“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.
Higher pay doesn’t necessarily lead to a better retention rate, though. “[Some] studies suggest that teachers are more interested in working at schools where the conditions of work are good rather than in getting paid more,” Smith, the Vanderbilt professor, said. He pointed to a study by the Benwood Foundation that offered teachers in Chattanooga large bonuses to go teach in lower-performing schools. The study found that few teachers were willing to move for this kind of offer. (In fact, according to Smith, the initiative had to be reengineered to offer bonuses to teachers already in those schools.)
With the exception of retirement, studies suggest that there are only a handful of overarching factors that push teachers out the door—family or personal reasons, other career opportunities, salary, administrative support and overall job dissatisfaction. These are largely the same issues that arose in my interviews. Some were wholly unhappy or drained and left in pursuit of another career completely, some wanted more money; some wanted both.
Another study done by the National Charter School Research Project suggests lack of job security is a factor in teachers’ decision to leave public charters; however, this was not a concern of any charter teacher I spoke with. Most teachers sounded simply frustrated, overworked and underpaid—sentiments that are certainly echoed in the research.
The teacher-turnover problem has a flipside, of course: If 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom within the first five years their career, that means that 50 to 60 percent of teachers stay. Who are they? Where are they teaching? What is keeping them?
Becky is a retired teacher who taught for nearly 30 years in just about every capacity imaginable. After starting in Chattanooga in a public school, she moved all over the country, teaching in Houston in a low-income school and then Chicago in a wealthy suburb before teaching at a private school in Ohio.
She loved teaching, but even in her years before retirement, she still felt the weight of the work on her constantly.
“When you’re in your early 60s and you’re still coming home with 65 hours of grading over two weeks…that’s very overwhelming. [But] I love working with teenagers. I love the relationships and I love being able to help them.”