Why Do Teachers Quit?

And why do they stay?
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Richard Ingersoll taught high-school social studies and algebra in both public and private schools for nearly six years before leaving the profession and getting a Ph.D. in sociology. Now a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s education school, he’s spent his career in higher ed searching for answers to one of teaching’s most significant problems: teacher turnover.

Teaching, Ingersoll says, “was originally built as this temporary line of work for women before they got their real job—which was raising families, or temporary for men until they moved out of the classroom and became administrators. That was sort of the historical set-up.”

Ingersoll extrapolated and then later confirmed that anywhere between 40 and 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years (that includes the nine and a half percent that leave before the end of their first year.) Certainly, all professions have turnover, and some shuffling out the door is good for bringing in young blood and fresh faces. But, turnover in teaching is about four percent higher than other professions.

Approximately 15.7 percent of teachers leave their posts every year, and 40 percent of teachers who pursue undergraduate degrees in teaching never even enter the classroom at all. With teacher effectiveness a top priority of the education reform movement, the question remains: Why are all these teachers leaving—or not even entering the classroom in the first place?

“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.”

Other teachers—especially the younger ones—are also leaving the classroom for seemingly nebulous reasons. I spoke with nearly a dozen public and private school teachers and former teachers around the country. (I used pseudonyms  for the teachers throughout this piece so that they could speak freely.) Many of them cited “personal reasons,” ranging from individual stress levels to work-life balance struggles.

“We are held up to a really high standard for everything,” says Emma, a 26-year-old former teacher at a public school in Kansas who now works for a music education non-profit. “It stems from this sense that teachers aren’t real people, and the only thing that came close to [making me stay] was the kids.”

In my interviews with teachers, the same issues continued to surface. In theory, the classroom hours aren’t bad and the summers are free. But, many young teachers soon realize they must do overwhelming amounts of after-hours work. They pour out emotional energy into their work, which breeds quick exhaustion. And they experience the frustrating uphill battle that comes along with teaching—particularly in low-performing schools.

“What people are asked to do is only the kind of thing that somebody can do for two or three years; you couldn’t sustain that level of intensity throughout a career,” said Thomas Smith, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s education school. He was referring specifically to charter schools, but his sentiment is one that resonates with many beginning teachers in challenging schools. “[It’s] the same way that people might think of investment banking. It’s something that people do for a few years out of college, but if you want to have a family, or you want to have some leisure time, you know, how do you sustain that?”

Joseph is a former Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher who loved his first years in the classroom; after a couple of years, though, he came to a saddening realization about the future of his career.

“I realized that most older men I taught with eventually felt pressured to advance into higher-level administration as their careers progressed in order to better support their family,” he said. “What many of them working in high-need schools told me, however, was that being successful at school directly conflicted with being successful husbands and fathers. While this is certainly true of any occupation, most occupations don't leave your children asking you, ‘Why do you go to more basketball games of the kids at school than mine?’"

Pay is also an issue that came up in my interviews. A starting teacher salary in the U.S. is $35,672.

“What is expected of great teachers and the amount they are paid is shameful,” says Hayley, a former teacher from the Northwest, referring to just one factor in her decision to leave the classroom to work for an ed-tech startup. “Yes, if you love something you should do it regardless of pay, but when you take into consideration the time, the effort, the emotional toll and what teachers are asked to actually do everyday, it was painfully obvious that teaching is not a sustainable job. I really wish it had been.” Hayley taught for three years before finding herself emotionally drained, physically exhausted, and interested in pursuing a career that provided more balance and financial security.

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Liz Riggs is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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