Monday, November 9, 2009

Sunday Commentary: How Hope Hurts Teachers

That many teachers burn out seems to be conventional wisdom -- which is one reason why young, enthusiastic, TFA and TNTP teachers are so sought after in many circles.  Though my school didn't have many veteran teachers, the school was large enough that a number of excellent, experienced teachers roamed the halls.  The younger teachers, however, exuded enthusiasm.  Most of us were there, to some extent at least, to change the world.  Of course, we were also a lot more likely to quit.

A recent study looked at colostomy patients (a surgery that results in feces being collected through abdomen, often by a bag attached around the clock) and compared those who knew the situation was permanent with those who were told that the surgery might be reversible at some point down the line.  The result?  Those with permanent colostomies were happier than those with possibly reversible colostomies.  Apparently, after an initial adjustment period people who knew nothing was going to change adapted to their circumstances.  Those who thought the situation might be reversed, meanwhile, remained unhappy with their situation and held out hope that it would change.

Which doesn't sound too different from how teachers viewed teaching at my school.  Us young rabble-rousers were never happy with what we saw or how our classrooms were operating.  We hoped to change the world and, instead, were stuck dealing with all sorts of little (and big) problems that constantly got in the way.  The vets, meanwhile, seemed more satisfied with what was happening.  Or at least were less fazed when something went awry.  Most figured that they were doing about the best they could and that there was no real need for radical changes in most situations -- including where they worked.  Sure, they weren't thrilled with how the school worked, but they weren't nearly as despondent as us newbies.

In other words, the young teachers entered the year with high hopes and lofty ambitions and finished the year full of frustration while the vets maintained a more even keel throughout.  So, in a perverse way, our hopefulness actually hurt us.  It certainly made work more frustrating, and I think it's fair to say it made us more likely to quit -- or at least move to another school.  Teaching is difficult enough without getting your hopes dashed on a daily basis.  And running a school is difficult enough without constantly searching for new teachers after breaking the spirits of the ones you hired last year.

No, I'm not advocating that all teachers simply give up hope so that they can slog through their day and go home feeling ok.  But I think it's worth noting how much harder it is to be a successful teacher in the long-run if you continue to hope that you can solve all the world's problems.  In this sense, lack of hope (also known as low expectations) is a coping mechanism -- and, not, as many would have you believe, a sign of poor moral fiber or general evilness.  Why do teachers lose hope?  Because it's easier that way.  Any economist should recognize that, in this way, lowering expectations is perfectly rational behavior.  After all, if happiness equals expectations minus reality then lowering expectations is an easier path to happiness than is improving one's reality.

The solution?  We need to figure out how to make teaching rewarding for those with high hopes -- both to assuage the attrition of the always-optimistic and to discourage dedicated teachers from descending to despondency and digging in their heels.


Michael Shirley said...

I understand what you're trying to say, but you've set up a false dichotomy: low expectations vs. high expectations. I'd say it's more accurately high expectations vs. entirely unrealistic expectations. Good veteran teachers recognize that teaching is a lot more like baseball than football: you play every day, you learn what you can from your losses, and you get a fresh start every morning. Too many young teachers think they'll save the world in no time at all. Fortunately, that's not their job, but some of them never learn that.

kerri said...

Unfortunately, programs like the Teaching Fellows actually tell their new teachers to have those unrealistic expectations. Part of the TNTP curriculum is pushing the mantra that a good classroom teacher is ALL IT TAKES to lift EVERY SINGLE KID in your classroom out of poverty. The converse of which being, of course, that if your South Bronx 3rd graders don't all end up at Harvard, you will have been a complete failure. The equation of new teachers who are eager to please and used to high achievement in their own lives, plus a really hard job, times the constant messaging from above that the future of public education lies squarely (and solely) on their shoulders = incredible self abuse and quick burnout. Not a good model, sadly.