Schools clearly can’t respond to all the troubles that lead to helplessness and hopelessness in teachers. But they can focus on two prime causes: the strain of dealing with students with behavior troubles; and isolation.
Many schools now put a priority on helping teachers work with students with behavior problems, not only because these problems are so fraying to teachers but also because the problems undercut the learning of all students in the classroom. Happily, programs exist to help teachers deal effectively with these students. The best give teachers specific strategies and break down teachers’ isolation, creating stronger, more caring school communities. An example is the Child Development Project, an elementary school program designed, implemented, and evaluated by the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, California (Battistich et al., 1991). Among the many supports provided, teachers learn effective discipline strategies and receive help in developing students’ intrinsic motives to act constructively and cooperatively, including engaging students in rule setting, decision making, and problem solving. Over the past four years, I have worked in two Boston elementary schools with Robert Selman, Bethany Montgomery, and Alison Auderieth on a similar project, which trains a diverse cadre of graduate students to work with schools on these goals.
Schools might also assist in getting the small number of teachers suffering from serious depression into treatment. Such treatment has dramatically improved in the past 25 years (Beardslee, 2002). I am certainly not suggesting that school administrators identify depressed teachers and pressure them into getting therapy. But schools could play a much bigger role by participating in the National Institute of Mental Health’s ongoing public education campaign on depression awareness and screening, including using posters and other materials to inform both parents and teachers about the symptoms of depression and about treatment resources.
Although a mountainous literature exists on depression, psychologists have remarkably little understanding of dis-illusionment. They don’t even have a vocabulary for talking about it. But disillusionment—especially the loss of a belief that they can make a difference in students’ lives—is one of the biggest reasons that nearly one-half of teachers in the United States leave the profession within their first five years (Education Week, 2001). Disillusionment is not necessarily bad. Strictly speaking, disillusionment is freedom from illusion. It is the ability to face and absorb a greater portion of reality—a foundation for wisdom and maturity. But disillusionment turns pernicious when it slides into helplessness and passivity—when teachers don’t have the confidence, support, or opportunities for the creativity needed to master these realities.
There is a great deal of talk these days about stronger, more coherent mentoring programs for new teachers, and these new programs are vital for helping teachers work through disillusionment. Mentors can assist teachers in developing their competence and talents, but they can also be responsive to teachers at precisely those moments when new teachers’ images and expectations about teaching collide with difficult realities. Mentors can help new teachers be realistic and take pride in seemingly small accomplishments.
Mentors can also help new teachers think about creative, diverse career paths within the teaching profession that might enable them to use their talents and have a larger impact on students’ lives. Research suggests that using their talents and growing professionally are significantly more important than status or salary in boosting teachers’ morale (Heath, 1994). A growing chorus of educators and researchers now call for revamping teachers’ career opportunities to allow teachers to become innovative and entrepreneurial—for example, enabling them to start their own programs, conduct research, take sabbaticals in the private sector, or assume leadership roles.
Such changes as these should be one piece of a broad effort to support both teachers’ ethical growth and their ability to guide students’ ethical growth. New modes of professional development focused on improving instruction can teach us much in this regard. District 2 in New York, for example, has attracted attention for revamping professional development so that teachers regularly observe and reflect on one another’s practice. Veteran professionals with expertise in such important content areas as literacy also coach teachers.
School districts need to do much more to promote professional cultures that focus on both academic instruction and developing adults’ ethical awareness and skills. Teachers, guided by coaches, could provide feedback to one another on such topics as earning respect and trust, creating a caring community, dealing with challenging students, and identifying and reversing the downward spirals in which students and adults get caught.
Teachers need opportunities to reflect on why they have difficulty empathizing with particular students, on their successes and failures in cultivating students’ moral thinking, and on the state of their own ideals. Teachers need emotional support from their colleagues in dealing with chronic stress. And administrators need to learn the art of creating opportunities for this emotional support without turning schools into the kinds of therapeutic cultures that would estrange many teachers.
None of this, of course, will be easy. But it doesn’t have to be yet another task for schools already burdened with the hard work of improving instruction. Much of the work can be done in the context of what schools should be doing anyway to support new teachers and to promote good instruction, and much of it—creating strong communities, helping teachers manage students with behavior problems, increasing adults’ capacity for reflection—will certainly serve academic goals. Best of all, this approach, unlike so many current character education efforts, stands a real chance of nurturing in children the qualities that they need to become caring and responsible adults
Battistich, V., Watson, M., Solomon, D., Schaps, E., & Solomon, J. (1991). The Child Development Project: A comprehensive program for the development of prosocial character. In J. L. Gewirtz & W. M. Kurtines (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (Vol. 3). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.