with varying tones of guilt, shame, and disappointment.

In the comments above, we also see a contrast between how teachers envision their pedagogy at its best and how it currently looks. For example, in their discussions of their low morale, teachers referenced experimenting, being creative, connecting across disciplines and content areas, using technology and social media, connecting to students on a personal level, and collaborating with colleagues. In such statements, there are glimmers of the type of pedagogy that is possible, the type of pedagogy that once existed in their classrooms and that they find difficult to implement at present. The memory of their strong pedagogyof knowing what is possible but feeling unable to attain it againlikely contributes to making the vicious cycle all the more vicious.

Charlotte, a social studies teacher, is a good example of the contrast between pedagogical possibility and reality. In her previous life, she incorporated more current events and media analysis into her lessons. Yet, with the increased testing pressures and low morale, combined with being the mother of a young child, she could not find the gumption to be the teacher I used to be. It would surprise me if Charlottes students noticed a difference. They did not, after all, know what she used to be like as a teacher. She was still highly respected and students rejoiced if they were assigned to her classes. Yet, illustrating the cycle, Charlotte knew that she pedagogy was different and this impacted her morale to a large degree: My students from even a few years ago would be able to tell you about all of these cool projects we did and how I was more in tune with them. Now, I feel like I am just spinning my wheels and not thinking outside the box as much. Its hard to even do the same projects that I used to do. I dont have to even think of something new to do that because I have all the plans and stuff already, but just implementing them is so hard because theres so much else going on.

Melody, too, spoke of the challenges with being viewed as an effective teacher while personally feeling ineffective. I know people think of me as a good educator, she remarked, But I dont feel like it most of the time, and its not the normal oh youre so hard on yourself kind of feeling. I am teaching in ways that I dont believe in, and Im not even in a testing subject. But it all impacts me and the students. Melody here points to the challenges of teaching in a high-stakes climate even when her content area is not one of the tested areas. The climate pervades the school. And its so hard to be motivated when you feel like any ideas you have for making change beyond the classroom level fall on deaf ears, she continued, Its like, whats the point anymore? No one is going to care if I use worksheets instead of inquiry-based lessons. They encourage worksheets actually! In Melodys remarks, it is evident that the vicious cycle of disempowerment is at work in her mind and her classroom.

Finally, I want to address the fact that I did not, as a researcher, engage in classroom observations. As I argue above, I do not find it necessary to add another evaluative measure for these teachers in crisis. Further, the point here is not that I, as an outsider, judged their pedagogy to be less effective (either because of their low morale or otherwise), but that they, as individuals, felt less effective and, thus, became so. We are the stories we tell ourselves, and, sadly, the stories that these teachers told were ones of quiet desperation, deprofessionalization, and disempowerment. As a teacher explained above, her feelings should be enough.


As the findings illustrate above, participants from a variety of content areas and across various years of experience stated that they had low morale and that, though there were points in the year where their morale improved, none remembered having extended periods of high morale in recent years. Teachers with five years of experience were just as likely to feel overwhelmed, lacking control, and disempowered as were 15-year veterans. Morale was influenced by a variety of contextual factors at several levels, but all coalesced into a general sense of disempowerment at Wilson. It is no surprise, given previous research by this author and others, that the majority of factors that teachers stated lowered their morale were neoliberal reforms or effects of neoliberal reforms (Dunn, 2013; Santoro, 2011; Wilson, 2013). This study points to how such reforms jeopardize teacher empowerment. Santoros claims about principled leavers are applicable to the teachers here, as well; they struggle with what it means to be empowered educators amidst a political agenda that seems unethical and amoral. Originally conceived by Santoro in 2011, I argue that more and more teachers are being forced to become principled leavers as the neoliberal climate intensifies, as the teachers in this study demonstrate.   

