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September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

Research Matters / Keep the Romance Alive

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For many new teachers, wooed by the romance of making a difference in children's lives, the honeymoon ends quickly when the realities of the classroom set in. Some bolt toward the exits (or at least plot their escape) after just 12 months on the job. Researchers estimate anywhere from 17 percent (Gray & Taie, 2015) to 44 percent (Ingersoll et al., 2018) of teachers leave the job within four or five years—with a large group (10 percent or more) calling it quits after just one year (Gray & Taie, 2015). Regardless of which estimate is more accurate, the first year on the job seems to be a particularly fraught and fragile one for many new teachers.
Why is this? What does research say about why new teachers leave—and what they need from us—to stay?

Understanding Why New Teachers Leave

Let's start by acknowledging an ugly truth: the teaching profession currently suffers from a deep and widespread malaise—one that may catch eager, idealistic new teachers by surprise. Surveys find, for example, that nearly two-thirds of teachers feel their jobs are "always" or "often" stressful—twice the rate of workers in general—and more than half of teachers say they "don't seem to have as much enthusiasm now" as they did when they began the job (AFT, 2017, p. 2). According to Gallup, nearly half (48 percent) of U.S. teachers are actively looking for, or open to, new opportunities (McFeely, 2018). Yes, teaching is stressful; unlike other professions, teachers are "always on" and cannot retreat to a cubicle when they're having a bad day (AFT, 2017, p. i). We cannot change that, of course. But we can address several other conditions that add to the stress of first-year teachers.

Struggles with Classroom Management

Before entering the classroom, aspiring educators may romanticize the job—picturing themselves standing on desks, inspiring students to "Oh, Captain, my Captain!" moments. Yet for many, contact with real students—who can be complex, challenging, and disengaged—can be a rude awakening. Pre-service programs often inadequately prepare teachers for these realities. According to an analysis of 122 teacher preparation programs, most cover setting up classroom routines and rules (important to be sure), yet give short shrift to vital research-based strategies for more advanced classroom management practices (Greenberg, Putnam, & Walsh, 2014).
A solution? Both preservice programs and school administrators can curate effective classroom management strategies, resources, and tools (especially those related to praising positive behavior, imposing fair consequences for misbehavior, and engaging students in learning) to share with new teachers.

Work Overload

Another challenge: New teachers often find the workload overwhelming (Mader, 2016). They must learn to communicate with parents, fill out reams of paperwork, and plan lessons for multiple classes—often with few models or examples to follow. Only 15 percent of new teachers in one survey said they had access to high-quality instructional materials like lesson plans; the rest were left to fend for themselves, spending countless hours outside of school planning and revamping lessons to meet student needs (Mathews, 2011).
So we can also learn from high-performing schools that compile and share with their teachers well-designed lessons from expert educators (Chenoweth, 2009). Studies have found, in fact, that giving teachers well-designed lesson plans and help with using them has a significant impact on student success—the equivalent of moving teachers in the 50th percentile to the 80th percentile, with twice the effect for low-performing teachers (Jackson & Makarin, 2016).
The point here is not to "teacher-proof" your school, nor forbid teachers from creating their own lessons, but rather to give them an initial lifeline that can accelerate their professional growth.

Unsupportive School Cultures

Workplace conditions also drive how new teachers respond to the question, Should I stay, or should I go? A statewide analysis of school climate and teacher retention data in Massachusetts found, for example, that workplace conditions—including how often teachers receive constructive feedback to spur improvement, treat one another with mutual respect, and share a commitment to improving student outcomes—are a better predictor of teacher retention than student income or demographics (Johnson, Kraft, & Papay, 2012). Basically, teachers don't leave poor students; they leave poor organizational cultures.
Case studies of new teachers' induction experiences find that structures ostensibly designed to support collegial learning don't translate into reality in dysfunctional cultures. For example, while some first-year teachers in a school district in Hawaii received valuable feedback from mentors, others received no feedback from assigned mentors (Martin, Buelow, & Hoffman, 2016).
If these case studies are at all typical, it may not be surprising that studies have found mixed results of induction programs for teacher retention and student success (Ingersoll & Strong, 2011). Similarly, new teachers also found professional learning and collaboration to largely be a waste of time; often the learning was irrelevant to their needs or the sessions turned into dispiriting teacher gripe sessions (Martin, Buelow, & Hoffman, 2016).

A Long Honeymoon

New teachers do not arrive on our doorsteps as perfectly molded professionals. They are still developing their talents—something which decades of research says starts with a period of "romance"—falling in love with our field while developing foundational skills (Bloom, 1985). By helping teachers address their most daunting challenges and embracing them with supportive cultures, we can help them keep that romance alive not only for the first few years but over their entire career.

American Federation of Teachers [AFT]. (2017). 2017 educator quality of work life survey. Washington, DC: Author.

Bloom, B. S. (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballantine Books.

Chenoweth, K. (2009). How it's being done: Urgent lessons from unexpected schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Gray, L., & Taie, S. (2015). Public school teacher attrition and mobility in the first five years: Results from the first through fifth waves of the 2007–08 beginning teacher longitudinal study (NCES 2015-337). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.

Greenberg, J., Putman, H., & Walsh, K. (2014). Training our future teachers: Classroom management. National Council on Teacher Quality.

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, E., Stuckey, D., & Collins, G. (2018). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force—updated October 2018. CPRE Research Reports.

Ingersoll, R., & Strong, M. (2011). The impact of induction and mentoring programs for beginning teachers: A critical review of the research. Review of Education Research, 81(2), 201–233.

Jackson, C. K., & Makarin, A. (2016). Simplifying teaching: A field experiment with online "off-the-shelf" lessons. National Bureau of Economics Research Working Paper No. 22398.

Johnson, S. M., Kraft, M. A., & Papay, J. P. (2012). How context matters in high-need schools: The effects of teachers' working conditions on their professional satisfaction and their students' achievement. Teachers College Record, 114(10), 1–39.

Mader, J. (2016, April 13). The first year of teaching can feel like a fraternity hazing. Hechinger Report. Retrieved from:

Martin, K. L., Buelow, S. M., & Hoffman, J. T. (2016) New teacher induction: Support that impacts beginning middle-level educators. Middle School Journal, 47(1), 4–12.

Mathews, J. (2011, December 18). New teacher decries lesson plan gap. Washington Post.

McFeely, S. (2018). Why your best teachers are leaving and 4 ways to keep them. Gallup Organization.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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