Why We Need to Do More to Retain Teachers

Teacher talking to man in class
Teacher talking to man in class

The days leading up to my first year of teaching were filled with nerves, excitement, anxiety, and a sense of purpose. I methodically practiced writing on the board with an Expo marker, rehearsing my first lecture to a room of empty seats. Tables rested in rows and at right angles with chairs nestled underneath. Before the first bell rang, I prayed over each seat individually.

Such is the routine I follow at the close of every summer, with no exceptions made come August. By now, I am a seasoned pro. Next year marks my fifth in the classroom. I, like so many others, truly believe I am fulfilling my life's purpose by teaching. Yet, for every educator that walked into the classroom alongside me five years ago and chooses to continue in the career, just as many will turn off the lights for good next June.

Studies confirm that nearly 50 percent of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching. Just think about that: Half of those that answered the call with me will have called it quits by the end of next year. The average teacher's career more so resembles the latest installment of The Hunger Games than a profession. Sadly, the field of education doesn't look to be headed for a Hollywood ending.

Take a look at the numbers: Over the last 15 years, the amount of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches has increased by 12 percent. When analyzing standardized test scores, 30 countries separate the U.S. and the top five. Given the latest statistics coming out of the classroom, it comes as no surprise that teachers are looking for a way out.

Why Teachers Are Leaving

The exodus of new teachers is far more than a recent trend. Investigation suggests it is a growing phenomenon that poses a major threat to the state of education.

Liz Briggs, author of The Atlantic's "Why Do Teachers Quit?" conducted interviews with recent ex-teachers. According to Briggs, the most common reasoning voiced by former teachers was that they felt "overworked and underpaid." While some might dismiss those excuses as tired and baseless, there must be some truth to the claim when survey after survey yields the same results. Teacher responsibilities and expectations are steadily increasing as compensation remains stagnant.

Why We Should Care

Turnover in teaching is 4 percent higher than other professions, and it's a profession that uniquely struggles with recovering from loss. NPR reports that yearly turnover costs districts up to $2.2 billion largely in the form of recruitment, training and development.

A lack of investment in teachers at the front end of their careers is likely to blame for their disloyalty to the profession. That creates a revolving-door system, which is especially damaging in a field so highly dependent on relationships. Not surprisingly, a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that students in schools with higher turnover rates score lower in both ELA and math. Education researchers concluded that student success is dependent on teacher retention.

What We Can Do

As University of Pennsylvania education professor Richard Ingersoll remarked, "to improve the quality of teaching, you have to improve the quality of the teaching job." We must support our newest teachers, going out of our way to help. New teachers aren't asking for help because they don't know what they need.

However, researchers seem to have reached consensus regarding what it is that's needed. A National Center for Education Statistics survey exposed a correlation between the amount of support a new teacher receives and the likelihood that the teacher will leave after one year. Accordingly, education groups suggest the implementation of mentorship programs for at least the first two years for retention purposes.

Another frequent complaint among teachers is the move toward a standardized curriculum. Although unified standards might sound promising, teachers often equate adoption of standardized curriculum with silencing them. Teachers no longer possess autonomy over their own classrooms. Sadly, elected officials seem to have more power over what goes into a lesson plan than the average teacher.

The issues with the teaching profession are numerous, but they arouse a prevailing plea: We need your help. We need administrators who serve as educational mentors. We need parents that reinforce rather than criticize. We need legislators willing to listen to educators instead of lobbyists.

In August, I don't want to begin my victory lap. I have watched fellow educators, my friends, walk into the classroom ready to take on the challenge only to walk out defeated. I am not prideful enough to assume that the same could not happen to me. It's not that teachers are looking for a reason to leave. America, we're looking for a reason to stay.