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.

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