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Going, going, gone.

Data about loss of new teachers varies, but the problem is clear.

Two visible and conflicting sets of data about the loss of new teachers have been used in the media over the last decade, but educators generally agree that regardless of the numbers in vogue, retaining good teachers is a growing problem, especially those in the first few years of their careers.

A recent study based on federal data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that about 10 percent of new teachers did not return after their first year. Also, it showed that by their fifth years about 17 percent of them had quit.

 Another much-publicized estimate, however, held that nearly half left the profession before they completed five years. The number came from a 2003 study by University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Richard Ingersoll, who based it on federal employment data. The discrepancy may relate to how the numbers were tabulated, and inclusion of private school teachers.

Lynette Guasatferro's, CEO of Teaching Matters, which helps about 200 schools improve their teaching and student performance, says no matter what the rate of departure (and it is probably somewhere between) the issue is important because teachers are in short supply, and schools may be losing talented instructors when keeping them could be prevented by simply making certain they have mentors or other supports and being clear about their responsibilities up front.

"Many first year teachers leave the profession because there is a wide gap between their expectations of how they can help children and what they experience in their first years," she says. "In the early years, it’s easier for teachers to feel ineffective because the vision they had for their students isn’t being fulfilled.

Andrea Guinta, a senior policy analyst for teacher quality at the National Education Association, agrees, and says new teachers have a number of unexpected challenges, listing several that make their jobs difficult

  • teaching to recognized standards
  • evaluating their instruction on student performance
  • communicating effectively with students, parents, and colleagues
  • using student achievement data for planning and curriculum
  • modifying instruction to address specific learning and cultural needs
  • learning how to prosper in the culture of the school.

Too often they don’t get support as they take on these diverse issues and often haven’t been trained to handle them. Then, she says, they often aren’t supported within their schools.

"Many beginning teachers do not have access to the professional expertise of a coach or mentor. If someone is helping them, it is usually not in a formal role or from an accomplished teacher. Buddy relationships often develop, and they're helpful, but there is no guarantee that the teacher who is the buddy is also an expert."

The data from NCES, indeed, found that a lack of support is a concern for new teachers, and that they were more likely to succeed if they had it. It showed that for those who were assigned a mentor the retention rate was about 10 percent higher.

It also showed that they were more likely to stay in the profession if they were paid more than $40,000. Guinta notes that low salaries are particularly problematic because they force teachers to often take second jobs — adding to an already advanced level of stress. Their salaries also don’t cover the other expenses they often incur to equip their classrooms and students.          

Studies also have shown stress is a significant issue in teacher retention, and a recent report from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pennsylvania State University shows that of all professional occupations, teachers rate lowest in feeling that their opinions matter in their workplace.

The Learning Policy Institute also reports that teachers who leave the profession say that low salaries, poor working conditions, dissatisfaction with the stream of testing and lack of opportunities for advancement contribute to their decisions.

Here are five things that experts say might help schools retain new teachers and could help new teachers adapt:

  1. Management 101: "I needed to get a handle on classroom management strategies that really supported kids learning," says Guasatferro, who began her career as a classroom teacher. "The content came after creating an environment that was conducive to the students' ability to focus and take in the material. Seeing other experienced teachers in the classroom helped me with that."
  2. Look for a model: Guasatferro says she believes new teachers should be encouraged to find a mentor, and learn from all sorts of experienced teachers, even their approach seems alien. "I recommend new teachers do a lot of listening and observing whenever and wherever possible,” she says. “There is experience in a school, and you should find folks who have passion and skill and try to find times to observe them. You may not always agree with them, but they have a lot of experience and there are ways you can apply these lessons to improve your own instruction.     
  3. See the big picture: Guinta says that sometimes new teachers have the wrong impressions about the job and says that college training or professional development about aspects they may be unaware of can help. It requires careful thought by school leaders about what they might need – and new teachers being willing to speak up about their concerns.
  4. Fairness in assignments. Some experts say too often new teachers are given difficult classes or difficult schedules because experienced teachers are rewarded with better circumstances or know the system well enough to get what they want. It should be the opposite, they say.         
  5. Speaking up:  When they need help, novice teachers are reluctant to seek it. They may feel that complaining or asking for assistance will threaten their job security or they will be viewed unfavorably in a school environment where there is often a great deal of pride in classroom management skills. Administrators should make it clear that it is expected they will need assistance.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (