A Look at the Systematic and Institutionalized Gaslighting of Teachers and Why We Must Stop It
Introduction: Part 1 of 4
There’s a serious gaslighting problem that’s destroying the teaching profession from the inside out. These institutionalized accepted “truths” include the beliefs that teachers bear the full burden for the success of their students, that their willingness to work until they drop is an honorable sacrifice, and that saying “no” to any additional demand should lead to unbearable guilt and shame for putting themselves first. The collective and ongoing gaslighting of educators is becoming more and more of a threat to the strength of the teaching workforce because so many administrators and teachers alike continue to be taught to buy into these misguided ideas as absolute truths.
It is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is putting a great strain on teachers across the country. In “Teachers Are Stressed Out, and It’s Causing Some to Quit,” author Madeline Will cites a RAND Corporation survey of 1000 former teachers, 55% of whom quit the profession in the two years prior to the onset of the pandemic. More than twice the number of teachers blamed stress and disappointment in the profession over insufficient pay (2021). It’s clear that teacher attrition is a long-standing problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic; the problem is not going to go away on its own.
The time for teachers to speak out against the perceptions that are harming our profession and demand structural change and a more rational job description is now. Teachers have been told to “be patient” that the “wheels turn slowly,” and that “things will never change anyway” long enough. The United States is facing a looming and urgent teacher shortage. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has recently stated that the teacher shortage must be addressed “boldly” (Blitzer, 2021). His focus appears to be on more competitive teacher salaries and training programs to get paraeducators certified for teaching positions. These are good and valid plans, but this appears to be a pivotal moment in which teachers can claim our voices to make the profession truly work better for educators, and therefore better serve students, families, and communities.
The Insidious Effects of Gaslighting
Many of the erroneous beliefs educators embrace started as lofty idealism that, over time, have entered the realm of the unreasonable and untenable. When I became a teacher, my well-meaning mother (who was an elementary school teacher) gave me a copy of this quote:
I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized. (Ginott, 1972).
I remember feeling inspired because, for the first time, I realized just how powerful and influential everything I said and did as a teacher could be. I felt a sense of mission and purpose. I also remember that feeling of inspiration giving way rather rapidly to abject terror. Could I really be an instrument of torture if I wasn’t perfect? And that was the beginning of the burden of worry about my every word and deed as a teacher. Years later, when I became a Learning Specialist in a Middle School, I shared the quote with all my colleagues in a well-meaning way to inspire and empower. Years after that, when I held a Seminar course for Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) students, I shared the quote, but I used it as the basis for a discussion about navigating the burdens imposed on teachers from within and without. Without those discussions to address unhealthy attitudes from the start, the seeds of self-doubt can take root and grow into full-blown stress and anxiety. I believe that teachers’ experience of anxiety does not come and go; it is cumulative, and that accumulated stress is a major reason why so many teachers leave the profession within three to five years.
We are perpetuating the conditions for our collective professional demise.
The Statistics Reveal a Serious Existential Threat to Education
When teachers can no longer survive the stress and imbalance in their lives, they leave the profession for good. According to the article, “Teacher turnover: What you need to know” (ASCA Partner4Purpose, 2020), eight percent of teachers drop out of teaching each year. Another eight percent switch schools, resulting in an average school faculty turnover rate of 16%. More alarming, nine of ten newly hired teachers are replacing teachers who left the profession, two-thirds of whom took the early retirement option. The rates are even higher for Title I schools and for the math and science content areas. Teacher shortages are becoming more widespread. The result can be increased class sizes and shrinking curricular offerings. Time gets diverted from building student relationships to supporting new staff as well as repeating program implementation and professional development programs. Teacher burnout becomes worse, and the cycle repeats itself.
We Can Do It — The Future Depends on Us — We Are Superheroes: Building Blocks of Toxic Positivity
Another aspect of gaslighting comes in the form of what Mason (2020) refers to as “toxic positivity.” Positivity and optimism are desirable and healthy. Positivity becomes toxic when it denies and buries the unpleasant and even dangerous realities that affect teachers’ health and well-being. Mason’s advice to teachers is simple and clear:
1 Stop showing up early and staying late
2 Stop taking work with you wherever you go
3 Stop saying yes to more work because you feel like you should
4 Rewrite the story: the teacher martyr work 24/7 narrative has got to go
5 At the end of the day teaching is a job, and it’s ok to see it that way
Members of this profession have long been fed messages that nurturing and caring for others must come at the expense of sacrificing our own well-being. However, this not only sacrifices teachers’ personal health and professional effectiveness, but it also ultimately harms the students, the community, the profession, and perhaps, even our democracy. It’s time for teachers to claim their deserved professional status and be respected not just in words, but in the scope and expectations of the work.
The Self-Care Kick is Not Fooling Anyone
I believe that the current emphasis in schools on the importance of “self-care” strategies without providing meaningful personal time to do so is backfiring and driving even more teachers from the profession.
