Too Many Teachers Leave Before Hitting Their Stride

tulane-leave-before-hitting-their-strideToo Many Teachers Leave Before Hitting Their Stride

by Paul Barnwell, Teacher of English & Digital Media

According to University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll, between 40 and 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom within their first five years. Given the demands of the job, this isn’t too surprising, and his data reveals a steady uptick in teacher attrition and increasing numbers of new hires over the past two decades.

It can takes years for educators to build confidence, an array of classroom management skills, and the ability to effectively assess student learning, among other demands, which is why early exodus from the profession is highly problematic for the education system as a whole–nobody wins if we can’t find and retain quality teachers in every small town and county school district, sprawling suburban schools, and challenging urban schools.

Here are some ideas on ways to promote higher teacher satisfaction and better odds in keeping effective teachers in the classroom:

80% First Semester

First-year teachers should not work a full day. Period.

Because many new hires–especially in large, urban districts– are illogically placed in the toughest of situations, the toil can be overwhelming. I’ve been there.

Rowan Claypool, founder of Teach Kentucky, proposes an induction plan in which first-year teachers work an 80% contract for their first semester. Beginning educators would be saddled with one less class to teach, replaced by an extra unpaid planning period to observe master teachers, interact with students in less pressure-packed situations, and become more gently immersed in the school culture.

This type of model would undoubtedly increase teacher retention in the first year–and perhaps longer term–while helping to break patterns of isolation for overwhelmed first-year educators.

Emphasize More Varied Forms of Data

There’s nothing more demoralizing for a young teacher just trying to stay afloat in the classroom than to be pressured–directly or indirectly–to increase standardized test scores. Many teachers enter the profession due to a profound desire to make a difference in students’ lives, to foster positive relationships, and to serve as academic conduits for kids.  When new teachers’ idealistic visions violently collide with mandates to turn students into numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s no wonder many young teachers become disillusioned before hitting their strides as educators.

But there are other forms of data that should be recognized–and are often more valuable regarding teacher effectiveness.  As a new teacher, I would have felt so much better if my superiors had noticed how often students asked questions or tried new things. Or talked about enjoying school for once, perhaps finally finishing a novel. The little anecdotal and qualitative data we can gleam from day-to-day class activity is much more meaningful than the one-shot test towards the end of the year.

Motivate Teachers the Right Way

According to author Dan Pink of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, three factors are most likely to keep workplace satisfaction high: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Creating conditions where teachers maintain autonomy–but also embrace the essential work of collaboration–should be the goal of every school.  It’s a tricky balance, because we teachers have to meet many standardized demands. Yet I feel most empowered when my colleagues and I are allowed flexibility to get results in a way that’s comfortable and effective to us.

With regards to mastery, Pink describes allowing employees to become better at something that matters to them. In the context of schools, perhaps it’s allowing and encouraging teachers to attend conferences based on special interests. Or allowing teachers to design curriculum and develop elective courses that align with personal interest. Or to lead professional development within his or her own building.

Purpose relates to intrinsic motivation, which has been proven time and time again to be more effective than carrots and sticks in creating sustained excellence and work satisfaction.

Of course, we teachers should be applying the above principles with our students, too. (Here’s a list of ways Pink’s lessons from Drive might apply to education compiled by Larry Fliegelman at the Connected Principals blog.)

Hybrid Opportunities

There are countless reasons why effective teachers leave the classroom: unsustainable demands, emotional exhaustion, and the desire to better provide for their families are just some things that push teachers out.

Luckily, groups like Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) are attempting to revolutionize teacher leadership by advocating for hybrid roles called Teacherpreneurs. If school districts want to retain effective teachers who love teaching but are looking for varied opportunities, they should create roles that keep teachers in the classroom part time. Why not have teachers work on developing online courses for the whole district while being grounded at a single school in the classroom a couple periods a day?

How about a teacher who works to elevate teacher voice in policy debates but also teaches middle school social studies?  Or how about a part time teacher working on social media outreach to parents and community stakeholders?  The possibilities are endless.

It takes bold leadership to create and sustain hybrid teaching positions, but count me as one of many who would embrace the opportunity to stay grounded in the classroom while being compensated for other worthwhile initiatives.


Nobody becomes a great teacher in only a few years, and data suggests that too many educators are leaving the profession before realizing their potential to help students succeed. By being more creative with induction practices, considering workplace environment and motivation, and expanding opportunities for teachers to stay grounded in the classroom while pursuing other initiatives, retention will improve.

Paul Barnwell teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky. When not experimenting with urban gardening, bow-hunting, writing at his blog Mindful Stew, or watching football, he’s an active participant in Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network and the Center for Teaching Quality‘s Collaboratory; Too Many Teachers Leave Before Hitting Their Stride; image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelations

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