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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Demoralization. Optimism?

Are things better than they seem, or is all already lost?

March 22, 2021

In her "Culture Study" newsletter, Anne Helen Petersen recently solicited testimonies from primary and secondary teachers who are experiencing “demoralization.”

“Demoralization” comes from Doris A. Santoro writing at EdWeek, where she argued that “demoralization” and “burnout” are not the same thing. In Santoro’s words, “Demoralization occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work. It happens when teachers are consistently thwarted in their ability to enact the values that brought them to the profession.”

Every so often you read something and the lightbulb of understanding goes off above your head, and this was one of those times.

The teacher testimonies are heartbreaking, particularly in the context of a broader cultural conversation that has been painting these teachers as lazy ingrates standing in the way of students “getting back to normal.” It is not that these teachers desire gratitude from a grateful public. Rather, the discussion around reopening schools to face-to-face instruction is a reminder of the kinds of systemic problems that teachers must deal with in their day-to-day work. They work in a system hostile to what they value most about their work, and there’s no amount of personal agency is that is going to change that fact. If a school is not open to face-to-face instruction, teachers themselves are well down the list of reasons for that condition. To require teachers to sacrifice themselves on the altar of a society that has failed to support their mission for so long is positively perverse.

Reading the testimonies, I immediately flashed to the “not a quit lit essay” I wrote when I decided to walk away from my relatively stable visiting instructor job. It has been five years, which blows my mind to begin with, but reading it today, I see how much I did not understand about my own emotions and motives.

I knew I was not burned out; I said as much at the time: “I am not burnt out on teaching. I do not resent the students. I see as much or more value in the work than ever.” My passion for teaching is undimmed today.

But I now recognize that I was demoralized by a system that did not value my work as much as I did, nor as much as I believe it should be valued. I believe there is something endemic to higher education that allows for this to happen.

Harvard, a place of unfathomable resources, “does not care about teaching,” according to Ben Roth, one of the faculty members who is charged with teaching in the school’s college writing program. Rather than finding a way to value and keep expert faculty, Harvard instead ejects them from the institution after a maximum of eight years. For many, this will be their last reasonably stable job in higher education.

The schools that are supposed to be oriented around teaching, like open-access four-year schools and community colleges, are starved of resources, forcing them to see instructors as fungible, the most important criteria being a willingness to work for a terrible wage.

There are exceptions, of course -- the well-heeled small liberal arts schools that have both the money and orientation to adhere to these values, but these places are so rare they may as well be Shangri-La.

Inside Higher Ed’s recent survey of college presidents finds some apparently surprising optimism, but I am not surprised. When the meteor is heading for you and you think you are about to go extinct, to emerge from the impact and realize you are alive is a wonderful sensation. Couple that sensation with the recent larger-than-expected rescue plan and perhaps there is real reason to believe that another round of austerity like what followed the 2008 recession isn’t necessarily in the offing.

It is also somewhat heartening that a plurality of presidents (44 percent) believe that institutions should seek out “transformative changes” that will position themselves for long-term sustainability. I have some thoughts on what that looks like in my book Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education. It is a book that imagines what an institution is like if it is oriented around the values of teaching and learning, and how and where resources would flow under that mission.

In many ways, I now see the book was my way to deal with the demoralizing effect of my career -- such as it was. It’s a plea for the system to become more welcoming to the role of instructors by putting that work at the center of the mission. Writing the book made me hopeful about what public higher ed could achieve if appropriately resourced. That optimism has faded over time, but maybe this is just impatience.

It is good and necessary that these college presidents are not experiencing demoralization as they face these challenges, but I also hope that the optimism remains grounded in the reality of the challenges we face.

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