The Neoliberal Attack on Education: Burnout for Teachers and Increased Exposure to Student Food Insecurity Amid COVID-19 in Low-Income School Districts

Date of Award


Document Type

Restricted (Opt-Out)



Second Department

Political Science

First Advisor

Rosemary Patterson

Second Advisor

Guillermina Seri




neoliberalism, burnout, food insecurity, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue


Background The United States education system has long been broken. Neoliberal policies disproportionately impact under-resourced and highly segregated school districts, where most students are at or below the poverty line and are also ethnic or racial minorities. These policies are evident when reviewing high stakes standardized tests which prioritize accountability and competition. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers nationally reported higher levels of burnout than working adults in any other profession, and this is disproportionately escalating in low-income and urban districts. As another consequence of the pandemic, teachers in under-resourced schools are exposed to higher levels of student food insecurity, frequently paying out of pocket to provide for their students. The aim of this study is to demonstrate how flaws in the current education system perpetuate systemic inequality and disproportionately affect educators in under-resourced schools. Additionally, this study intends to shed light on the personal experiences of teachers and what they concede to be the greatest barriers in the pedagogical field, and what they wish others would recognize to create change in the educational system. Methods This qualitative study utilizes semi-structured, in-depth interviews. Seven participants were randomly selected online from the Schenectady school district teacher directory and are actively employed in the district. The sample group consisted of one teacher from VanCorlaer Elementary School, three teachers from Oneida Middle School, one teacher from Mont Pleasant Middle School, and two teachers from Schenectady High School. Interviews were conducted in person or via Zoom and were recorded, manually transcribed, and thematically analyzed. Results Eight key themes and various sub themes emerged in relation to the aim of this study. The eight key themes were: COVID related stressors, neoliberalism in schools, burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress, teacher support resources, teachers' labor conditions and district politics that increase burnout and undermine self-efficacy, teachers' response to student food insecurity, what teachers concede to be the common barriers that are exacerbated by poverty for students in their district, and what they identified as their hopes for the future. Veteran teachers demonstrated signs of compassion fatigue, while younger teachers showed symptoms of secondary traumatic stress. All participants exhibited burnout, and all participants reported student food insecurity related to poverty in their classrooms. All participants stated that accountability policies undermined their self-efficacy and expressed numerous concerns regarding standardized testing. All participants also agreed that the educational system was flawed and adversely affected their district because of socioeconomic factors. Conclusions Empathy needs to be encouraged and supported in the teaching profession rather than seen as a weakness. To decrease levels of compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress, policymakers must acknowledge that teachers in low-income districts have high exposure to adverse childhood experiences that make it difficult for them to teach efficiently. In relation to neoliberalism, all participants stated that teaching for the test is not working, and that policymakers must address that the education system is not one size fits all. They explained that standardization and policies that prioritize accountability disproportionately and adversely affects both themselves and their students in low-income school districts. Teachers expressed that the field of education needs to be professionalized to encourage others to enter the profession. Teachers additionally stated that if they felt heard, valued, and supported, they would be more satisfied with their job and less likely to leave the profession earlier. Just because everyone went to school does not mean that they are an expert on education. Listening to the concerns of teachers who are on the frontlines in educating the next generation is vital to create effective change. To empower educators, we must allocate resources for low-income schools and accept that the current education system is inequitable.

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