My mentee was born to be a teacher. She coordinated schedules, communicated with parents, and taught children with boundless enthusiasm and positivity. Our staff, the principal, and our community loved her. I hoped she would teach my two young daughters one day.
I met with her monthly, helping her with lesson plans, student behavior, and parent communication. But it wasn't enough. I couldn't help her with the fact that she always left school feeling like her work wasn't finished. I couldn't help her with the e-mails and scheduling she did late into the night. I couldn't help her with the parents she would never please. So she quit, and as her mentor, I felt I had failed her. This great teacher took her enthusiasm to a job with the state government, and I was left wondering how this had happened.
Attracting good teachers to the profession is important, but it's just as important to keep those high-quality teachers in the profession. With one in five teachers quitting in the first five years (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 2003) and some early data showing that the teachers who quit are the ones with higher ability (Guarino, Santibanez, Daley, & Brewer, 2004), this is a problem we can't ignore. We need to make teaching a sustainable career so that the talented people who enter this important profession will stay.
After my mentee left teaching, I started talking to other former teachers who had quit. Through blogs, e-mails, phone calls, and face-to-face interviews, I listened to the stories of more than 70 teachers from schools across the United States. Their stories were raw, emotional, and telling, and their common themes might give us some ideas for how to slow the exodus of qualified teachers.
Three Ways to Retain Teachers
1. Make sure new teachers are prepared for test days and other potentially stressful events.
Lisa walks into her classroom, heart pounding, brow knitted, and quaking with anxiety. Today, her students take the standardized tests that are part of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP). She knows that her school's reputation and her own professional success hinge on her students' performance on that single day.
Palms sweating, Lisa picks up the testing manual that she was given that morning. (Security requirements meant that teachers could not receive the manual ahead of time.) After a harried read through it, she scurries around the classroom, sharpening pencils and gathering testing resources. She stops dead in her tracks with her hands full of scrap paper; she realizes she doesn't know where and when her students in the special education program will be tested, so she storms down the hallway, looking for school staff to coordinate with in the five minutes before the bell rings.
After the test begins, Lisa doesn't dare sit down, and she tells her students she can't help them with any problems on the test. She's nervous about talking to them at all during the exam, for fear that she will be accused of helping them cheat. What's more, she was so busy with those last-minute preparations that she didn't have time to go to the restroom before the test began. Now, she's alone in the classroom for two hours during the testing.
What Lisa needed more than anything else was support and assistance ahead of time so that she would know what to expect and be better prepared for the stressful day. Schools can take these steps to ensure that test days and other potentially difficult days go smoothly:
- Provide training during staff meetings or school inservice days on test administration so teachers will not be scurrying to prepare at the last minute. Provide a checklist of items teachers can do ahead of time, such as sharpening pencils and gathering scrap paper.
- Develop teams of special educators and teachers to determine what accommodations will be needed for particular students and where they will take place. Make sure that all teachers are informed about these plans.
- Have someone check in with all test administrators during the day to ensure they can get a break or other assistance if needed.
- Reduce the stress level on test day by having teachers teach students test-taking strategies and share and review the format of the test with students. Do not encourage competition among students, classrooms, or teachers.
Similar advice could apply to other days that depart from the usual daily routine. New teachers may not be aware of logistical issues related to field trips, assemblies, classroom observations, fire drills, and other events. Take time a few days before any such event to make sure beginning teachers know what to expect and have the opportunity to ask questions.
2. Cultivate humanity.
Thomas heads home with another armload of essays. His daily schedule requires him to teach five different classes, monitor a study hall, and attend an after-school team meeting. He uses his 40-minute prep block to return parent e-mails and make copies of his assignments and class work. There is little time for him to do any grading during the school day.
That evening, he trades exercising, spending time with his wife, and relaxing for another night of grading, because he knows if he doesn't, he'll have to spend all weekend doing it. He walks to his car, heavy bag draped over his shoulder, and sighs as he wonders how he will explain to his wife his need to work again this evening.
Thomas knows he can't sustain this for long—he doesn't feel healthy in his body, mind, or relationships.
When she spoke at the 2010 National Staff Development Council summer conference in Seattle, Washington, cultural anthropologist and author Jennifer James said that "teaching is humanity in the face of fear and anxiety." This has become one of my favorite quotes, yet teaching seems to be losing its humanity. Many teachers I spoke with reported significant problems with basic issues of well-being. Schools need to take steps to ensure that teachers have time to take care of their personal needs.
- Create humane schedules. Seek teachers' input on schedule building so their needs for planning periods and meeting time are taken into consideration.
- Make sure all teachers have time and space during the day to take care of basic needs, including lunch, restroom breaks, and other personal concerns.
- Create a family-friendly workplace. Be flexible with teachers who have child care issues that affect their schedules, and be especially attentive to the needs of new mothers.
- Talk with teachers about work-life balance. If teachers are struggling to get their work done and have time for themselves in the evenings and on weekends, help them find ways to work more efficiently and support them as they attempt to do so.
Teachers whose personal, human needs are met will most likely be calmer, happier, and more productive. Such improved dispositions positively affect the climate of their classrooms and the whole school.
3. Provide opportunities for leadership.
In her 10 years of teaching, Sarah has not once been asked to offer feedback about schedules, programs and curriculum, or district initiatives. Every year, she receives a mandated curriculum that lays out what she must teach in each subject, just as though it were her first day on the job.
Looking around at her education community, Sarah feels as though her experience doesn't mean a thing. Expensive consultants speak during district inservice days, and many of their presentations are not at all useful for a practicing teacher. Sarah yearns for more—but she doesn't want to be a principal. She feels she has nowhere to go, so she has started looking for positions outside education.
Many teachers feel powerless to lead and make change happen. To retain them in the profession, we must give them professional growth opportunities.
- Connect teachers to district leaders. Encourage teams of teachers to attend every school board meeting and report back to the staff.
- Solicit teacher feedback on all proposals, changes, and major decisions in school policy. Instead of hiring an outside consultant, use inservice days to give teachers time to offer their thoughts on new initiatives and share what is working in their classrooms.
- Provide leadership opportunities for teachers. Teaching lacks a strong career ladder, especially when teachers don't want to become principals. Leadership opportunities in mentoring, coaching, assessment, and consulting enable teachers to see themselves as continually growing (DuFour & Eaker, 1998).
- State and national politicians should seek teacher feedback on all new education policies. It is demoralizing to teachers when those outside education make decisions about teaching with no real idea of the ramifications for teachers and students.
Teachers with leadership potential can be tremendous assets to a school, but if they feel their potential is not being cultivated, they may just leave education entirely.
A Career That Lasts
These are just a few ways schools can begin the work of making teaching a sustainable career. Other school improvement efforts that don't consider the basic work of improving school communities may well fail if the best teachers continue to leave.
All those who seek to reform education must make it a priority to retain, inspire, and empower excellent teachers. Together, we can all work to make schools more fulfilling, humane, flexible, and creative communities.
DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.
Guarino, C., Santibanez, L, Daley, G., & Brewer, D. (2004). A review of the research literature on teacher recruitment and retention. Retrieved from the RAND Corporation at
National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. (2003). No dream denied: Summary report. Retrieved from
Katy Farber is a 6th grade teacher at Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex, Vermont. She is the author of Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus (Corwin, 2010) and
Change the World with Service Learning: How to Create, Lead, and Assess Service Learning Projects
(Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2011).
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