Learned helplessness is when you figure out that no matter what you do you will never succeed, and so you stop trying.
In a classroom situation, the archetype is the student who comes over to the teacher every new step in their task, to check if they are doing it right. Or the student who just will not get started on an activity because they have learned there is no use in trying. There are plenty of articles about learned helplessness in classrooms from the students’ side. Learned helplessness also occurs from the teachers’ side but I have not seen much written about that. I have worked in a lot of schools where this was true, so I thought that was a bit surprising.
Learned Helplessness about Teaching
In one school, it was only the science department that had the problem. The air of defeat was around in every breaktime.
I finished a lesson on genetic disorders with my disaffected Y10s and they had listened and they had done all the activities and I thought ‘hell yeah! a breakthrough!” and I went upstairs and told a colleague “I think they’re starting to work for me… I think I finally have their attention!” and he said “No they aren’t. No you don’t” and laughed at me. He left teaching that year but I had to teach that class for another two years. He was ‘right’, it seems it was a fluke lesson.
Of course it was after that ‘pep talk’. How are you supposed to carry that enthusiastic energy through after something like that?
Learned Helplessness about workload
In another school, the science department was fine and the support for behavioural problems was a lot better, so the learned helplessness of the teachers was not about teaching and learning. We felt like we could solve the problems we had in the classroom but the staff room talk about management decisions was bleak and broken. Every lunch time we would discuss how ‘ridiculous’ some new decision or initiative was. Our workload was uncontrollable. The demands on us just kept increasing. No matter how much of ourselves we poured into our work, it was never enough. Burnout was inevitable and staff turnover was in turn ‘ridiculous’.
Learned Helplessness about Resources
My first ever school was interesting. It had been put in ‘special measures’ (one or two steps away from being closed completely for being terrible) and was re-building itself from the ground up. The head was inspirational and was trying to teach the teachers to trust themselves and feel they had agency. In that sticky transition, it was interesting to see which teachers could pull themselves through from feeling helpless to feeling professional.
One thing she said to me on my first day (it might have even been my interview), that has always stuck with me was “Schools with poor leadership usually have problems with their bank accounts. Those things often go together. When I got here, the finances were a complete mess.” when she was explaining why she had hired completely new people in clerical roles.
The teachers there had been good teachers but because the previous leaders had no oversight, the school had become a runaway train with no control. You can’t feel anything but helpless when do not have the resources to do a good job.
Another school I worked out was in state of crisis for an extended period of time. Constant new waves of demands were put on teachers with no warning and no discussion. The teachers were expected to deliver a high quality curriculum with little to no resources, and very little pay. Work/life balance was disrespected. No one knew who was responsible for what and if they asked the wrong person for help, they sometimes were shouted at.
The teachers gave up outside of the classroom. They said they wanted to ‘just teach’. It became a refrain. “I just want to teach.”
People left all the time but some people were stuck. When new people came in, they would learn from the stuck ones that it was a waste of time trying to make things better. Every mistake or problem in that school was like a natural disaster and never something anyone could learn from.
Even though some people at that school worked hard to turn things around, the rest of the teachers could not transition from feeling exploited. They could not switch over to feeling like their efforts were worth it because they had no experience of that being true. Any tools made to help them were ignored. Staff room talk was all about unreasonable workload or demands but never about the steps they could take themselves to resolve the issues.
Steps for Management
- Show appreciation
- Aligning demands with resources
- Modelling problem solving so that teachers can help themselves
- Giving teachers input on decisions that affect them
- Prioritise changes by what is most important, not what is easiest or cheapest
- Signal things are different now by pointing to the positive changes you have brought about
Steps for Teachers
- Realise what has happened to your mindset
- Reassess every few months. Is it still as bad as it was? Has anything got better? Can you leave ‘survival mode’ yet?
- Be careful what you say to new colleagues. Give them a chance to realise that there is no use trying, by themselves!
- Figure out workarounds and share them with colleagues
- Show your appreciation for a job well done by a colleague