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Its the Principal of the Thing

School Issues Center

Numerous studies confirm that nearly one-third of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Why do they leave -- and why dont they stay? The reasons may surprise you.

We all know the statistics. Nearly one-third of beginning teachers leave the field within five years. We know why they leave. They leave to accept positions with better pay, more prestige, and fewer pressures. They leave because teaching often is tough and unrewarding and they have more attractive options. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), those [beginning teachers] who are academically talented, those teaching in high-poverty schools, and those with a disciplinary specialty in high demand outside of education -- such as math or science -- tend to leave teaching first. They leave, in short, because they can.

We know why they leave, but do we know why they dont stay?

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Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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I talked to a former teacher who told me that she had taught for seven years before leaving the profession. She taught in Brooklyn, New York, for four years and in southern New Jersey for three years. I guess, I said sympathetically, that Brooklyn really did you in. Oh, no, she replied. New Jersey did me in.

In Brooklyn, she said, I worked for a wonderful principal. He challenged us as teachers and he gave us the help we needed to rise to that challenge. Just as an example, he thought that the kids should learn poetry. Instead of simply telling us to teach poetry, he conducted workshops to show us how to teach it effectively. He believed in us and he encouraged us to show initiative and creativity. Teaching in Brooklyn was tough, but I loved every minute of it. Then my husband was transferred to New Jersey.

My principal in New Jersey, she continued, was totally different. We had to ask permission to do anything different or innovative. And when we did ask permission, his answer almost always was, We dont do it that way here. His style of supervision was critical and corrective, rather than supportive. The school was not as poor as my school in Brooklyn, and the job itself was easier -- but I was miserable.

I had intended, she told me, to return to teaching after my first child was born, but that principal changed my mind. I never returned to teaching and I probably never will.

If you asked that former teacher, she would tell you that she left teaching to raise her children. That wasnt, however, the reason she didnt stay in teaching.

We think that new teachers leave the profession because of salary concerns. (In fact, according to an NCES survey, fewer than 5 percent of public school teachers who actually leave the field do so because of money.) We think they leave because kids are unmanageable, parents are unsupportive, paperwork is overwhelming, expectations are high, and resources are in short supply. We think they leave because they end up teaching out of field. We think they leave because they are poorly prepared for the reality of life in the classroom. And they do. They do! Thats why they leave.

But is that why they dont stay? A study of teacher supply and demand in North Carolina found that almost two-thirds of teachers who quit teaching said that a lack of administrative support was a determining factor. A similar survey of Cleveland area teachers found that those teachers who reported receiving little support from their principals were almost three times as likely to say they were considering leaving teaching as those who said they did receive such support.

According to "The Numbers Game: Ensuring Quantity and Quality in the Teaching Workforce," a report of The National Association of School Boards of Education (NASBE), the first component of a satisfying job in teaching is that satisfied teachers are more likely to work in schools with supportive environments. And no one is more responsible for creating a supportive school environment than the schools principal.

Encouraging effective teachers to stay in teaching is imperative if all children are to receive a quality education. So, yes, we need to exercise every option available to us. We need to find ways to raise teachers salaries. We need to expand mentoring programs and improve teacher education. We need to improve the image of teachers. We need, in short, to make teaching an attractive and respected profession.

Most of all, though, we need to remind principals of the role they play in determining whether their teachers leave or stay. Principals need to know -- as they struggle with the politics and paperwork that dominate their days -- that a quality staff is the most effective labor-saving resource they possess. Teachers who are supported are supportive. Teachers who are trusted are trustworthy. Teachers who are encouraged are successful. Teachers who are treated as professionals by their principals are less likely to flee to another profession.

A graduate student posted a question to a retired teachers chat room. Why, he asked, do public school teachers leave the profession? A former teacher posted this reply:

Sometimes your teaching spirit dies. You work many hours. You give up family and other activities because you have to correct papers. You prepare excellent lessons. You care about your students. You develop innovative programs. You take them on trips halfway across the country. You spend much of your own money to provide the supplies that are needed in your classroom. A few [students] express their appreciation; some just take it for granted; others demand that they are deserving; others cause trouble. The administration and the school board think they pay you too much and that they should be able to increase your already overwhelming load. You get tired. Your spirit dies.

A supportive principal can keep that spirit alive.


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