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Why Half the US’s New Teachers Can’t Leave the Profession Fast Enough

By Kathleen Jasper

A mass exodus is happening in K-12 education. Research shows that 50 percent of new teachers leave the job before year five. That number is consistent across the country and represents a giant chunk of the workforce. According to a study conducted by Alliance for Excellent Education, teacher turnover costs the US $2.2 billion annually.
When asked about this costly phenomenon, Dr. Atkins, the assistant superintendent of Lee County Schools—one of the largest school districts in Florida—mentioned that his district’s strategic plan included goals to reduce teacher turnover. He also mentioned the first step to achieving these objectives is to understand why people leave, a key element that was missing in years past.
It took me all of 10 minutes to find that key element. I didn’t need a fancy strategic plan or a lengthy research study. I simply asked 10 teachers, with various years in the system and at different levels, the question, “Why do you think 50 percent of new teachers leave teaching before their fifth year?”
Disclaimer: Obviously a larger sample would be ideal, but I wanted to prove a point. Instead of speculating and arbitrarily blaming different things for this phenomenon, just ask around and you will find some answers pretty quickly.
Consistent across all responses: lack of support by leadership.
As we ring in the New Year, how about a little self-reflection? Perhaps the problems start at the top with the nation’s education commissioners, superintendents, directors, principals, and assistant principals.
However, when asked about the cause for this rapid teacher turnover, Dr. Atkins cited lack of professional development and inadequate training in college of education programs. And he’s not alone; lots of leaders continually say the same thing about teacher turnover: “We need better teacher preparation programs.” It’s a phrase as prolific as, “we need to close the achievement gap” or “we have to compete in a global society.”
If people are saying they don’t feel supported by leadership, it isn’t a college of education problem or a professional development/training problem—it’s a leadership problem.
The teachers I asked did have other reasons for leaving, but those reasons can be indirectly or even directly related to inadequate leadership.
For example, a number of teachers said, “little to no planning time and being assigned the most challenging classes and students.” This happens all the time. New teachers are thrust into the most challenging situations the first year: remedial, intensive classes where they tend to face the toughest behavior issues. The classes teachers teach and how much planning time they get is decided by the leaders in the building.
When I asked one teacher why he thought so many leave the profession, he said, “I have to work two jobs because my teacher pay is so poor. So, I work retail on nights and weekends. The funny thing is, my managers in retail are better leaders than those in my district.”
Six of the 10 teachers I asked said being blamed for everything wrong with education and even the country’s problems is enough to walk out the door. “Who can blame new teachers for not wanting to take on that responsibility?” one said.
Leaders should do more to protect their teachers from this kind of unrealistic scrutiny.
Another response, “I could talk forever about this. But to keep it short… teachers quit because we have all the responsibility and little or no authority in the classroom. Administrators don’t support us and often don’t trust our judgment as professionals. It’s very hard to stay at a job where you are not appreciated, or trusted. Add disrespectful students and parents and it becomes a daily battle to go to work.”
A daily battle to go to work sounds like reason enough for anyone to leave the profession. She went on, “My stepdaughter has been teaching for three years and she’s done. It’s sad because she’s a teacher at heart—this is her calling. But she says no way. Her main reason: lack of support from administration and parents. She is held responsible for things she can’t possibly control.”
This was another commonality among responses. Most of the teachers I asked said having their occupational fate tied to students’ scores on high-stakes tests was too volatile and not an accurate proxy of teacher effectiveness. Tying teacher pay and evaluations to test scores was a decision made at the very top, first with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and now with President Obama’s Race to the Top.
But what about professional development and adequate training cited by so many educational leaders as cause for the mass exodus?
Not one teacher I asked mentioned college of education programs or lack of professional development. In fact, many teachers feel over-saturated with professional development and are frustrated that PD has become a vessel for an onslaught of unsupported district and state mandates.
Over and over again the consensus among teachers was lack of support by leadership.
Looks like we found the “key element”; now what can leaders do?
1. For starters, create a better environment: support teachers, listen, help, and be nice.
2. Don’t over-schedule teachers. Teachers need time to plan and time to work with peers. Take some of that money spent on testing and throw a teacher an extra planning period.
3. Take all extra, bureaucratic, busy work off teachers’ plates and let them teach. Enough with the fat; trim it and give teachers some extra time.
4. Restore autonomy and creativity to the classrooms.
I just saved the US public schools US$2.2 billion a year. You’re welcome.
Follow Kathleen Jasper’s blog at
Kathleen Jasper tweets at: @KathleenJasper and @ConversationED.

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