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Supporting Teacher Demoralization through the UDL Framework

Posted on: February 10, 2022

By Mandy Froehlich and Katie Novak

Mandy Froehlich and Katie Novak, co-editor of Transforming Higher Education Through Universal Design for Learning, outline steps to overcoming teacher demoralization

Every learner deserves equitable access to inclusive learning environments, opportunities to learn at high levels, and conditions that allow them to find purpose and joy in their learning. This is true for students and educators alike.

Given the incredible variability of the students we serve, one-size-fits-all learning approaches fall short of meeting the needs of our students, but they also miss the mark as our schools seek to support educators in honing the art and the science of teaching. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on decades of research that provides a roadmap for designing learning focused on “firm goals, flexible means,” which is necessary to improve student outcomes and elevate and celebrate educators. Because right now, educators are struggling.

'For demoralization, the healing technique is to lean into passions in education, reclaim your identity, and rediscover your purpose despite very real challenges'

Burnout is a commonly understood affliction affecting educators from early childhood to higher education. However, a less talked about issue for educators is a concept called demoralization. Demoralization impacts educators because, unlike other professions, teachers often come into education with a moral obligation to make a difference in the world. Their impact and desire to improve a learner’s life is their driver, and when that moral obligation is challenged through politics, the community, pandemics, or even a lack of professional learning that values teachers as learners, they can become demoralized. This condition can make educators question their efficacy and grapple with whether they positively impact learners. At the root of demoralization is something like an identity crisis. A common question asked by educators worldwide is, Given these circumstances, how can I possibly make a difference?

The typical recommendation for people feeling burnout is to pull back and set boundaries around the amount of work they do. For example, many people set goals to leave work at a specific time or commit to not bringing work home on the weekends. Right now, that is important but not sufficient. For demoralization, the healing technique is to lean into passions in education, reclaim your identity, and rediscover your purpose despite very real challenges. Sometimes, this means action research, optimizing student voice, and/or trying something new. In terms of demoralization, it is redefining what “making a difference” means to you, and creating circumstances that allow you to make a difference and appreciate the impact of those differences.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for approaching planning by eliminating barriers that prevent students from realizing success. The framework can also help educators identify practices that are leading to burnout and demoralization so they can minimize them through design. By co-creating options with students, and optimizing learner voice, UDL can help teachers find balance, purpose, and make a difference in the lives of the learners they serve.

'We need to normalize conversations about barriers that prevent learning'

First, give everyone permission to feel. Let students know that we are in stressful times, and share how you are struggling. We need to normalize conversations about barriers that prevent learning and work to eliminate them, but teachers don’t have to do this alone.

Ask students to describe their ideal learning environment. Some students prefer quiet, while others will prefer music or chatting. Some students work well in small groups, whereas others thrive when they can work independently. After reflecting, ask the students for suggestions about how the classroom, whether in person or online, can support multiple formats and consider when it’s appropriate to provide these options. For example, during explicit instruction, students could have options to sit or stand. Instead of “turn and talk,” students can choose to chat, write Cornell notes, or take Sketchnotes. When working on practice problems, students can listen to their earbuds, chat quietly, or can sit in a corner of the room dubbed as “sensory sensitive.” When students have the options and choices they need to thrive and manage their learning, disruptive behaviors are minimized, which helps teachers to work with small groups and provide feedback to learners. An important consideration, as you make changes to practice, is to ask learners for the impact of the pathways on their learning.

Ask questions like:

  • What barriers are you facing that prevent you from doing your best?
  • How can we work together to eliminate those barriers through design?

Also, consistently reflect on the impact of changes.

  • How do the options we co-created allow you to be more successful?
  • What is one additional pathway that may allow you to be more successful? Use the sentence stem, “It would be great if…”

When we work with our learners to identify and eliminate barriers, it helps to highlight our impact and the moral imperative of our work. As educators, we have the power and the privilege to collaborate with learners to change the learning environment and their outcomes. Certainly, not all barriers are within our control, but many, including the classroom climate we create, can be designed with our learners, as opposed to for them. This builds relationships among learners and instructors and reduces fatigue, demoralization, and the feeling that, despite the fact we’re working so hard, it doesn’t make a difference.

When students have the opportunity to co-create, co-plan, and provide feedback on their learning, teacher workload is shared, options and choices are relevant, authentic, and meaningful, and teachers have more time to create relationships, and reflect on authentic learning with their students. Building a teacher identity around UDL and experiencing the difference that it can make in teaching and learning can be one way to build back teacher morale and reduce burnout. Our learners are capable of sharing the cognitive load of instructional design when we empower them and elevate their voices.