On Teacher Well-Being

Magazine Issue
Spring 2018
Read Time: 15 minutes

Concerned about the precipitous decline in enrollments in teacher education some years ago, we began studying teacher motivation to teach. According to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, there was a steep decline in teacher morale. Interest in teaching as a career had plummeted.

Of high school students who took the ACT for college admis­sion in 2014, only 5 percent expressed interest in majoring in education—a huge drop from years past. Between 2008 and 2012, enrollments in teacher education dropped 53 percent in California, which was worrisome. Declines in Utah were not as high, but they were continuing and have not recovered. So we wondered, what draws teachers to teaching? More specifically, what draws BYU students to teaching? And what keeps teachers teaching?

Teaching as a CallingAn illustration of a woman curled up under a book.

In 2011 we published a study, "The Call to Teach and Teacher Hopefulness," that involved gathering survey data from 175 preservice teachers­ mostly at BYU but including two other insti­tutions—and 44 in-service teachers. We knew from previous studies and experi­ence that, on the whole, teachers have a lively service ethic, and many are drawn to teaching as an expression of an inner drive—something often expressed as a "calling to teach" and often found in teachers who as children played teacher.

The results of this inquiry proved a bit surprising. Other studies had found that upward of half of in-service teachers felt called to teach. Our figure was higher—much higher. On a one-to-eight-point scale, for both groups of teachers, the mean rating was seven ("mostly true"). Measured levels of hope were similarly very high. To experience a call to teach likely would be highly motivating. But we also wondered how sustainable a sense of being called to teach is.

Teacher Motivation

Motivation is often understood to be strongly connected to teacher commitment. When teachers' motivation is consis­tently frustrated and when they are discouraged from doing what they think is right and best for children, teachers some­times burn out and quit the classroom. High teacher turnover undermines student learning. It takes years of persistent work to become highly skilled, and when a teacher who is just hitting their stride leaves teaching and is replaced by a new teacher, even a highly dedicated new teacher, something of real value is lost and not easily replaced. But the wider issue has less to do with teachers staying in teaching; teachers should enjoy what they do and remain engaged in the improvement of their prac­tice while doing it.

A broken number 2 pencil illustration.

Teacher Commitment

Studies of teaching that draw on the Three-Component Model of Commitment proved helpful in nudging along our thinking. There are multiple reasons for teachers to stay in teaching as well as combinations of reasons. Having different emotional loadings, commitment—as a "binding force”—is experienced differently: some teachers stay in teaching because they are trapped and have no other means for generating an income ("continuance commitment"); some stay because they are normatively invested in what schools do or attempt to do; and some display an "affective commitment" and cannot imagine anything else providing as much personal meaning and deep satisfaction. The latter teachers, we concluded—those whose commitment to teaching is affective and normative—are those for whom teaching is experienced as a calling.

NCLB: Punishing Policy

An illustration of a teacher and children standing in front of an open book. Our explorations into teacher calling, motivation, and com­mitment were also informed by a critical inquiry into the educational policies of the past few decades that culminated in the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed by President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002. These policies fundamentally changed the nature and experience of teaching and opened the door to the marketization of public education by corporate America. While provisions of the NCLB act gener­ally were not well known outside of educators, many parents quickly came to understand its effects on children from its unbridled emphasis on standardized test scores.

At the time of passage, the law's aim that every child, whatever their life circumstances or capacity, would become (or rather, test) proficient by 2014 was widely recognized by educators—who generally are not opposed to evaluation—as fanciful, even poten­tially harmful to children. Tested m adequate yearly progress of groups, year after year, rather than indi­vidual student growth, set the edu­cational standard, and teachers did their very best to respond. Driven by a punishing psychology through the Obama years, testing pressures increased dramatically even as the human and institutional costs of compliance accelerated.

As has been convincingly dem­onstrated by multiple studies, one result was a dramatic narrowing of the elementary school curriculum, especially for struggling students: no art, no theater or dance, no social studies, little science, and shortened PE and sometimes even recess. Under heightened and increasingly aggressive attack, the public aims of public education often were forgotten. For teachers, the test fetish bore with it a conception of teaching as the transmission of to-be-tested content and of good teaching as test-result proven, the standard of being value-added. Such conceptions ran and run counter to the conception of teaching as a pedagogical and very personal relationship that is the source of the great­est pleasure of teaching for teachers.

As teachers often say, nothing brings joy like watching "the lights go on in a child's mind," of witnessing the "ah-ha experience of learning," or of seeing a child do what he or she thought could not be done just because of what a teacher did or said. It is such moments and moments of feeling cared for that teachers live for; these are the moments that produce hugs and laughter in theaters when a young person recognizes a former teacher across the aisle and that result in the occasional thank-you card that teachers tuck away. By 2013, recognizing inevitable failure, then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan switched course and began extending state compliance waivers.

