If Esther had abandoned teaching after her first year, no one would have been surprised. An experienced engineer and midcareer entrant, she was so demoralized by day-to-day life in her school that she doubted whether she could make it to Christmas. Although confident about the mathematics that she was teaching, Esther was overwhelmed by her near-total isolation from colleagues, inadequate curriculum materials, a phantom mentor, a department head who seemed to resent her presence, an ineffectual principal whom teachers mocked, and a school with few meaningful rules or norms for student behavior and achievement.
By late fall, Esther had deep misgivings about the career change that she had made. Yet she sensed that her doubts were about the conditions of her work rather than the work itself. Instead of returning to engineering, where she could have doubled her salary, Esther moved to a school that offered her more support.
A year later, she was much happier about her career move. Although her engineering friends urged her to “come back,” and the prospect of earning twice the pay was “awfully tempting,” Esther acknowledged that she wanted to continue teaching: “I have been enjoying this.”
The Retention Challenge
At the state and district levels, policymakers are working hard to devise effective retention strategies in the face of alarming statistics about new teacher attrition. Losing teachers to other careers is only part of the problem, however. Ingersoll (2001) found that the movement of teachers from school to school and district to district, a phenomenon that he calls migration, accounts for half of the turnover that schools and districts experience.
For those at the school site, attrition and migration look the same. Losing a good teacher—whether to another profession or to the school across town—means losing that teacher's familiarity with school practices; experience with the school's curriculum; and involvement with students, parents, and colleagues. Losing a teacher means that administrators and teachers must spend precious energy finding a replacement and bringing him or her up to speed. Predictably, schools serving high-poverty communities are particularly vulnerable to this revolving-door effect: the repeated loss of teachers and frantic rush to hire new ones. These schools bear more than their share of the teacher shortage burden (Olson, 2003).
At the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, we have studied the career paths of 50 new teachers in Massachusetts over the past four years. We began this project in an effort to understand what new teachers seek, what they experience, and what sustains them. By year three of the study, 3 of our original 50 teachers had been involuntarily transferred to other schools; 8 had left teaching for other careers; and 3 had left their public schools to teach in private school settings. Eight others, whom we called Voluntary Movers, had chosen to transfer from their original schools to other public schools.
An interesting feature of the Voluntary Movers in our study is that all but one had entered teaching at midcareer, having worked for some years in such fields as law, engineering, accounting, and business. Although these teachers expressed a deep commitment to teaching and a desire to do it well, their experience in other careers had taught them that workplaces differ and that the work environment is crucial in fostering satisfaction and success. When they had taken their first teaching jobs, most had simply expected their new schools to provide basic resources and functioning infrastructures. They had counted on having colleagues to mentor and collaborate with them, and had assumed that principals would be respectful, accessible, and involved in the life of the school. When they found their schools wanting, they looked for different environments.
Unlike those in the study who had left the public school classroom altogether, the Voluntary Movers had not given up on teaching. Instead, they looked for schools that made good teaching possible. The conditions they sought were straightforward and consistent.
In choosing new schools, the Voluntary Movers sought the basic conditions that would allow them to practice their craft day to day: appropriate course assignments; sufficient curriculum guidelines; and efficient systems for discipline, communication with parents, and smooth transitions between classes. They also looked for schools where they could feel like professionals—sharing ideas and resources with colleagues and receiving respect and guidance from the principal. The second time around, they used the hiring process as an opportunity to gather information about prospective schools' cultures, norms, and potential supports, and they weighed their options carefully.
Reasonable Assignments and Basic Support
The first years of teaching are particularly challenging, yet new teachers often get the least desirable courses and classrooms, as well as the most challenging groups of students. For example, in her first year of teaching, Brenda taught Spanish to 10 different classes of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in an urban middle school. With so many preparations, no classroom of her own, and scant curriculum guidelines, she wryly observed that she had to be “pretty creative” to get through the year. When her principal assigned her an equally “jam-packed” schedule the following September, Brenda decided to look for a different teaching job.
Keisha taught 2nd grade in an inner-city elementary school and, despite some frustrations, had planned to return the next year. When her principal said he was considering moving her to 4th grade, however, she decided to transfer:
I just felt that that was a really unreasonable thing to ask of me in my second year of teaching. I was just figuring out the 2nd grade curriculum and getting my feet wet, and really getting this together. And now all of a sudden you want me to make what is a huge jump to 4th grade, and a high-pressure [tested] grade. . . . I just didn't think it was really supportive of a first-year teacher.
