Why Teachers Quit

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It wasn’t her teenage students who drove Meghan Sharp out of teaching—it was the crippling inflexibility of her administrators.

All the innovative curriculum ideas and field trips she proposed to engage her 10th grade biology students were promptly shot down, and she left the profession after just two years.

“I still enjoyed teaching, but it was a constant battle with the administration,” says Sharp, who worked in an urban district in northern New Jersey. “I had to do things like submit weekly lesson plans. There was a lot of bureaucracy.” She now goes by her maiden name and asked Teacher Magazine not to identify her old school because she works as an education policy analyst.

See Also
Read a related story in this issue, “Ask the Teacher”

According to a recent report on teacher attrition by the federal National Center for Education Statistics, her predicament—and her departure—are common in the profession. Among former teachers who took noneducation jobs, 64 percent said they have more professional autonomy now than when they taught. Only 11 percent said they’d had more influence over policies at school than in their current jobs.

The survey, based on interviews with more than 7,000 current and former teachers, also found widespread problems with workloads and general working conditions, and it notes that the percentage of teachers abandoning the classroom continues to grow. Among public school teachers, that proportion reached 8 percent in the 2004-05 school year—up from 6 percent in 1988-89.

—David Kidd

The problem, experts say, is that teaching has gotten harder.

“As states have increased their reform orientation and their standards and accountability, a good chunk of that falls on the shoulders of teachers,” says Margaret Plecki, an associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. Those changes, she notes, add up to increased pressure to perform.

In such a climate, teaching may not feel as rewarding, says Barry Farber, professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “My sense is that these numbers reflect the fact that many teachers are still struggling to feel consequential—to feel that their efforts are making a difference.”

The NCES study also showed that less-experienced teachers were particularly at risk of fleeing: 20 percent of public school teachers with no prior full-time teaching experience left during 2004-05—more than double the overall rate.


Proportion of former public school teachers who say they're better able to balance work and life now that they're working outside the education field.

Jim Ahrens, chief operating officer at Resources for Indispensable Schools and Educators, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps public schools hire and retain teachers in low-income communities, says new teachers need extra help. “[They] are still trying to adjust to the rigors of teaching. It’s a very demanding profession, and those teachers are often left unsupported,” he says.

But the University of Washington’s Plecki points out that young people in all fields generally change jobs early in their careers. As shown by the NCES study, she says, “The vast majority [of teachers] are still in the classroom [after five years].”

Vol. 18, Issue 06, Page 45

Published in Print: May 1, 2007, as Why Teachers Quit
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