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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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Want Teachers to be Happy: Let Them Be Creative!

I recently spoke with a student teacher, who took an internship in Bahrain, an island nation in the Middle East. She was obviously happy with her new adventure, teaching elementary students on a U.S. base in a foreign country. Obviously, the newness of the situation, the cultural experiences, and new faces played a role.

 But I believe one of the reasons she was fulfilled in the classroom was that school administrators gave her freedom to be creative, to try new things. She raved about how they supported her innovative or non-traditional approaches to teaching.

I think this is key! Teachers don’t get paid a lot comparatively to other professionals, and they probably never will. They work in a thankless profession that is not highly respected, at least in the U.S. They deal with behavior problems, unreasonable parents, paperwork, over-testing, and other challenges.

But another factor could be greatly impacting their happiness in the job: creativity and autonomy.

Teachers have been stripped of their ability to be innovative in the classroom, to be playful and creative in coming up with engaging lessons. In some school districts, they have been handed scripted lessons to teach, told how and what to teach word for word.

Other teachers are afraid to be creative in their classrooms because of the massive pressure of standardized testing. With students having to produce higher test results, teachers shy away from trying out a new lesson or project; they play it safe and teach what will produce higher test scores.

Teacher burnout is a long-standing problem in education. Dorman (2003) found that teacher burnout consists of three, loosely connected dimensions: 1) emotional exhaustion or feeling exhausted over one’s work, 2) depersonalization or developing negative, uncaring attitudes towards others, 3) and negative personal accomplishment or a loss of feeling self-competence and feeling dissatisfied with one’s achievements.

Encouraging teachers to be creative can speak to these conditions. When one is feeling creative, playful, and innovative, how can they feel emotionally exhausted? Instead, they will positively fueled. Being dissatisfied with one’s accomplishments or a loss of self-competence can also be remedied perhaps by giving back autonomy to teachers, allowing them to experiment, dabble, and create through their teaching. Creativity itself can be the reward.

Coming up with an engaging, new way to teach fractions for instance, can be emotionally fulfilling in itself.

District and school administrators, along with federal and state lawmakers, who make the educational rules, should take note of the significance of encouraging teachers to be creative and providing discretion and autonomy. Happier, more fulfilled teachers should be the goal.