"TGM": A Three-Component Model of Commitment 

Commitment, as a psychological state, has at least three separable components reflecting

  1. a desire (affective commitment)
  2. a need (continuance commitment)
  3. an obligation (normative commitment)

Each component develops from different conditions and has different implications.

See John P. Meyer and Natalie J. Allen, "A Three-Component Conceptualization of Organizational Commitment," Human Resources Management Review 1, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 61.

Studies of Young Children and Their Teachers

Although we were relative latecomers, we recognized that the policies of NCLB were being pushed down into publicly funded early-childhood education, resulting in what some have called "schoolarization" or "schoolification." We were concerned with and wanted to better understand the effects of these policies on teachers of young children who commonly report feeling called to teach. These studies form the bulk of our recently published book, Preschool Teachers' Lives and Work: Stories and Studies from the Field.

Over a four-year period, we conducted several dozen interviews with teachers, program administrators, parents, and others involved in the work of caring for and teaching young children. We observed in classrooms across multiple counties in the state of Utah and learned as we went along. We got to know teachers well who taught in a chronic homeless facility as well as in programs in urban and rural areas. We witnessed a lot of very good teaching and met a lot of very good people. Like the teachers in our first study, these teachers reported a strong sense of calling evident in a deep service ethic expressive of their love of and for children. Drawing on TCM Commitment categories, we found that most, but not all, of these teachers were both affectively and normatively committed to teaching.

Self-Determination Theory and Teacher Flourishing

"SDT": Self-Determination Theory—Theory of Motivation

The self-determination theory states that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are necessary components for psychological growth and well-being.

See Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, "Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being," American Psychologist 55, no. 1 (January 2000): 68-78

Given our interest in the origins of the call to teach and with its maintenance as a source of motivation for teacher improve­ment, we turned our attention to the Self-Determination Theory, developed by two researchers, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. In this theory, which is nicely linked to TCM, Deci and Ryan argue that there are three basic psychological needs­—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that, when fulfilled, lead to psychological growth and well-being. When fulfilled, a person—a teacher—feels congruent, whole, and vital (at least much of the time). On this view, central to teacher well-being is being able to pursue goals that are valued and meaningful and to do so with others who one enjoys, has fun with, understands, and is understood by. Research on the importance of compe­tence and well-being to teacher commitment is robust. Without competence and growth in competence, confidence and well-being suffer. Taken together, these three needs, when satisfied, strengthen positive commitment, elevate perfor­mance, encourage positive adjustment, and enhance engagement.

An infographic of "Six Propositions on Education to Consider."Representing a very different psychology than that embed­ded in NCLB, we found that SDI helpfully framed the chal­lenges we noted for early-childhood education teachers in our studies and proved useful for identifying and then exploring promising opportunities for enhancing teacher learning.

A key, we concluded, is the design of policies and practices that set teacher well-being as a high priority. We reviewed the research literature on teacher well-being and were struck by how little there actually is. In contrast, and rightfully so, abundant attention has been given to the well-being of children. But it should be obvious that if we care about children, we ought to be very concerned with the quality and well-being of those who care for and have responsibility for formally educat­ing them. We ought to be deeply concerned that the teachers of our children are happy, engaged, and highly committed to their work and to the children they serve. John Goodlad once remarked that the best indication of the quality of a school is that children are happy when they are there. We think he was right. Because teaching is a relationship, flourishing teachers are required for children to flourish.

Recent research by the Institute for Educational Sciences in 2015 concluded that increased teacher pay and quality mentoring are crucial factors for encouraging teachers to stay in teaching. Both have important effects on teachers feeling val­ued and, for mentoring, supported. However, our studies sug­gest a higher standard is needed. If we care about our nation and value our children, then we need to cherish education and invest generously in support of the teachers who provide that education. We can and must engage in efforts to reshape edu­cational policies to better focus on teacher well-being and take fulfilling the three SDI needs of teachers seriously. To do so will be very good for our children as well as for the cultures of the schools they attend.

The commitment to quality teaching born of a call to teach can wear down and be lost, and that is very sad indeed. But a teacher's call to teach and to teach well can be sus­tained and even strengthened. This is where parents of school children, teacher colleagues, and school administrators, among many others, can make a tremendous and positive difference.


Written by Robert V. Bullough Jr. and Kendra M. Hall-Kenyon 

Illustrated by Eleni Kalorkoti