Theresa, like many new teachers, was assigned to teach a subject for which she was not qualified. Although she was trained to teach science, she accepted a middle school position that required her to teach courses in both math and science. Prepping for two different subjects involved far more work than she had expected, and she felt that she was giving her math students short shrift. Instead of leaving the profession, she decided to look for a different position, saying,
I felt that it was unfair to say that teaching wasn't for me when I had so many things against me.
These Voluntary Movers were far more satisfied after they moved to their new schools. Brenda found a school where she taught 70 students in four classes that met daily, and where she actually had texts and a teacher's book. Keisha found another school where she could continue as a 2nd grade teacher. Theresa chose a job teaching only science, her area of expertise. Given reasonable workloads, these new teachers felt confident that they could succeed.
The Voluntary Movers also left schools with chaotic environments in search of order and predictability. As they strove to create consistent behavior policies and a focus on learning in their first classrooms, they found that the schoolwide norms could either support or undermine their efforts. For example, Mike had hoped “to go into a well-oiled machine” for his first job, to a school with clear and consistent policies in place. Instead, he and his largely inexperienced colleagues were “running around trying to create the infrastructure while we were trying to do our job.” The environment wore him out, at a time when he was trying to learn how to teach.
Mary found the atmosphere in her charter school to be similarly chaotic. After a draining first year, she decided that she had to find “a saner environment.” She longed for a place in which schoolwide policies were explicit and consistently enforced. “I knew I needed less craziness if I was going to be an effective teacher.”
Similarly, Brenda said that the lack of a clear discipline policy in her school caused her to move “from crisis to crisis” and to spend most of her time “babysitting and policing” students. Esther, too, was dismayed by the lack of order in her school and by the kinds of behavior that her colleagues tolerated from students who knew that teachers were “at their mercy.”
Mike, Mary, Brenda, and Esther all moved to schools where students and staff shared an understanding about basic expectations, ensuring a positive learning environment.
Opportunities to Learn and Grow
The Voluntary Movers wanted more than workable teaching situations; they also wanted opportunities to interact with other professionals and hone their skills. They left schools in which they felt isolated or philosophically out of sync with colleagues and searched for more sustaining professional cultures.
For example, at Keisha's first school, teachers worked alone and administrators thought stellar teachers were those who “had their kids in rows.” Teachers went “from page to page to page to page” in the textbooks rather than use the manipulatives that Keisha tried to incorporate into her own teaching. Although she liked the other teachers in her building personally, their teaching philosophies differed from hers. She wanted a community of teachers who would support her in becoming the teacher she wanted to be.
Doug, too, left an isolating professional culture for a more collegial environment. He gave up eating lunch in the teachers' lounge after a few weeks at his first school because “everybody was complaining all the time. I didn't want to be around it.” He wanted to discuss teaching, to share ideas, to learn from other teachers. Instead, his veteran colleagues withheld their lesson plans and guarded their best ideas. He was on his own.
Like other Voluntary Movers, Keisha and Doug sought schools that engaged both veteran and novice teachers in doing better work. Keisha moved to a charter school that “allowed me to do some things that are more innovative and less traditional.” At her new school, “we plan curriculum together, we implement curriculum together. . . . No one is working in isolation.”
Doug also found more collegial interaction. He described the teachers in his new school as being “extremely proud of the stuff that they are doing, so they are really open about sharing it.” He felt encouraged to seek ideas and advice. For example, he said that he would have no trouble saying to a colleague,
I'm doing this unit in the Interactive Math Project, but I don't have enough time to complete it. Do you have any ideas on how to shorten it?
In searching for a new school, Doug looked for evidence of a facultywide commitment to long-term growth and learning. In explaining why that was important to him, he said,
I had to start thinking about myself and my own development as a teacher. [At my first school] I was surrounded by mediocrity. I felt I was getting a lot of praise as a teacher. I was a superstar in my first year of teaching. I'm not that good.
Accessible, Respectful Leadership
When explaining their decisions to transfer, the Voluntary Movers in our sample cited dissatisfaction with school administration more often than any other factor. Some found their principals dictatorial or inept. For example, Brenda was outraged that her principal failed to support her on discipline, even when a student swore at her in class. Mike said that he left his school because of
the deterioration and incompetence of the administration. Assessment was completely driving instruction.