Adding to the anxiety are school-based strategies that take up professional time in the name of self-care and positive messaging. Too often, these are merely band-aids and illusions. I do not believe the key to stemming teacher attrition is meditation and mindfulness exercises before staff meetings. Picture a group of surgeons meeting to discuss patient outcomes. Now imagine the meeting organizer telling everyone to close their eyes and then beginning to lead a meditation. That is not a likely scenario. Is education the only endeavor that treats its professionals like children? Can’t teaching professionals choose for themselves how to relax? What teaching professionals want and need instead are reasonable parameters for their jobs, so their self-care does not need to be the concern of their employer. A teacher’s personal life is her own business.
The current “self-care” discussion is lip service at best and is just more evidence of inculcated gaslighting. These kinds of buzzwords push real and lasting change down the road as they continue to prey on teachers’ sense of mission and willingness to sacrifice for their students even to the point of becoming emotionally overwhelmed and physically exhausted. It’s time to openly question all of these unhealthy and unproductive beliefs and start examining and changing the structures and practices that are driving teachers to other careers.
The Current Conversation Regarding Solutions to Teacher Attrition
The Learning Policy Institute (Linda Darling-Hammond is President and CEO) website features an Infographic that cites the following four “key elements” that contribute to a “Strong and Diverse Teaching Profession”: Effective Recruitment Strategies, High Retention and Culturally Responsive Preparation, Supportive Working Conditions, and Competitive and Equitable Compensation (2021). These are indeed important, but none addresses the existing structures in schools and the lack of boundaries on the teacher job description.
I have read many articles about teacher stress and burnout. Many of these offer very good and well-received suggestions regarding ways teachers can carve out time to relax. Others promote school-based administrative solutions such as offering yoga classes, providing encouragement via a sticky note after a walk-through, or allowing colleagues to text each other for coverage when they need a break (Gonser, 2021). While I appreciate the intent and value of these suggestions, they do not address the systemic roots of the problem of teacher burnout and may even exacerbate it.
Well intentioned as they are (and as I was when I disseminated the Ginott quote), articles such as these can become an unwitting part of the institutionalized gaslighting of teachers. Placing the onus on teachers to practice self-care as a professional expectation is just another form of internalized self-blame and the burden of “one more thing” we are expected to address.
What Can Be Done?
One idea that I have pondered for a long time has to do with empathy. After working in higher education as part of a graduate teacher preparation program for eight years, I began to wonder if what I thought I knew about teaching was still valid. The same feeling had occurred years before when I decided to leave my job of four years as a middle school Learning Specialist and return to the classroom at the high school level. So, I acted again and exchanged the college experience for a return to the public high school teaching. People, including colleagues, family, and friends) said I had lost my mind both times, but I learned so much about education and about myself as an educator both of those times.
I wonder if school administrators, central office leaders, and education policy makers should be expected to rotate into the classroom every two to three years, at least for a quarter or semester of co-teaching. Elected policy makers could be expected to at least shadow educators in different schools at least twice a month. Teachers’ voices are too often silenced by the demands of the job along with the crushing isolation that comes with being constantly overwhelmed. Recurring time in the classroom might be exactly what is needed help policy makers understand the realities of teaching and give teachers well-deserved access to shaping the profession they know and understand better than anyone.
The ultimate key to retaining teachers is found in structural and procedural change that will set realistic professional boundaries for the work of teachers and allow them the time they need for their families and themselves in the ways that they choose and deem best. For that to happen, the pervasive and insidious gaslighting of teachers (from within and without), particularly with regard to teacher preparation, student behavior, and grading/testing, needs to be brought to the surface, examined, addressed, and eliminated. Watch for upcoming posts in which these topics will be addressed in detail.
ASCA Partner4Purpose (2020). Teacher turnover: What you need to know. Association of California School Administrators (ASCA): https://content.acsa.org/articles/teacher-turnover-what-you-need-to-know
Blitzer, R. (2021). “Education secretary ‘All hands on deck’ to address school staffing shortages.” Fox Business, Education: https://www.foxbusiness.com/politics/education-secretary-school-staffing-shortages?cmpid=fb_fbn
Ginott, H. G. (1972). Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers. New York: Macmillan.
Gonser, Sarah (2021). Schools, not teachers, must reduce stress and burnout — here’s how. Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/article/schools-not-teachers-must-reduce-stress-and-burnout-heres-how
Learning Policy Institute (2021). Key elements for a strong and diverse teaching profession. Infographic: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Key-Elements-Strong-Diverse-Teaching-Profession_INFOGRAPHIC.pdf
Mason, J. (2020). Are teachers OK? No, and toxic positivity isn’t helping. We Are Teachers:
Will, M. (2021). Teachers are stressed out, and it’s causing some to quit. Education Week: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-stressed-out-and-its-causing-some-to-quit/2021/02