Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Why Teachers Say They Leave the Classroom—And Why They Stay

There’s not one right career path for teachers. Here are some of their stories
By Mary Hendrie — April 03, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of teachers walking in all directions and into an open door symbolizing new opportunities.
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As schools across the country face staffing shortages, several current and former educators have come forward to share what made them stay in the profession—or what made them leave.

The recent essay “I Quit Teaching for Ed Tech. Here’s How It Turned Out” is one nuanced exploration of that decision. When teacher Amma Ababio left the classroom for a career in ed tech, she was eager to escape the weighty expectations of students, parents, and administrators, but conflicted about what she was leaving behind. “I’m happy to sing the praises of what I do,” she writes of her career change, “but let’s have an honest conversation here: Leaving the classroom isn’t a total solution.” Her story struck a chord with readers, nearly 200 of whom have chimed in on Facebook to discuss their own career choices.

Last summer, former elementary school teacher Paul Veracka shared his own emotional story of what drove him out of the profession and into freelance writing: “It was these three major education forces—too much standardized testing, too much punitive discipline, and too little funding—that pushed me to leaving the profession, a profession I excelled in and even loved.” His account clearly resonated with readers, sparking a flood of support on social media and even an invitation to appear on cable news. (He declined.)

And it’s not just full-time teachers weighing career changes. Tracking the eagerness to help staunch teacher shortages that spurred her to sign up as a substitute teacher to the disillusionment that made her leave the classroom, Alanah Nichole Davis shared her view of the emotional complexities of filling in when a teacher is on leave. The hardest part for her? Bearing the brunt of colleagues’ short fuses when she was still adjusting to the position. “Even smaller and more subtle actions can have an effect on morale, especially for those acclimating to a new position,” she reminds readers. “Like the tone of an email. Or the way we remind someone of a task due. It’s often not what we say but how we say it that matters.”

Changing careers can be an emotionally fraught decision for anyone, and when it contributes to other workforce trends, it can also have significant implications for efforts to diversify the overwhelmingly white teaching corps. Bettina L. Love recently addressed teacher retention from this angle, specifically calling administrators to task for recruiting Black teachers without offering the support they need to stay in the job.

That’s a familiar concern for New Jersey social studies teacher Rann Miller, who documents in the essay “Why Black Teachers Stay” how the persistent challenges teachers face are compounded for Black teachers. In his experience, Black teachers are expected to take on additional disciplinary responsibilities while serving as the resident race experts for their white colleagues. Reflecting on what kept him and other Black teachers in the classroom despite these demands, Miller wrote, “I stay because a Black teacher poured into me. Therefore, it is my turn to pour into someone that they might one day pour into another.”

Overtaxed teachers aren’t alone in eyeing the door. Spare a thought for your administrators, as well. In “‘I Was Ready to Walk Away’: The Silent Scream of School Leaders,” middle school assistant principal NaTasha Woody-Wideman lays out the stressors weighing on her fellow school leaders. “How do we manage whole schools and then return home to be parents, caregivers, spouses, partners who are emotionally safe and whole people?” she asks. “These questions go unanswered for the vast majority of school leaders.”

So, what can keep educators in our schools?

One oft-touted solution to teacher shortages—higher salaries—is a good place to start but not the entire solution, argue teacher prep. professors Katherine Norris and Kathryn Wiley. In an essay last month, they reflect on whether the $60,000 national base salary for teachers proposed in the American Teacher Act could ameliorate the concerns they hear from past, present, and prospective teachers. It’s a question that has consequences not only for teacher retention, but also for teacher recruitment as an anecdote they shared illustrates: “A recent high school graduate told us of they were interested in going into teaching but foresaw having to get a second job and generally ‘struggling for the first five to 10 years.’ ”

It may take large-scale policy changes to make teaching careers more attractive and sustainable but, in the meantime, some educators are finding personal ways to reignite their passion for teaching. Going into this school year, Maryland teacher Domonique Dickson shared her 3-point plan for “How I’m Putting the Joy Back in Teaching This Year,” while Georgia teacher Violet T. Adams explained that “Summer School Reminded Me Why I Love Teaching.”

Do these stories capture your own experience? We’d love to hear your own journey into or away from the teaching profession!

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