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Why Teachers are Leaving the Classroom, and the Effort to Get More to Stay

VR render of a classroom

Jahana Hayes in a photo included in her application for 2016 National Teacher of the Year.
This year's National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes from Connecticut in a photo taken from her award application.

Working to Build a 'Future Pipeline of Teachers'

This year's teacher of the year grew up "surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence."

Still, as Jahana Hayes writes in her award application, "my teachers made me believe that I was college material."

"I became a teenage mother in high school and almost gave up on my dreams completely. However, my teachers showed me the many options that were still available if I continued my education. These positive experiences at school inspired me to become a teacher. ... I entered this profession with a passion for the work that I do and an understanding that my work would extend beyond the classroom and into the world."

Jahana teaches history at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut.

A 12-year veteran of the teaching profession, Jahana has done a lot of work outside the classroom "with the goal of increasing awareness and interest in education as a career." It's an effort to create a "future pipeline of teachers."

"While the focus should always remain on students, recruiting, supporting and retaining culturally competent and diverse educators cannot be overlooked. Teachers, administrators and school faculty play a key role in student success."

Kathy says: ""So many teachers feel like they're not treated as professionals," Kathy says. "They feel over-managed, they're not rewarded for their expertise, and they don't feel like they have a voice in the education system."

A Shortage of Experienced Teachers

"Experts tell us that on average, it takes four to five years for teachers to feel comfortable in the classroom and to become proficient in their teaching," says Dr. Kathy McKnight, Principal Director of Research at Pearson.

"We're also seeing 40- to 50-percent of new teachers leaving the profession before they get to that five-year mark," she says.

Last fall, for example, hundreds of principals across Washington State who were surveyed talked of a teacher shortage "crisis." Several other states, including California, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kansas, are scrambling to staff their schools with qualified teachers.

This has obvious consequences for the goal of getting an effective teacher in front of every student.

Understanding the Shortage

Kathy McKnight's research along with colleagues from The National Network of State Teachers of the Year and Public Impact was recently cited in a report entitled "Mitigating Teacher Shortages" from the non-partisan Education Commission of the States.

"So many teachers feel like they're not treated as professionals," Kathy says. "They feel over-managed, they're not rewarded for their expertise, and they don't feel like they have a voice in the education system."

Research from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that a large percent of American teachers, compared to those in other countries, feel like their profession is not valued by the public.

All of these factors contribute to problems recruiting new, qualified teachers—and keeping them in classrooms once they're on the job.

A Wide Array of Opportunities

We wrote about Kathy's research around career advancement models for teachers in a previous LearnED story titled "Training and Rewards for Great Teachers." She and her colleagues have done a lot of work profiling states and schools with teacher career advancement models that are working.

"There are lots of opportunities for teachers to feel more professional and more valued," Kathy says.

"They can be content specialists, pedagogy specialists, technology specialists," she says. "Some can be included in district or state education policy decisions. And others can take on research, or work with policymakers."

"All of this helps teachers grow as teachers and leaders," Kathy says.

It also helps retain teachers who might have otherwise left.

"In our interviews with teachers for our study," Kathy says, "a good number of them said that the opportunities they had as a result of the career advancement model at their school made them decide to stay in the profession, whereas before, they had been contemplating leaving."

Kathy says: ""I think about my own profession as a researcher," Kathy says. "I love doing what I do. I feel like it's valued by my colleagues. I have an expertise that people need. People trust me to do good work. Why would we think teachers wouldn't want the same?"

New Generations, New Definitions of Teaching

Attracting future teachers to the classroom—and keeping them in the classroom—means new approaches to recruitment and retention.

"Generation Y is expected to make up half of the teaching workforce by 2020," Kathy says.

"Unlike prior generations, this cohort is less likely to take on careers without opportunity to advance," she says. "So we're thinking about new flexibilities in the way work is structured to meet the needs of the younger generations, like splitting up the week or the day between two teachers."

"There's also a cohort of potential teachers I've heard referred to as 'sunsetters,'" Kathy says. "These are people who have reached the end of another career and now want to teach. How do we bring them in to the profession? We need to think about how we make them part of the conversation as well."

The Value of Feeling Valued

"I think about my own profession as a researcher," Kathy says. "I love doing what I do. I feel like it's valued by my colleagues. I have an expertise that people need. People trust me to do good work. Why would we think teachers wouldn't want the same?"