Deciding to leave any job can be hard, but for teachers, exiting the classroom can be downright heartbreaking.
Teaching is, in its essence, about relationships—understanding students’ needs, fostering their passions, figuring out what makes them tick. To give up that work, for many, would be a deep loss.
“It’s the students’ faces, it’s their excitement to learn,” said Akilah Williams, a 5th grade teacher in Georgia’s Clayton County school district, outside Atlanta. “The students are what keep me here.”
And yet about 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year, federal data have long shown. Younger teachers, and those early in their careers, are among the most likely to leave teaching. And while trends in turnover do vary regionally, special education teachers and science and math teachers tend to be at high risk for turnover.
All of that was true before the coronavirus pandemic began last year. How the fallout from COVID-19—the unparalleled physical, financial, and emotional stressors, and the upending of what work looks like—ultimately affects those statistics on a national scale won’t be clear for some time.
“This year has been very difficult for me,” said Williams, who recently participated in a filmed series for Roadtrip Nation in which classroom teachers interviewed inspiring educators who’ve persisted in this field. “I’m the teacher that when students get here, you can give me a high-five, hip bump, a handshake, or a hug. ... It stifled me so to know my students were just sitting at computers.”
(Education Week has a joint grant with Roadtrip Nation to pursue reporting on teacher retention.)
To understand more about why teachers consider leaving—or actually do make the jump—and the impact of the pandemic on their decisionmaking, the EdWeek Research Center surveyed about 700 teachers and 300 school leaders online in March 2021. The nationally representative results provide a backbone for this series of stories, which are meant both to illuminate the barriers to keeping great teachers and offer some solutions.
Here’s some of what the data tell us:
More teachers are thinking about leaving now than before the pandemic
When asked about the likelihood that they’ll leave teaching in the next two years, 54 percent of teachers said they are “somewhat” or “very likely” to do so. That’s compared to just 34 percent of teachers who said they would have answered that question with “somewhat” or “very likely” if they’d been asked in the fall of 2019 (before the pandemic began).
That’s not too surprising, given that 84 percent of teachers also said teaching is more stressful than it was before coronavirus closures.
It’s important to remember, though, that many teachers who say they’re considering leaving won’t actually do so. Many teachers simply can’t afford to lose their pay and benefits; some older teachers will decide they’re close enough to a pension to hang on.
“There are so many forces and so much stress and pressure on teachers, many of them do really want to leave,” said Tuan Nguyen, an assistant professor in the college of education at Kansas State University, who’s studied teacher attrition. But “intentions aren’t the same thing as behaviors.”
Teachers stay because they love their students
When asked which factors play the biggest role in keeping them in the teaching profession, teachers were most likely to point to “love for students.”
Caring for young people is, of course, what draws many to the profession, and more than 2 in 5 teachers said it’s a top reason they stay. Retirement benefits and love for subjects taught were the next two most frequently chosen answers.
As one Indiana middle school teacher surveyed wrote: “We are pulled in [so] many ways by outside forces. There are committee meetings, PLC meetings, teacher meetings, IEP meetings, grade level meetings, team meetings, subject area meetings, and the list goes on and on, plus every meeting requires more emails. Teaching students is wonderful. It is all the OTHER that is exhausting.”
Pay makes a big impact
The survey asked teachers what their school or district could do that would make a major difference in reducing the likelihood they would leave the K-12 teaching profession in the next two years. The most frequently chosen answer? Increase salaries.
School leaders agreed there, with nearly 7 in 10 saying pay raises would make a major difference in keeping teachers.
And yet some states had to scrap planned salary increases when the pandemic hit.
Those pay hikes could return as economies recover. And some states, like Utah and Georgia, are already giving teachers small hardship bonuses of $1,000 or more.
“In general, we do have evidence that teachers who receive higher salaries are more likely to stay in teaching than teachers with lower salaries,” said Nguyen of Kansas State. And while a couple thousand dollars won’t usually move the needle on retention, he said, this year things may look different.
“It’s not just about the money, but also the recognition that they’ve had to work so hard this year,” he said. “I think that makes a big difference.”
Teachers and administrators see things differently
Asking the two groups what keeps teachers in the profession reveals some disparate thinking. Nearly 1 in 3 teachers said retirement benefits are one of the biggest factors in getting them to stay, while just 6 percent of school leaders said the same about teachers. And 35 percent of school leaders said supportive administrators are one of the biggest factors in getting teachers to stay, but just 11 percent of teachers felt the same.
Administrators also seem to underemphasize the impact of reducing administrative burdens such as paperwork, meetings, and hall duty—27 percent of administrators said this is something schools could do to keep teachers, and 43 percent of teachers said the same.
There are countless other variables that affect whether teachers stay or go. Child-care and other family responsibilities can compel teachers, 80 percent of whom are women, to take time off or ultimately leave their careers.
For Black male teachers, who make up just 2 percent of the workforce, isolation and being pigeonholed as disciplinarians can lead them to consider opting out.
Schools and districts want to keep good teachers, and in this special report we’ll also explore some of the creative ways they’re trying to do just that. Some districts are giving teachers more flexibility in how and where they do their jobs, including offering continued options for virtual teaching and meetings. Others are looking to improve their mentorship programs for new teachers. And some schools are making teachers’ mental health a priority by creating support groups and reducing barriers to getting insurance-covered counseling services.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the report is that even while many teachers feel underappreciated and worn out, there are some concrete steps administrators can take to increase the odds they’ll stay—but it all starts with listening.
“I think sometimes administrators might think teachers are just being dramatic,” said Jennifer Atkins, a 7th grade English/language arts teacher in Victoria, Texas, who has been teaching remote and in-person students concurrently since last summer. “They need to take what we say and not assume we’re overexaggerating. It really is difficult this year.”
Coverage of teacher retention and recruitment is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, at carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 2021 edition of Education Week as Why Teachers Leave—or Don’t: A Look at the Numbers