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Teacher Retention: Why Great Teachers Leave and How to Keep Them

Teacher Rentention article featuring photo with student who has paint-stained hands.

The facts surrounding teacher retention in America are alarming. According to a 2016 report from the Learning Policy Institute, 8% of teachers leave the profession each year, and U.S. Department of Education statistics show that in some regions, nearly 50% of new teachers leave the profession within five years. This crisis in teacher retention not only hurts students, but also costs schools an estimated 7.8 billion dollars a year.

The research cited above points to four key reasons why teachers quit: compensation, preparation, mentoring, and teaching conditions. In this article, we’ll explore what administrators can do to address these four issues to help keep great teachers doing what they love.

Compensation

It’s no secret that teacher compensation is why many dedicated, otherwise passionate educators leave the profession. The buzz surrounding entry-level salary may even discourage driven college students from becoming teachers in the first place. The following statistics shed light on the financial issues that are behind teachers’ dissatisfaction with their pay:

  • Teachers’ pay has risen, but not enough. The National Education Association recently published a report that separates facts and myths surrounding the average educator’s paycheck. Although teachers’ salaries have risen some, the increase has not kept up with inflation. Over the past decade or so, the median compensation rose 15.2%, but when you factor in the ever-growing cost of living, that pay bump clocks in at around 3%.
  • Pay is not commensurate with credentials or experience. Factoring in the years of formal education and the ongoing professional development teachers need to transform their students’ lives, professionals with equal training fare much better economically. To get concrete, a teacher brings home 19% less than those in the workforce who have a similar amount of training.

Unfortunately, pay remains a difficult problem for administrators to address. After all, if you have no say in pay structure or the amount of money coming into your school, how can you possibly raise teachers’ salaries to the level you want?

However, even if you can’t fix the compensation issue, there are several things that are within your power to address. Additional research from the Learning Policy Institute shows that certain factors—such as mentoring, collaboration, more resources, and strong teacher communities—can improve the first-year teacher retention rate by 50%. These are variables that administrators have more control over and can set actionable goals to improve.

Preparation

The issue with preparation remains multifaceted. First, teachers don’t always receive adequate time for planning lessons and classroom activities. This means teachers have to complete more work outside of business hours, leading to more stress. Second, teachers report that they rarely receive transformative pedagogical training, which in turn creates career dissatisfaction.

Administrators can address preparation issues in two main ways:

  • Implement planning periods. Planning periods allow teachers to create impactful lessons and classroom activities. Although teachers expect to do some work off school grounds, planning periods help create some buffer so teachers can take time for self-care and maintain better work–life balance.
  • Insist on flexible but impactful professional development. As society and the economy continue to transform, so must pedagogy. Outdated (or nonexistent) professional development courses do nothing to serve teachers or their students. Providing relevant training helps ensure that educators can mold students’ minds in a way that prepares them for the future.

Although the preparation issue is mostly big picture, educators feel the lack of relevant training in their day-to-day tasks. Whether it’s lecturing, grading, overseeing group activities, or honing students’ social–emotional skills, impactful professional development can help teachers better navigate everyday responsibilities.

Mentoring

In 2017, the American Federation of Teachers found that 61% of teachers said they were “stressed out,” and 58% said their mental health was “not good.”

Relationships can go a long way in helping relieve stress and consequently improve teacher retention. Connecting teachers with one another provides much-needed community support and creates emotional support systems as teachers empathize with one another’s challenges. Two types of intentional relationships that administrators can encourage are mentorship and professional learning communities (PLCs).

Even if a teacher spends decades at the helm of a classroom, mentorship plays a key role in his or her continuing success. Mentors celebrate victories, challenge ideas, provide resources, and give advice. Many school administrators assign mentors to new teachers, which is a vital piece in the equation of teacher success. Moreover, when schools regularly practice mentorship, they see improvements in teacher retention.

So what should administrators look for when pairing new teachers with classroom veterans? According to Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a teacher writing for Edutopia, a quality mentor possesses the following qualities:

  • The mentor respects the teacher’s goals, but also offers an alternative perspective.
  • The mentor listens, always, but doesn’t shy away from speaking up. He or she is available for both therapeutic venting and brainstorming pedagogical ideas.
  • The mentor comes with experience, but also stays open to new forms of pedagogy.

Professional learning communities are another great way you can encourage constructive community building in your school. Effective PLCs can serve many purposes:

  • When departments have time to develop together, based on their needs, teachers simultaneously improve their practices and prepare for instruction.
  • PLCs can offer support for both new teachers and their mentors. They provide a scaffolded tier for new teachers to continue to receive support once their initial mentorships slow down or end.
  • PLCs provide structured spaces for administrators to step in and interact with teachers. They can lead, observe, or gather feedback in an organized, productive manner.

Teaching Conditions

“Teaching conditions” is a broad term but can be broken down into three parts: administrative support, collegial opportunities, and allowing teachers to influence the decision-making process.

  • Administrative support: The solution here is obvious: teachers need administrators to lobby for their success. However, what this looks like will vary from school to school. The most important thing you can do is listen to your teachers’ concerns and show them how you are working to address them.
  • Collegial opportunities: Teachers can sometimes feel like they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, which can be very isolating and discouraging. However, in reality, teachers are part of a community that is working toward the same goal: to provide a brighter future for all students regardless of their background or learning differences. When administrators encourage teachers to work together, they can begin to chip away at poor teacher retention.
  • Influence in decision making: Administrators bear a heavy responsibility in making decisions that impact teachers and students alike. Involving teachers in decisions that impact their well-being is one surefire way to establish goodwill, create a more favorable school atmosphere, and keep good teachers around for the long haul.

Next Steps in Teacher Retention at Your School

The problem of teacher retention can feel insurmountable at times. However, administrators can do more than they think to impact their schools—and the greater teaching community—for the better. When administrators take steps to address leading issues such as preparation, mentoring, and teaching conditions, they will see improvements in holding onto their most valuable assets: teachers.

To help you on your journey to care for your teachers, we’ve created a free online, self-paced course, An Exploration Into Effective Planning for the Year. This course takes a deep dive into classroom and time management to set teachers up for success throughout the school year.