Science: Depressed teachers don’t impede student math achievement

We cannot wave a wand and change society, or schools, or what I’m about to tell you, which is that elementary school teachers get no respect in our public school system and that explains the high attrition, high burnout, and hundreds of thousands of unfilled positions.

Of course we talk about how important teachers are. But actions speak louder than words. Administrators rarely ask for teacher input for professional development, because people don’t trust teachers to be able to help each other. Teachers get handed curricula; they don’t develop curricula. This is why administrators report much more job satisfaction than teachers.

So I started looking for research about how it’s bad for kids to be in a classroom with teachers who have poor job satisfaction and/or poor self-esteem. And guess what? I found nothing. It’s not that people have not asked the question. There are tons of papers published that seek to find correlation between teachers’ wellbeing and student learning. But there is none.

The only paper where I found any correlation was one, single study for students who are in 1st – 3rd grade. Unhappy teachers did not impact the kids’ ability to learn math, but it slowed down the kids’ reading achievement a small amount. I shouldn’t be shocked, because we already know that a student’s performance is wholly dependent on their parent’s zip code. So logically, teachers would have no impact. But even I am shocked that kids learn just as well in school with a teacher with poor self-esteem.

So this means administrators will not do a lot to make teachers feel better about their chosen career. Because administrators are evaluated on test numbers, and the numbers don’t get better when teachers are happy.

But we all know that kids have good years and bad years in public school based on whether or not they like their teachers. I remember delivering pink tulips to teachers and administrators all spring to make sure my son got the first-grade teacher I heard was the best.

I wasn’t even thinking about having my son score higher on tests; kids know how it feels to spend eight hours a day with someone they like. It feels better. To me this was the most important thing to control for him. But my efforts backfired. My son got the first grade teacher who, according to the principal, “was best equipped to deal with an overbearing parent.”

Whatever. I took him out of school two weeks later. And this is why parents are better than a school teacher. Parents love their kids, so the kids have a good experience with their adult. We don’t have any measure that shows that doing well in elementary school makes people happier in adult life. But we know that being happy to see your adult each day makes a kid happier each day. And since schools have no incentive to make sure teachers feel good about their work, you may as well take your kid home for school.

2 replies
  1. musikproStL
    musikproStL says:

    I know you do your research, but a lot of your statements do not correspond with my experience as a teacher from 1981-2009 or as an administrator from 2009-2020. I worked in 6 districts, 3 states and one foreign country. I wrote curriculum in all but one of those districts. Every summer, teachers were paid to write curriculum to evolve with state standards and content area changes. This means changes to the learning targets, assessments, scope/sequence, vocabulary and learning activities. Teacher input was always sought and compensated.

    In my experience, teachers were surveyed to determine professional development in all of the districts where I worked. Teachers were often the creators and facilitators of meaningful PD sessions. As an administrator, I did the same with my teachers. I used data to target areas needing improvement, but I also employed teachers’ responses and requests. PD from outside vendors (textbook developers, motivational speakers, etc.) has its place, but it was a small percentage of the overall PD I experienced as both a teacher and as an administrator.

    Teaching is a unique profession because of its adult-to-children ratio (approx. 1 to 20), the relative isolation of teachers with children, the limited time to collaborate and the unceasing assessment of learning and performance—of both teachers and students. People come to the profession from a myriad of backgrounds and with a multitude of motivations. They stay for many reasons. Often, there is a period near the early middle of one’s career when teachers have to find their true purpose because it becomes clear that their well-being is not high on the list of concerns of their educational leaders or district administrators. This is the critical time for those who stay because it is when they determine their “why” and it often clarifies their satisfaction and future goals as an educator.

    It is true that children with loving parents in stable communities are better off learning from home. But numbers of children raised in chaotic, trauma-filled homes often find the stability in school routine—and wraparound services—that eludes them at home. Home is often unsafe and unregulated while school has rules and procedures and many caring adults to show them how life can be different than what their parents/caretakers are providing.

    The statistics on childhood trauma ( reveal a significant need for therapeutic and compassionate education if we are to prepare our future leaders and problem-solvers to take on the challenges they will face. Children cannot continue to suffer abuse and be expected to learn and thrive. Their minds and bodies will not heal themselves without intervention. All too often, the only intervention they have is the loving school staff who see the impact of their trauma and make changes to help.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for this comment. I totally agree that kids living in traumatic homes need teachers. In fact, a teacher saved me from my own traumatic home. She told me I couldn’t come back to school without giving her proof that I called the police on my father. I don’t think it ever would have occurred to me to do that without her strong encouragement. I realize her approach wouldn’t work for every kid, but to your point, she was empathetic and paying attention to me and knew what would be right for me, in my situation, to get me out of there.

      In pretty much every study about school, the data shows that school doesn’t make a difference in a kid’s life unless home life is traumatic. Then school is lifesaving. Earth moving. The most important thing in a community and a kid’s daily existence. But because of this disparity it breaks my heart that kids who really do not benefit from going to school take up the resources that other kids need so much.

      I’m frustrated that we talk about school as if it’s this sacred, democratic thing that we need all kids to have. That idea hurts disadvantaged kids so much. Every time we talk about making all the schools equal, the rich kids get more resources. We would be in great shape if teachers like you were dedicated to kids who don’t have support they need at home. That’s how our social services should be set up.

      We are not the world’s largest kibbutz. We can’t have every kid being taken care of by the collective while the parents work. Parents need to take care of their own kids.


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