An examination of the types of factors that influenced teachers morale reveals that teachers felt varying levels of empowerment in relation to different dimensions. For example, they stated their morale was higher when thinking about Wilson itself and the environment there, as opposed to thinking about Glendale or the state. The way they spoke about Ms. Grants efforts to improve morale and their fears about her leaving stand in stark contrast to the way they spoke about district leaders in Glendale and state-level policymakers. This is likely because, at the school-level, they felt more autonomy and involvement in decision-making, two critical elements of empowerment (Short, 1994), because of Ms. Grants efforts and Wilsons ongoing (though waning) legacy of independence from the district. Yet when they considered the world outside of Wilson, not only did they feel less autonomy, they also felt as if their status as educated professionals was challenged (Short, 1994). Yet we also see that the teachers at Wilson appear to have reached a tipping point, beyond which their feelings of even minimal empowerment at the school-level can no longer compensate for feeling a lack of empowerment in other areas of the profession.

The tipping point finding is an especially interesting one, as the teachers selected for this study are those who, at least in terms of longevity, have passed the tipping point of 35 years when most urban teachers leave the classroom (Ingersoll, 2003). Yet, at the same time they have surpassed this milestone, some by a significant number of years, they have reached another, more affective tipping point related to their morale. Their longevity in the profession, combined with their low morale at this particular point, begs the question: If and how do some veteran teachers move past this second tipping point? For the teachers in this study, some were able to move pastor at least live in the uncertaintyand stayed in the profession, while others left shortly after the completion of this study. Hargreaves and Fullan (2012)s concept of professional capital is useful here, as it helps us consider how teachers various forms of capitalhuman, social, and decisionalcan be harnessed to provide learning opportunities that, ultimately, give teachers more of voice in the policy-making and implementation process, at least at the school-level. Johnson and Birkeland (2003) also similarly found that schools that were organized to be collegial and supportive of both student and teacher growth and independence were more likely to retain new teachers. I would argue the same is true for the veteran educators in this study and potentially beyond. If they are not in such a school or have been living with their frustrations for too long, such that they can see the tipping point in the rearview mirror if you will, teachers may be driven out.

These findings also reveal the insidious nature of neoliberal educational policies and practices. Wilson is supposedly one of the best schools in Glendale, and the focal participants in this study were recognized as some of the best at Wilson. If this is how they are feeling, what does this mean for other teachers at the same school or at other schools? Though previously able to rest on their reputation and not be as affected by Glendales challenges and policies as other district schools, in recent years and at the time of this study, Wilson could no longer resist oppressive teaching and learning conditions that threatened the morale and pedagogy of even its lauded veteran educators.

Findings from this study complicate those of previous research that veteran teachers often feel more empowered in their careers as they learn to work within and around bureaucracy and are given increasingly more autonomy and leadership roles. Teachers in this study felt, in some ways, that they were punished for being strong educators, as they were most often asked to pick up the slack for those who appeared to be struggling more. Here, empowerment is also very personal, as teachers described their lack of morale as affecting both their pedagogy and their senses of identity. As illustrated in the excerpts above, participants had a difficult time even speaking aloud about what contextual factors and resulting low morale had done to their identities.

What does this vicious cycle mean for schools like Wilson? In the short-term, it means that teachers feel personally and professionally beat down, as Oliver described feeling, that they may forget what they loved about the profession and may believe they are less pedagogically effective. The point of this study is not to examine whether or not they are, quantitatively, less effective because, I would argue, their belief that they are ineffective suggests they are, whether this is measurable or not. It may mean they take fewer curricular risks in the classroom, experiment with democratic and student-centered pedagogies on a more sporadic basis, or do not have the mental or physical energy to become involved in students lives outside the classroom, all of which we know are elements of successful teaching. It may lead to a general school culture of disempowerment, as seen at Wilson, where individual teachers find it even more challenging to break out of the pattern of low morale, as expressed by one participant. As with teachers beliefs about their pedagogy, the same is true, I would argue, for teachers sense of empowerment. What is most important is not the actual, objective level of the six dimensions of empowerment that teachers have (involvement, impact, status, autonomy, opportunities, and efficacy), but how much of those things they believe they have. Their perception is their reality.

