Why Teachers are Leaving

Why are so many teachers leaving our classrooms? We know that somewhere between 40% and 50% will not make it into their 6th year, and nowadays the annual turnover rate is about 15%. Of course, the high departure rate is explained in part by the aging of the baby boomers, but we are also losing a lot of experienced teachers who, if all were going well, would be helping our children learn for many more years.

The situation seems to be worse in North Carolina, where some counties in that state are experiencing a 35% turnover rate. What’s happening in North Carolina {{1}} is worthy of your attention, because it could be the canary in the mine.

Last week I wrote about the best teachers I’ve known in nearly 40 years of reporting {{2}}. This week, your opportunity to hear directly from teachers who won’t be teaching next year, and why. I had the chance to speak with 6 North Carolina teachers recently, and I invite you to hear their stories.

A word about the video: The first 2:15 is some sort of PSA. I do the talking for the next 4 minutes or so, setting the stage for an audience of 1300. I asked everyone in the audience who either had been or was now a teacher to stand, and about 1000 people rose. Then I asked those who were no longer in classrooms to sit down. That left about 300-350 men and women still on their feet. You have to take my word for this because the camera is focused on a small part of the crowd (no wide shot, unfortunately). Then I said something like “If you would leave teaching if you could, if you got a better job or if your spouse suddenly got a big raise, or if you could find some other viable exit strategy from the classroom, please sit down.” Here the camera’s tight focus is kind of interesting, because you can see, even feel, people weighing what I said, shifting from one leg to the other while deciding whether to sit or stand. Eventually, about 100 more people sat down, leaving 200+ men and women still on their feet. We gave them a huge round of applause, and then the 6 men and women on the stage told their stories. Skip to 6:30 or so for their stories, which bring the dry data to life. I think you will feel what your rational self knows: this is not good for our children or our country.

Money is one issue in North Carolina. Teacher pay dropped 16% between 2002 and 2012 in inflation-adjusted dollars to $45,947, well below the national average of $55,418. Once near the national midpoint, North Carolina is now either 46th or 48th.

But that’s not the key factor. Respect is an issue, as is the human need to feel that one’s work has significance. Panelist Vivian Connell, who left her job in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system out of frustration with constant testing and other mandates, explained, “I was tired of not having a voice. No one listens to teachers.”

Many have written about this, including Daniel Pink (who also spoke at the meeting in Raleigh). Richard Ingersoll of Penn, who is the nation’s leading authority on teacher retention/departure, is himself a former public school teacher. He told The Atlantic why he left. “One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible,” Ingersoll says. “But it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect,” he says. “Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.”

All 6 of my panelists spoke movingly about the system’s ‘obsession’ with test scores and what all the testing and test-prep is doing to the profession. Sharon Boxley moved from North Carolina to Maryland (where she is making close to $15,000 more) and is still teaching. Her comment about test-prep produced an audible gasp. “I am still in the classroom,” she said, “and I miss teaching.”

It ought to be obvious that the profession cannot afford to lose its lifeblood. As I have said before, we need to make it harder to become a teacher but easier to be one. We seem to be doing the exact opposite.

[[1]]1. Former New York Times Education Editor Edward Fiske and Duke Professor Helen Ladd have written this analysis of the North Carolina situation. (.pdf)[[1]]

[[2]]2. Three of whom, as it happened, were from North Carolina![[2]]

7 thoughts on “Why Teachers are Leaving

  1. I had the opportunity to hear this panel in person and for me it was definitely the most impactful of the two days of the Emerging Issues Forum. The teachers at my table and the ones around me had tears in their eyes as they heard former and soon to be former teachers talk about how much they love and miss teaching, but how they just couldn’t keep doing it with the low pay and lack of respect for the profession. Powerful. And sad. We have to do better.


  2. The minute everyone realizes that all this is a part of the larger plan the better off we’ll be. Those in charge don’t give a damn that people are leaving the teaching profession. This only helps bring in “teachers” from Teach for America and privatize education.


  3. My daughter taught in a Philadelphia inner city public high school for 3 years before she decided to become a lawyer. Money was a reason but so was the daily challenge of trying to teach teenagers from confused and dysfunctional home situations. In one class, not a single student had a father present in the home. She befriended some, worked hard with them, and believed she made some difference in their lives, however small. Some fell victim to drugs, others to crime. I believe teachers in the inner city need heroic determination and a willingness to live with — if not accept — modest or marginal results. Not all will do so.


    • Inner city and other high poverty schools can succeed, but it’s tough for individual teachers to do great work. It requires strong leadership that is committed to forging strong alliances with the entire community. Because words matter, it makes more sense to talk about ‘inequality’ than poverty, because the former forces people to think about the haves and not just the have-nots. And then teachers can focus on the strengths that inequality can confer (‘grit’ is the fancy word today). Teachers have to ask ‘how are you intelligent?’ and not the usual ‘how intelligent are you?’, and they cannot let poverty be an excuse.
      John, I appreciate what your daughter did and applaud her efforts. I hope that she remains committed to helping public schools in the toughest situations.


  4. thanks, John, St. Paul teachers just made a lot of progress here with their new contract. As I noted, “teachers have good ideas too”

    Mr. Gillespie, very sorry your duaghter encountered such frustration. It’s really hard for an individual teacher if she/he does not have great leadership, strong mentors and other colleagues who know how to make a difference. There are such urban schools. We should do everything possible to honor and learn from them.


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