Interview: Who Stays in Teaching and Why?

May 27, 2005 4 min read
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The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard University, in conjunction with the AARP’s educator community, recently released a report titled “Who Stays in Teaching and Why: A Review of the Literature on Teacher Retention.” In an e-mail interview, we asked Morgaen Donaldson, a PNGT research assistant, what the research on retention can tell school recruiters and personnel administrators.

Agent K-12: In what way does the hiring process affect retention? What can schools and districts do to ensure that their hiring process results in strong retention rates?

Morgaen Donaldson: While we were not able to identify studies that explicitly link teacher hiring and retention, we did find studies that link teacher hiring and satisfaction. One 2004 study founnd that a hiring process that includes a rich exchange of information between candidates and hiring districts is associated with higher levels of satisfaction among new teachers. Research also indicates that districts lose candidates when they hire teachers late in the season. Those hired right before the school year (or during the school year) struggle to get a foothold in schools. The bottom line here is that districts can increase the chance that their new teachers are satisfied by hiring them through an information-rich exchange and hiring them early.

AK-12: How much does a teacher’s preparation or qualifications correlate with retention? Are there signs or qualifications school personnel should look for when interviewing a candidate?

MD: There is some indication that retention rates are higher for teachers who have gone through teacher-education programs in contrast to alternative-certification programs. However, researchers do not know whether differences in retention are due to the programs or the different types of people they attract. In other words, people with a short-term interest in teaching may be attracted to alternative-certification programs and then spend only a few years in the classroom, whereas people who have a more long-term commitment to teaching may enroll in longer, traditional programs and then teach for longer.

Retention or attrition reflects the influence of many individual-level factors and school- and district-level factors (not to mention the labor market and other influences that are probably at play). So human resources personnel should probably not depend on research on individual-level attributes to predict which candidates will stay in teaching. Their resources are probably better spent working with schools to build supports that help retain the candidates they hire. For example, a new teacher who has a well-matched mentor, for instance, is more satisfied. High-quality induction has also been associated with higher retention of new teachers.

AK-12: Is there any consensus on what working conditions are most important to teachers or have the most impact on retention?

MD: There is not a clear consensus on which working conditions matter most to teachers or have the most impact on retention. This is an area where more research is definitely needed. Our research has shown that new teachers’ sense of success in teaching students plays a large role in their career decisions. When new teachers are given assignments within their field of certification and a student and class load that is manageable, they are more likely to feel successful with students. Assignment out of field or being assigned an excessive number of preparations and/or students can compromise a teacher’s opportunity to be effective.

AK-12: What kind of in-school support programs are most effective for new teachers? Do experienced teachers benefit from different kinds of supports?

MD: It’s becoming more and more clear that mentoring and induction, when done well, are associated with the retention of higher numbers of new teachers. However, the quality of mentoring (and probably induction as well) varies widely. Mentoring and induction programs have a greater chance of increasing new-teacher retention when they pair new teachers with experienced colleagues who teach in the same grade or subject and when they ensure the mentors and new teachers have regular conversations about instruction.

Experienced teachers benefit from opportunities to take on leadership roles and to engage in high-quality professional development. There is less research on the attrition/retention of experienced teachers, partly because their attrition (before retirement) is less voluminous than that of new teachers.

AK-12: Did you find anything in your review of research on teacher retention that you thought was unexpected or surprising?

MD: We were surprised by the dearth of strong research on teacher retention and attrition. There are some very high-quality studies but they are few in number. This is one reason why we did this literature review: to identify what is known and suggest areas for further research. For instance, we found few studies that look at the costs and benefits, broadly defined, of teacher turnover. This is an important policy question. We also found little on how colleagues might influence teachers’ retention. We know from our own research that new teachers count on their colleagues in their early years; looking specifically at colleagues’ effects on teacher retention could be very important.

—Anthony Rebora


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