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March 16, 2023

Rehumanizing the Teaching Profession

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A lack of respect for the teaching profession is taking its toll, new survey shows.
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The school places so many demands on its teachers and expects them to dedicate their time, energy, and efforts outside of their clock hours…. The work never ends—I leave school and work on lesson plans at home or paperwork. This job has made me neglect myself, my family, and my friends…. I feel like I can only deal with this career another year at most; I am definitely looking for an out ASAP. There is no way to make this work in a healthy way for me—the public education system in the U.S. is broken.” –Anonymous 
Since I left middle school teaching 11 years ago to become a full-time teacher educator at California State University, Long Beach, I’ve been researching how identities shape teaching and learning, what draws people into teaching, and what influences educators’ choices to stay or leave. This past fall, I really began to wonder (and worry about) how teachers were doing. Talk of the “Great Resignation” in education, increased demands to address “learning loss,” readjustment to in-person learning, new waves of COVID-19, and renewed threats to safety in schools and curricular freedom seemed to dominate my social media feeds. Teacher friends shared plans to leave the classroom or look for new careers entirely.
In the midst of all this, I asked current and former preK-12 teachers via Twitter to participate in a 75-question survey on their personal and professional identities. The survey—adapted from my own research and a survey given by colleagues in France—asked a variety of multiple choice and open-ended questions about teachers’ identities, experiences, and outlooks on the future of education.
I was overwhelmed by the number and nature of the responses I received. Given the survey’s length and competing demands on teachers’ time, I didn’t anticipate that nearly 1,000 educators from 47 states and Washington, D.C., would complete at least part of the survey. Many teachers shared the post across their networks, resulting in a “snowball sampling.” Participants’ racial and gender demographics roughly mirrored that of the U.S. teaching population—a majority were white and identified as female.
After completing the survey, several educators tweeted that responding had been a cathartic opportunity to reflect on their professional experiences and trajectories. These teachers had much to say about their working conditions but had rarely been asked or heard.

Educators detailed how they were trying everything they could to stay in the classroom, despite the mental and physical demands.

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As I read through the data, responses to one question made my heart hurt: “Have you personally experienced mental or physical health challenges that you attribute to your work in teaching?” Of the educators who answered this question, 84 percent said yes. While it’s possible that struggling teachers looking for an outlet to express their frustration might have been more likely to take a survey based on their dissatisfaction with or struggles within the profession, given that the survey was advertised as an opportunity to reflect on their personal and professional identities, this seemed somewhat unlikely. This seemed even less likely as I read the more than 500 open-ended responses in which educators detailed how they themselves had tried or were trying everything they could to stay in the classroom, despite the mental and physical demands.
In terms of mental health, participants described struggles with stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, PTSD and trauma-related effects, phobias, disordered eating, addiction, suicidality, and self-harm. Physical effects attributed to teaching included exhaustion, heart and blood pressure issues, respiratory problems, pain, migraines and headaches, and digestive and autoimmune issues.
This led me to wonder about connections between teacher well-being and the so-called Great Resignation. The National Education Association, in a survey of its membership, noted that 55 percent of NEA members were considering leaving teaching earlier than they had originally intended. Was it really that bad? How many teachers (like the one quoted in the intro above) were nearing their breaking point? How many had already decided to leave? What factors contributed to the stress teachers were experiencing?
Diving further into the data, I found startling (but not surprising) confirmation of the NEA data. Of the teachers who responded to the question, “Within the last 12 months, have you left or considered leaving K-12 teaching?” nearly one-quarter had already left the classroom; another 53 percent had seriously or at least fleetingly considered leaving teaching. Only 13 percent said that they had not considered leaving K-12 teaching in the previous 12 months.
When asked what factors played (or might play) a role in their decision to leave teaching, the three most selected were: (1) a lack of respect for their professionalism, knowledge, and investment in teaching, (2) a lack of respect for teaching generally (i.e., in society), and (3) the number of expectations encompassed in the role of teaching. While commonly cited factors for leaving the profession (like salary and student behaviors) were given as choices, they were selected by far fewer teachers than these three responses. This signaled to me that the prospective “Great Resignation” among educators was anchored in a systemic and societal lack of respect for teaching that left teachers feeling undervalued and overworked.

Three Shifts for Rehumanizing Education

More than 50 years ago, Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire proposed that education should be a humanizing endeavor, one that recognizes the full humanity of ourselves and those around us to move toward collective development and empowerment. If we consider dehumanization to be the opposite of this concept, these data indicate that teachers are experiencing a crisis of dehumanization that is pushing many of them out of their classrooms. This crisis is rooted in systems that value results and productivity over people’s well-being and growth. The impact of this dehumanization is devastating. If we truly believe that education should promote student growth and development, we must also support the sustainability, growth, and development of educators in classrooms.

If we truly believe that education should promote student growth and development, we must also support the sustainability, growth, and development of educators in classrooms.

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What can education leaders and others committed to supporting teachers do to address the systemic crisis of dehumanization and the accompanying teacher retention crisis? In reflecting on these questions, talking to teacher friends, and considering my own experiences in schools and higher education, I offer the following three related cultural shifts that can bring us closer to rehumanizing teaching, in schools and society. 

1. Create a Humanizing Culture of Respect

We can start by creating a culture that respects, affirms, and values the voices of all people in a learning community (students, educators, administrators, staff, families, etc.). Humanizing cultures see value in each person’s contribution, supporting their agency in relation to the educational process, thereby creating an environment that promotes learning. The community accepts responsibility for listening to and learning from all members.
When we are in positions of power or influence, we can proactively initiate conversations about how (and whether) people feel respected and enact change to create respectful environments. We must intentionally make space for all community members to voice concerns anonymously when they feel disrespected, taking restorative action to address their concerns.

2. Listen to and Trust Teachers

Once we’ve built a culture of respect, we should ask teachers about their successes and challenges in the classroom—and listen authentically. If teachers trust us enough to tell the truth about their experiences and what they need to survive (and eventually thrive) in the classroom, we must work collectively toward these ends, rather than relying on platitudes or our own prescriptive solutions. While many education leaders face prescriptive top-down solutions or legislative mandates that restrict their ability to honor what teachers are saying to them, it is critical that teachers see their administrators and other education leaders as advocates and allies, not additional adversaries.
Classroom and educational contexts evolve constantly. If we want teachers to stay in the classroom, we must believe them, understand their concerns, and address the challenges they are facing on a daily basis, using positions of power we have to advocate for change and greater professional regard across multiple levels of education (schools, districts, school boards, colleges of education).

3. Support Teacher Agency, Expertise, and Growth

Finally, as leaders, we need to model the respect for teachers that is too often absent in society. To do this, we must honor teacher agency in the classroom and their professional lives while simultaneously encouraging authentic, ongoing opportunities for teachers to be in community with one another and combat the isolation of the profession. We must also encourage, empower, and uplift teacher expertise, allowing teachers to choose professional learning that supports their professional goals and providing mentorship models that promote ongoing development.

Only through rehumanization and reconnection can we come back to the reasons that prompted so many of us to enter education initially.

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Teaching is a profession of connection and learning which, despite many challenges, can bring joy and light to our communities. This light cannot shine in a context of dehumanization. We must honor teachers and their experiences if we are to hold on to joy and light in such challenging times. Only through rehumanization and reconnection can we come back to the reasons that prompted so many of us to enter education initially.

Betina Hsieh is a professor of teacher education at California State University, Long Beach, and a former K-12 educator. She is current president of the California Council on Teacher Education and will be the next Boeing endowed professor of teacher education at the University of Washington in 2024.

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