Why Our Teachers Are Leaving
We see it in the news and live it with the teacher across the hall. Teacher retention: It’s a problem. If you haven’t thought about leaving the profession before, statistically, you will. Not only are our educators exiting the profession difficult for students, schools actually lose between $1 billion and $2.2 billion in attrition costs yearly from teachers switching schools or leaving the profession altogether. And although teacher recruitment numbers are steadily increasing, the data tells us that over the next five years, almost half of those teachers will either transfer to a new school or give it up completely. What are the stories behind these numbers? Many speculate, analyzing education trends, teacher prep programs, and national surveys, with some curious outcomes. Men tend to leave the profession more than women. About 15.7% of educators leave the field every year, while around 40% of those with undergraduate education degrees never even enter the classroom. New teachers with first-year mentors do, however, tend to stay longer than those without. But what does this all mean?
The data is one thing. The sometimes seemingly unquantifiable experience of an educator is quite another. What are the stories behind these numbers? I’ve decided to do some research of my own on the matter, asking educators across the nation why teacher retention is such an issue. Some interesting trends emerged, and the results might surprise you.
Educators are Active
People entering the education field tend to be ambitious, passionate, and lively. We choose to be on our feet all day: popping from table to table, often performing to engage students, and immersing them in active, relevant, real-world issues that get them on their feet and diving into the work. However, the job itself is increasingly sedentary. Our time, instead, is occupied with filling out Google Doc after Google Doc. Answering emails. Constructing and submitting daily lesson plan documents. Webinars. PowerPoint presentations. Computer-adaptive testing. Teachers spend more time in front of the screen than in front of the students, with some seriously unhealthy consequences. Surely, much of this is the way of the new world: we communicate electronically. It allows us to be more efficient. It helps us with accountability. However, if we’re being honest, many of us went into education to avoid the cubicle.
Yet there is some hope. Educational movements like Understanding by Design and organizations like Teaching Tolerance are slowly finding a voice in the education world, bargaining for more authentic and active educational opportunities for our students and their mentors. Getting schools behind more interdisciplinary and embracing these active, inquiry-based learning strategies might be the only way to breathe life back into a profession that has been keeping our teachers bored and deskbound to a great flaw. Capitalizing upon a teacher’s natural passion and instincts to engage should be a non-negotiable in any school system. Allow them the flexibility, and they will not disappoint.
Data Doesn’t Fuel Our Passion
Teaching is a part of humanities. We are people that have fine-tuned our craft of working with people. And the truth is, people are complex! According to recent studies, the top reasons educators go into the profession include: “making a difference in pupils’ lives”, “subject interest”, and “desire to work with young people”. Unsurprising to anyone in the field, “increasing the number of students scoring at ‘goal’ in their ability to use text evidence to support their thinking” was not prioritized on the list. Not to say this skill monitoring would not be important to anyone hoping to make a difference in pupils’ lives. Data helps us to do our job: it gives us direction, helps us to see trends, and helps us to make some of the “tough calls” when differentiating and planning instructing. All of this work helps us to improve the lives of our students and aid us in presenting a precise and relevant curriculum. However, in an increasingly data-driven world, teachers find themselves once again fighting hard to remind policymakers and our communities that our students are much more than numbers on the page.
For many districts, we have completely reached a state of “testing overload”. This is not only detrimental to student morale, but leads to a “data overload”, where educators have so much (often contradictory) data on each individual student that they don’t know where to begin! School- or district-wide “improvement plan” statistic-based goal-setting is certainly important, but it does not light the fire in a teacher’s heart. Districts must begin to prioritize their data flow to the teaching staff, keeping the student in the room as decisions are being made. Only when the data meets the student in the classroom will teachers begin to embrace its relevance—but the motivator cannot be separate from the child. They must be one in the same. All teachers can get behind an initiative that will help Markus or Daria or even their struggling 3rd period class. Yet when those names disappear from the discussion, teachers often lose their engagement. Not all teachers are statisticians. But all teachers do love their students.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” Wayne Gretzky mused in 1983. But in their field, educators are beginning to wonder if we have seen all of our shots through to the end. Have we really taken the time to allow our initiatives to make a difference? Policymakers seem to have embraced a “slash and burn” technique to education, often taking extreme reactive stances to international comparison data. From “Goals 2000” (1994) to “No Child Left Behind” (2002) to “Race to the Top” (2009) to “Every Student Succeeds” (2015): modern educators have seen the educational landscape completely change again and again.
Some of these changes are undeniably necessary. Our world is rapidly changing, fueled by advances in technology and communication. The problem lies in the ability for system-wide adaptations to take root and reach students in a meaningful way. As educators, we often pride ourselves in our ability to “build the plane while flying it,” but there’s a very clear reason why the FAA would never allow this sort of contraption to leave the runway! These fluctuations lead to severe changes in education standards, compounding the problem, as states scramble to find the appropriate test to demonstrate compliance. How can educators improve their own proficiency when our districts, states, and federal government can’t even agree on what should be taught? We’re running a race, and we’re unsure of the finish line. This world is an uninspiring and demotivating landscape for growth in a field. It’s a mess. And it’s taking a toll on our teachers.
School Funding: Myths and Reality
There’s a lot of misinformation about school funding. Between teacher pay and support for initiatives, the bottom line is that many of our educators are not feeling supported in the work they are trying to do for students. To start, better funding improves education. We can forever debate how that funding should best be utilized, but at the end of the day, better schools, better resources, and well-paid educators lead to more successful students.
And unfortunately, although each state tackles the allocation of federal and local funding differently, more often than not, money follows schools that are already successful. Even the best logician will have a hard time defending this outcome. Low-income schools—struggling to improve the lives of some of our neediest students—get less funding for maintenance and development. Unsurprisingly, in time, the positions at these affluent schools become coveted by tired and underappreciated educators. The data now shows that teachers, under the pressure of needing to make enough of a living wage to support their own families, are moving from poor schools to non-poor schools…from high-minority to low-minority schools…from urban to suburban schools. Increasing the already appalling gap, plaguing our nation. And yet, we don’t want to leave. We simply want our work to matter.
Keeping the Child in the Room
Change comes slowly. We know this. And yet, as we gently bend the arc of time, we must be very conscious about which direction we decide to set our sails. In many cases, ceaseless “fix all” education reforms, disparities in funding, and our institution’s cold obsession with the bottom line numbers fail to consider the teacher—much like how meticulous data analysis often fails to deeply consider the rich complexities of our students. Every decision made in every Board of Education, administrative, teacher leadership, data team, and faculty meeting in every school building across the country either reinforces the standard, or creates space for radical change. One school district prints out and enlarges an image of one of their students and gives it a chair at every meeting they have. They said they can’t do the important work they have to do without considering the student, and every decision they make has to meet their standards for what would be best for her. Until there’s a student at the center of every meeting, from the elementary school’s weekly staff meeting up to the United States Department of Education, teachers will continue to be transient—looking for a space where the dream is still alive, and where they feel like their contributions are truly helping to make our communities better places to live and grow.
Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor
Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.