How Do We Retain Excellent Teachers?

Yesterday, I had the privilege of Skyping with students of Kathleen Nolan (whose book, Police in the Hallways, I reviewed on this blog last summer). They are currently studying education reform and the urban teaching experience. One of the students asked about teacher burnout, and it sparked a need in me to write about it.

You hear the statistic often: Nationally, one-third of teachers leave after three years, and nearly half leave after five. And attrition affects urban schools more than it does suburban or rural schools.

We want excellent teachers to stay in classrooms. So the statistic seems worthy of investigation.

Why do so many teachers leave, and what can be done to prevent the best from going?


"Poor working conditions" is among the reasons teachers cite when they leave the profession. But what does that mean?

I can think of a great number of stresses that come with any teaching job, particularly in a struggling school. Students bring trauma and emotional distress from home; administrators and districts sometimes hold expectations that seem unreasonable; dilapidated buildings and lack of equipment make your job more difficult; and, perhaps most challenging, most schools lack the resources to support teachers effectively.

Nearly every district offers a new teacher mentoring program on paper. But in my experience, a "mentoring program" can range from three written comments on a lesson from September by a "mentor" who was also my evaluator to three meetings in a year with another teacher in my building who observed me teach once coupled with monthly meetings run by a person from the district.

Mostly, though, districts spend their time and money on other priorities.

If you ask me, this lack of focus on teacher development is likely the strongest contributor to what I would refer to as "poor working conditions."

Excellent teaching in a high-needs school is an incredibly cognitively complex task. It requires a great number of skills, a vast store of knowledge, and dispositions that create behaviors that support students struggling with both behavior and academics (more on that here).

Nothing is more disparaging for someone who wants to take pride in what they do than feeling incompetent or incapable. But that is exactly how many new teachers are likely to feel in schools today (see more on that here).

One reason new teachers often struggle within urban schools is a lack of cultural understanding. One of the most serious problems inner-city communities encounter is their school staff's lack of knowledge about that community and background. It often leads to deficit thinking and overly punitive responses to student behavior.

Lack of Leadership Opportunities

Teachers are often required to spend an unreasonable amount of time listening to what outside "experts" have to say about the best ways to teach their students, even when a vast array of knowledge and expertise exist among teachers on staff.

It should be no surprise that people who choose a profession that gives them lots of control over a classroom also like to feel a sense of determination in the running of their school. Schools where teachers take on lots of leadership exist, but they are few and far between.

Lacking the opportunity to advance up the traditional career ladder, many of the type-A personalities who have been drawn into the teaching profession in the era of Teach for America have instead chosen to move on to administration after only two or three years.

I derive significantly more satisfaction from my work when I feel like I am influencing the direction of my school and district policies.

The more teachers have time to work with their colleagues and direct their work, the more likely they will be to stay in the profession.

Retaining Teachers

If we really want to retain teachers, we need to recruit motivated and intelligent people, support them in becoming excellent teachers, provide them with opportunities to direct school programs and curricula, and finally ask their help in supporting a new wave of incoming teachers.

This is far easier said than done. We are currently directing most of our money and energy getting on board with common core and finding quick gimmicks for improving data that matters to administrators and districts, but does not always translate into real learning and growth, and often harms it.


  1. You sound like the type of teacher who would thrive in a teacher-run school. Why not try to start one yourself? If this is not possible, I'd suggest trying for college teaching or another job where you will get the professional recognition that you need and deserve.

  2. Starting a school is expensive. Which is why, in Michigan, 85% of charter schools are run by businesses. Which interests do you think they are concerned about?


  3. Some districts (admittedly very few) are supporting teachers who want to run their own schools. It might be worth a try. I don't support charter schools for the reasons you suggest, but if the community wants them, I'd rather see them managed by teachers.

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