The Health of Our Education System Is Revealed By How It Treats Its Teachers

Sean Slade
August, 2023

Originally published in EdSurge, this article explores whether the way our teachers are treated and how they are feeling can help us gauge the health of our education system.

My last article, about how teacher care is more than self care, was the most read on EdSurge for the month of November. And while I was pleased that the words resonated, it is also disturbing that something so fundamental as care and wellbeing is hitting a nerve with the education community.

Nelson Mandela once said that “The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” Maybe to assess the health and character of our education system we should look at how our teachers are treated and how they are feeling. Because our teachers, our support professionals and our school leaders are suffering.

Just this week the National Association of Secondary School Principals released their findings from a report that ominously referred to a Looming Mass Exodus of Principals from Schools, which showed that principal morale is at one of its lowest points, perhaps ever.

Some of the core findings:

  • Job satisfaction is at an ultimate low with almost 4 out of 10 principals (38 percent) expecting to leave the profession in the next three years.
  • The principal pipeline is directly affected by the teacher shortage.
  • Almost half of all school leaders (47 percent) report that the role of the principal has changed “a great deal” since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • More than one-third of principals report being threatened in response to the steps they have taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their school.

These are even grimmer when we look at the recent RAND-AFT-NEA State of the U.S. Teacher Survey, depressingly titled Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply.

  • Nearly one in four teachers may leave their job by the end of the current school year
  • A much higher proportion of teachers reported frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general adult population.
  • Health was one of the highest-ranked stressors for teachers.
  • The pandemic-related conditions were linked to job-related stress, depressive symptoms and burnout.

Changing the System

Teachers are burned out and principals are burned out. The question, really, is what are we going to do about it?

Relying on educators to take care of themselves is really divorcing ourselves from the issue. This is not to say that self-care isn’t worthwhile or beneficial, but asking individuals to take care of themselves is the proverbial “passing the buck.” It is the active avoidance of the obvious need to change what is contributing to this stress.

What we need to change are issues that are contributing and perpetuating the stress. This involves the system and it involves the cultures in our schools.

Changing the system is difficult and takes time and effort—both of which are in short supply right now. It would mean adjusting or changing our policies, class sizes, duties and expectations. It would mean looking at the way our teachers’ time is allotted and allowing for more collaboration and support. Ultimately, it means looking at the ways our accountability systems have been set up and how funding is made available to schools.

While all of this is needed, it is not entirely practical when we are in the midst of a pandemic and juggling or buffering the effects of that crisis.

What is more practical to focus on is the culture of support and caring in our schools. There are actions we can take now to improve our schools and change the way we interact not only with students and families, but as importantly, with each other.

James Comer, the renowned Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, has said that “with every interaction we are either building community or destroying it.” The way we interact with our students matters. The way that we acknowledge our colleagues as people matters. The way that we listen and hear what is being spoken matters. And that matters especially for school leaders as they frequently set the tone of the school.

Too many school leaders have been thrust into their positions without having support or development regarding leadership development. They will often get professional learning on Instructional Leadership but less frequently around collaborative or transformational leadership. How the school leader interacts with peers and colleagues will influence the climate of the school. If they show humility and ask for advice, it allows others to do the same in a safer environment. If they share the load of leadership with others, it provides a safer space for staff to offload or share some of their own duties. If they step back from the traditional captain of the ship role of leadership, they allow others to also change the way they believe they are meant to behave and react.

Improving the culture of the school will not solve all stresses. It will not reduce COVID infection, it will not change accountability requirements, it will not increase the funding. What it will do is help to buffer the effects that our educators are experiencing. It will help create school communities where support and care are necessities.

It will start to address the crisis and it will make schools places where staff feel heard, respected and cared for.