As one might imagine, a longer-term effect of low morale and disempowerment is teacher attrition. Turnover can happen in many forms, with teachers leaving the profession entirely or transferring to other schools. By the end of the year, 13 teachers had made the decision to leave Wilson, either for other schools (some private, some public, some out-of-state) or for other careers (graduate school, business, sales, etc.). Even Ms. Grant, Wilsons principal, decided to leave, electing to move to an elementary school for her last two years before retirement. Teachers, understandably, were devastated, and many anticipated not making it more than one year under a new principal. Three of the participants in this study aloneLynn, Katherine, and Melodyresigned at the end of the year. Lynn began a new career in sales and marketing, Katherine began a doctoral program in educational policy, and Melody left the state and took a year off (to recuperate and figure out what I really want to do) before being hired by a prestigious independent school to teach a different subject than she taught at Wilson. A fourth, Grace, left two years later.

Implications from this study extend from future research to practice and policy. Future research should consider a nationally representative sample, investigating how teachers in various urban areas respond to different contextual factors and policies that threaten to reduce their morale and levels of empowerment. Scholars may also extend this research by moving beyond teachers reports of their pedagogy into examining pedagogy implementation, through research with students and classroom observations. Finally, research with preservice teachers can help illuminate how novice educators feel upon entering this environment of low morale and stressors in urban schools. Such an understanding is vital to building professional learning communities between novice and veteran teachers amidst a challenging climate.

Teacher educators, too, then can study their own practice and programs to evaluate if and how issues of morale and self-care are attended to in their teacher preparation programs. Does such focused attention improve teachers morale once they get into their classrooms, and how can teacher education institutions continue to support teachers morale after they have passed the traditional induction years? And, in fact, teacher educators themselves are increasingly feeling the neoliberal push in higher education (Dunn, 2014, 2016, 2017), negotiating competing demands of accreditation agencies, university mission statements, state-level policies that link funding to completers students test scores. One might wonder how teacher educators can maintain their own high levels of morale at the same time as supporting preservice teachers, while the entirety of K18 education becomes increasingly subsumed in market-driven logic and standardization.

Policymakers and administrators at all levels would also do well to heed the implications of this and other research that demonstrates the negative impact that neoliberal policies have on teachers morale and pedagogy. While we know that not all types of assessment lead to negative outcomes and that frequent, high-quality, teacher-created assessments can lead to improved student outcomes (McGhee Hassrick, Raudenbush, & Rosen, 2017), too often use of these assessments is replace by top-down, standardized tests that jeopardize learning and working conditions. It appears, from years of scholarship, that neoliberal policies are, in fact, achieving the opposite of their stated goals of creating more equitable opportunities for students in public schools.



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How are you feeling about this school year? Whats been good so far? Whats been difficult? Whats been surprising?


How would you define morale?


How would you describe your morale this school year? Has it changed throughout the year?


What is going on when you feel like you have high(er) morale? What might happen to lower it?


What is your biggest success as a teacher? Does this success impact your morale? Why or why not?


What is your biggest challenge as a teacher? Does this challenge impact your morale? Why or why not?


Do you feel your morale is different this year than in the past? How so? If so, why?


How do you think other teachers in the school would describe their morale? Why? How does this compare to how you feel?


Do you feel like you have control over things that happen at the school? In the district? In the state? In the nation as they relate to education? Why or why not?


Do you feel like your voice is heard if you have a suggestion for improving something at the school/district/state/national level? Why or why not?


Have you tried to speak up about issues that concern you or changes you want to make at the school/district/state/national level? Why or why not? What was the result of this effort? How did that result make you feel?


Is there anything you thought Id ask that I did not ask?


Anything else you would like to add?  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 1, 2020, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22935, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:04:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Alyssa Hadley Dunn
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    ALYSSA HADLEY DUNN is an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University. A former high school English teacher, her research examines justice, race, and equity in urban education; teacher preparation; and educational policy. In addition to publications in The American Educational Research Journal, Journal of Teacher Education, Urban Education, and Teaching and Teacher Education, she is the author of Teachers Without Borders? The Hidden Consequences of International Teachers in U.S. Schools (Teachers College Press, 2013).
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