Some Voluntary Movers said that their principals were aloof or inaccessible. As a team leader, Theresa had several concerns that she wanted to share with her principal, yet she found the principal “so preoccupied” with the needs of a large school and the concerns of veteran teachers that she seldom spoke with him. Mary longed for supervision and instructional guidance from the principal of her first school, but she did not seek help because she knew that her principal was just as exhausted and overwhelmed by day-to-day demands as she was.
When they searched for new schools, the Voluntary Movers paid close attention to what the principal could offer. Doug, who had been dissatisfied with the controlling and distrustful administrative style in his first school, welcomed administrators who expressed confidence in teachers. He found that this respectful attitude influenced the whole school. Mary found a school in which her supervising administrator took time to talk with her about instruction and shared his own mistakes. She commented,
He will talk about when he first started teaching and some of the really stupid things he did. That's really helpful.
For these new teachers, who were working hard to do a good job, the respect and support of administrators were key to their satisfaction.
Shopping for Schools
Most of these Voluntary Movers had signed on to their first jobs with little information or contact with the school. In choosing their second schools, they were more careful. Some searched extensively; others sought out particular schools that they knew by reputation or recommendation. Always, they examined the hiring process itself for signals about the school's culture.
Mike's second school hired him to replace another teacher in the middle of the year. He was extensively interviewed by a committee that included the vice principal, a department chair, a lead teacher, and a parent. He was surprised and pleased with the parent's involvement:
That struck me immediately as a very good thing, like an empowerment. The parents were taken seriously enough that they had a representative at meetings to hire new staff.
Mary, who applied widely, was looking for “a good match” when she found her new school. She met with the principal, two vice principals, and the department head who would be her immediate supervisor. Right away, she could see that
it was just the right environment. It was caring, very structured, and I was going to have a lot of supervision.
Months later, Mary reported satisfaction with her new school: “The year has been very much like what my experience at the interview was.”
Esther went through a rigorous application process at her new school. Not only did she interview with a team, but she also did a demonstration lesson for observers. Keisha, too, met with a search committee and then visited the school several times “just to see how the school functioned and operated during the academic day.” She reflected on the contrast between this and her first hiring experience, where she went through a
screening interview with someone downtown, who's not connected to any school whatsoever. Then you get on some list. Then some principal calls you and you go in and you interview. And I did interview with a group of people. From there, I was offered a job. They never saw me teach, never saw me interact with children. . . . They really never asked, “Does this particular person and her teaching style and where she wants to go in the future match the culture of our school?”
Teachers' Schools of Choice
The stories of the Voluntary Movers provide important lessons about what matters to new teachers and how schools can support and retain their teachers. When these teachers decided that successful teaching and continuous growth were not possible in their original schools, they left for new sites. The original schools and their students suffered as a result.
One aspect of the stories of the Voluntary Movers is particularly noteworthy. All of them moved to schools that served less impoverished populations of students than their first schools had. In their interviews, most Voluntary Movers described close connections with the students at their first schools. The schools serving these poorer students, however, had working conditions that prompted these teachers to look for new jobs. The fact that the Voluntary Movers found better working conditions in schools serving wealthier students highlights the problem of inequities in public education.
The findings of this study suggest that efforts to stem turnover and attrition must center on the school site and on the factors that support good teaching. The schools that these teachers chose provided them with balanced and appropriate assignments, good curriculums with sufficient resources, colleagues who generously shared their ideas and encouragement, schoolwide practices that kept students focused on learning, and fair-minded principals who were actively engaged in the life of the school. Surely all schools, regardless of the wealth of their communities or the demographic composition of their students, should achieve these conditions.
Although policymakers can mandate and fund recruitment and induction programs, only school leaders can foster the full range of supports that teachers need. New teachers will choose to stay at schools where sustained and consistent supports are in place, where they can do their day-to-day jobs with confidence, and where they can grow in their profession over time.
Ingersoll, R. M. (2001). A different approach to solving the teacher shortage problem (Teaching Quality Policy Brief No. 3). Seattle, WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.
Olson, L. (2003). The great divide. In Education Week. Quality Counts 2003, 12(17), 9–18.
Authors' note: Susan M. Kardos, David Kauffman, Edward Liu, and Heather Peske participated in data collection and aided in the analysis presented in this article. This research has been made possible by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. The data, findings, and views presented are solely the responsibility of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers.
Susan Moore Johnson is the Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr. Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Director of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers; email@example.com. Sarah E. Birkeland is an advanced doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a researcher on the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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