By Teachers, For Teachers
The numbers are in from 2018, and unfortunately it turns out that educators are quitting the teaching profession in record numbers. The teaching profession is one that the nation quite frankly needs to remain populated with talented, experienced professionals, but the attrition rate for teachers only seem to be increasing.
A Wall Street Journal report based on figures from the Department of Labor shares it’s not just teachers but all sorts of professionals within education – from school psychologists to janitors – who are exiting the teaching profession. The attrition rate for the first ten months of 2018 was 83 out of every 10,000 public educators quit. While this number is much lower than the national figure – which is 231 out of 10,000 professionals quitting jobs in 2018 – it still points to the increasing and alarming trend of school turnover.
Public education is one industry that historically has not experienced such high levels of turnover. Schools and students have benefitted from a stable workforce of teachers. Experienced teachers, like any other experienced professional, bring a lot to the classroom, and a high turnover rate in a traditionally stable industry means schools and students will be losing out on the talents an experienced teacher force may offer.
So naturally the question is, “Why are teachers quitting?” That answer is due to a combination of factors that are discouraging professionals to remain in schools and simultaneously enticing them into new settings.
First, many teachers reported the negative factors impacting their experience as a teacher, leading to frustration and discouragement. Teachers have often complained of being underpaid as professionals and underappreciated. Teachers are often on the receiving end of state budget cuts and have also had their work protections stripped away in various states; at the same time, teachers have remained a consistent target of criticism for student underperformance. With more work, more expectations, higher responsibility, higher stakes, all for less pay and appreciation – who would want to stick around?
On top of mounting pressures and frustrations from within the industry, the external job market has offered some alluring alternatives. The economy has largely recovered from the great recession of a decade ago, and now a tight labor market – that is, a market that has more positions than workers to fill them – is able to offer competitive attractions for burned-out teachers. Teachers, it seems, are willing to take their chances and are leaving education to find jobs where they can earn both more money and more respect.
Teachers feel they are the victims in a cultural paradox: While on the one hand, every community wants the very best teachers for their children, on the other hand those same teachers are devalued in terms of both respect and compensation. Society, in a sense, wants more for less. This is bound to lead to push back from education professionals.
This pushback has already come in one form: Protests. In early 2018, teachers in West Virginia walked out of classrooms protesting low wages and higher healthcare costs. In their wake, teachers from other states followed suit and staged protests of their own. The reasons for the protests varied, but generally pointed to both low compensation for educators and poor resources for students – such as worn-out textbooks and outdated supplies. Teachers in states like Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, and North Carolina opted to exit their classrooms and head to state capitols to confront lawmakers over their top issues. The outcomes varied, but teachers made it clear across the nation that there was an incompatibility between what was expected from and what was given in return to teachers.
The second form of push back is in the numbers themselves: Attrition. Many teachers are deciding that instead continuing on despite circumstances or fighting the good fight against negative factors, they are simply going to leave. And in light of protests and the trendline for teacher attrition, the numbers published by the Department of Labor seem to come as little surprise. The murmurs of the past few years have turned into much larger quakes. Unfortunately, there are very real costs to this turnover.
Schools will feel the loss of experienced professionals more and more. Seasoned teachers who leave the industry leave a hole difficult to fill. Their knowledge of content, experience managing classrooms, adeptness at juggling the multiple responsibilities, ability to work with and build relationships with students and families, and even their role as coaches and club sponsors, will all be missed. The same is true for teachers within their first five years who choose to leave: They are teachers who are choosing not to gain the experience that will eventually make them increasing effective and essential in their roles. Instead of benefitting from veterans and building into the next generation of teachers, schools will be spinning their wheels trying to fill voids.
Unfortunately, many states have already struggled trying to fill teacher vacancies. Schools have attempted to fill vacancies with temporary teachers who typically lack adequate training. While well-intentioned, they are no replacement for a trained and experienced teacher. The Learning Policy Institute examines factors influencing teacher shortages – summarizing them on this interactive map – and delineates which states have factors most likely to lead to teacher retention or attrition.
Roughly 6 out of 10 new teachers hired in 2017, according to the Learning Policy Institute, replaced teachers who left the classroom before retirement. In addition to costing our students and schools the intangible loss of their experience, there is a real financial cost to this turnover as well. In urban schools, replacing a single teacher can cost as much as $20,000.
Needless to say, these costs add up when you consider the national figures of teacher turnover. But what can be done about any of this? Are there any real options available to school leaders and state policymakers that can give teachers what they are looking for – better compensation, higher respect, and more school resources – and yet remain fiscally solvent?
Fortunately, this trend does not have to continue into the future, but it will take hard work, sacrifice, and compromise to get there. As the economic tide shifts, it may take teachers from the beach and bring them out to more promising seas – but this need not remain the case if we build our houses of education on firmer ground. Factors related to teacher compensation, hiring practices, support of new hires, and improve working conditions can absolutely stem the tide.
While teacher protests and Department of Labor statistics definitely shed light on the troubling increase of attrition in the field of education, it may also lead to increased commitment across the nation to address these issues in ways that will see meaningful change in the years to come.
What do you think about teacher turnover and how we can take steps to stymie this trend in the teaching profession? Share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.