6 Reasons New Teachers Leave the Profession—And What Leaders Can Do About It – Part 1

why teachers leave

Are you ready for a shocking statistic? Fifty percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

Then again, maybe you don’t find it so shocking. You’ve probably actually witnessed this trend in your very own school or district, leaving us with the question: what can we do to stop it?

Quality teachers matter, but to have quality teachers, we need to retain teachers. In this blog series, we’ll examine six things that cause new teachers to leave the profession, and what we can do as school leaders to keep our best and brightest.

The Institute of Education Sciences National Center for Education Statistics (ICS NCES) reports that over half our teaching force has been teaching less than 10 years, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) reports that nearly 50% of teachers will leave the profession within their first five years.  Yikes.

But…why? What’s happening between when idealistic first-year teachers, fresh out of their teacher prep programs, starts teaching and the day they turn their backs on it forever?  Believe it or not, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

In fact, researchers have been looking at why this happens and what to do about it for years. In 1991, Stephen P. Gordon and Susan Maxey  published How to Help New Teachers Succeed.  The book outlines six “environmental difficulties” that often come with being a new teacher—and the most surprising fact is that all of them are controllable by school and district leadership. Here we are, almost two decades later, facing the same issues…so what are we going to do about it?  The first task is to understand the problem.

The first environmental difficulty outlined by Gordon & Maxey is Difficult Work Assignments. The book cites a study by Kurtz in 1983 that found that returning teachers usually choose to teach the “best” courses, leaving the more challenging courses for new teachers. You may see this effect in your own schools, at least in cases where teachers have some degree of choice in their course assignments. New teachers are less likely to be assigned the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, most of which go to veteran teachers. On the one hand, the content of such courses may be challenging; but on the other, the students tend to be highly self-motivated and high-achieving, relieving some of the stress associated with teaching.

Of course, that pattern may not be as typical at the elementary level. But for another example, consider that for many elementary gifted and talented programs, teachers must have taken specific courses in teaching gifted students . . . which most teachers don’t take in their initial college preparatory programs. Many of the students with the highest test scores are placed in gifted and talented classes, leaving the remaining students for more of the novice teachers.

The book also points out that new teachers are often given larger classes and more duties such as lunch duty, bus duty, coordinating the less popular extracurricular activities, and so on, each of which can add additional layers of stress and complication to the lives of teachers just trying to learn the profession.

So, what steps can school leaders take to help mitigate this potential area of concern? Obviously, we need to look at more factors than merely length of service when assigning classes to teachers. Consider their areas of interest, their connections with students, and their areas of specialty from college or from other careers, in addition to their preferences, when creating such assignments. On top of that, be mindful of overloading a new teacher with extra duties; is it really more important to have them help with bus dismissal—or to have them focus their time on improving their classroom management?

The second difficulty noted in the book is Unclear Expectations. Again, the authors note it as being controllable, but what exactly does it mean? That study by Kurtz in 1983 found that new teachers often said they didn’t understand what kind of performance was expected of them.  In short, they don’t always understand the informal and unstated routines and customs in their schools, and sometimes receive conflicting expectations from school and district administrators, other teachers, students, and parents.

Furthermore, in at-risk or low-achieving schools, administrators and central office personnel often visit classrooms frequently.  Yet, not everyone may have the same advice for the new teacher on what to fix—or what to fix first—to improve the teaching and learning. We then leave the poor teacher to make some unpleasant choices about which audience to trust and/or appease.

Well, there is a solution. Strong mentors for novice teachers can help build understandings of any unstated or informal expectations, and also help navigate conflicting pieces of advice from on-high. Mentors can perform some of the observations that administrators might, lowering the stress level that novice teachers might experience.

In fact, mentors can use some of the very same tools that eObservations provides, unifying feedback mechanisms and keeping the teacher focused on what’s most important. And even when observations are performed by administrators themselves, the eObservations tools ensure that teachers receive precise, specific, actionable feedback. The situation can also be helped with a strong school culture that truly lives the mission and vision of the school, so that everyone is on the same page.

Coming up in Part Two, we’ll examine two other reasons new teachers leave the profession . . . and how we can prevent it!

Interested in this topic? Read more here:

Carroll, T.G., Foster, E. (2010). “Who will teach? Experience matters.” IES National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=28

Gordon, S.P., and Maxey, S. (2000). How to help beginning teachers succeed: 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA. ASCD

National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) (n.d.). Fast facts. Retrieved from http://nctaf.org/wp-content/uploads/NCTAFWhoWillTeach.pdf.pdf


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