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Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay

reviewed by Matthew Shirrell - January 31, 2019

coverTitle: Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay
Author(s): Doris A. Santoro
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682531325, Pages: 224, Year: 2018
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How to retain dedicated and effective teachers in our public schools is a central concern of our education system. Research has demonstrated that challenging working conditions, including weak school leadership, lack of opportunities for collaboration, and a disproportionate focus on testing, are a primary reason why many teachers leave teaching. In Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, Doris A. Santoro brings a new perspective to our understanding of the relationship between working conditions and teacher attrition. Based on interviews with 23 experienced teachers, Santoro makes a convincing and engaging argument that the popular conception of teacher burnout has not taken into account the moral orientations that many teachers bring to their work; the ideals, values, and civic motives that have drawn them to the profession.


This book is an especially timely contribution given the recent resurgence of teacher grassroots activism. Teacher walkouts and protests have made the news. Teachers have run for, and been elected to, public office. Notably, this activism has often been framed around teachers moral concerns about their work.


Consistent with prior research, Santoro notes that teacher shortages are driven less by ineffective recruitment than by a failure to retain teachers who already work in public schools, and that teachers dissatisfaction with their working conditions is at the root of the retention problem. Since the 2008 recession, schools have faced dwindling resources coupled with increasing demands, and teachers have borne the brunt of these changes. Santoro contends, however, that prior research has not adequately examined the moral basis of teachers dissatisfaction with their work.


A key contribution of the book is its conscientious effort to distinguish demoralization from burnout. While the candle metaphor of burnout suggests that individual teachers reserves are depleted (and that the solution is the development of individual resilience), demoralization instead locates the challenge not in the individual teacher but in the institutional and organizational environments in which teachers work. Demoralization, at its core, is a dissonance between teachers moral concerns and the conditions under which they teach. When these conditions impede them from acting upon the moral concerns that brought them to the profession, teachers experience the discouragement and despair of demoralization (p. 3).


The central chapters of Demoralized take a deeper look at two particular sources of demoralization: causing harm to students and degrading the profession. In the first case, teachers find themselves in situations where they are compelled to enact policies or practices they believe will harm students. In the second, they are required to engage in practices that harm their notions of what good teaching should be.


Santoro offers remedies as well as diagnoses. Later chapters provide a framework for re-moralizing teachers work, including a useful visual representation of the various forms re-moralization can take. For some teachers, re-moralization may take place through a renewed focus on their classroom teaching, while for others re-moralization may take more public forms. Underlying each strategy for re-moralization, however, is a reactivation of teachers professional communities, whether through a learning community of fellow teachers or a wider role in a union or as a policy advocate.


Santoro also discusses the roles of school leaders and teachers unions in both teacher demoralization and re-moralization, and lays out specific recommendations for how these groups can help re-moralize teachers work.


The ideas in Demoralized will interest readers from many levels of education. Policymakers will benefit from its broader and more nuanced understanding of the causes of teacher attrition. Teacher and principal educators can use the book to spark conversations on the moral aspects of teaching and ways to support teachers moral concerns in practice. Those involved in the work of teachers unions are likely to appreciate the thoughtful treatment of how unions can serve to both demoralize and re-moralize teachers. For school leaders, the book will illuminate the moral dimensions of teachers work and help leaders create opportunities for teachers to express and act upon their moral concerns. Finally, teachers themselves will also benefit from the books framing of their concerns about their profession as moral, and for its suggestions about how to re-moralize their work.


This book is also important reading for scholars who study teacher turnover, attrition, or working conditions. Santoro argues for a broader and more nuanced approach to the study of working conditions and their impact on teachers, noting that studies of school working conditions have often been based on survey instruments that do not capture teachers moral concerns about their work. Scholarship on teacher attrition, Santoro rightly points out, has also largely focused on new teachers, and generally views teacher attrition through a burnout lens, which, although accurate in some cases, does not capture the full range of reasons that teachers leave teaching.


Few will disagree that the national movement towards standards and accountability has profoundly impacted teachers work, and that it has led many teachers to experience the demoralization Santoro discusses. The teachers that Santoro highlights have likely felt the impacts of these policies most acutely, for they came to the work with deep moral orientations and, through years of experience, have developed strong moral cores of beliefs about their work. In this sense, these teachers provide a hint of broader challenges that face teachers today.  


Although the impact of the rising assertiveness of teachers in the policy conversation remains to be determined, it could be a positive development in addressing the demoralization that Santoro describes. Having teacher voices at the table as educational policies are shaped could prevent a repeat of the worst excesses of the standards and accountability movements, and could improve the conditions of work that have led to much of the teacher demoralization described in this book. As Santoro writes, these are demoralizing times for public school teachers, but they need not be defeatist times (p. 189).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 31, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22650, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 10:02:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Matthew Shirrell
    George Washington University
    E-mail Author
    MATTHEW SHIRRELL is an assistant professor of educational leadership and administration in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University. His research focuses on the impacts of educational systems on individual and organizational learning and improvement, and the interactions of policy, school working conditions, school leadership, and teacher retention.
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