Should I Stay or Should I Go? How Do We Retain Our Teachers?

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“Should I stay or should I go?
If I go, there will be trouble,
And if I stay it will be double.
So come on and let me know.”

– The Clash

For as long as I have worked in education, I’ve heard the grim statistic that half of U.S. teachers leave the profession after 5 years [1]. Although some data suggest it may be closer to 17% [2], that would still amount to losing 1 in 5 teachers annually. The Clash lyric (above) really captures what many teachers may be thinking to themselves right now as they size up what lies ahead.

I can’t think of another moment when teachers have experienced as much vocational, political, and personal strife as they have over the past 14 months. The global COVID-19 pandemic has only made the problem worse, as about one-quarter of teachers recently polled reported they were likely to leave the profession at the end of this academic year. [3]

MANY studies have examined the topic of teacher attrition by putting a spotlight on variables like salary (teachers are paid 30% less than other college graduates), lack of administrative support, shortage of mentors, job dissatisfaction, workload, lack of opportunities for advancement…the list goes on.

Equally distressing are the consequences of teacher attrition, which costs the U.S. $2.2 billion annually. [4] Not to mention the downstream effects on student achievement, especially in lower-income schools and neighborhoods.

All of this made me wonder, what keeps teachers coming back and what needs to happen to retain our educational workforce?

Though the COVID-19 pandemic may be the final straw for teachers edging closer to abandoning ship, this would be a very costly time to lose educators. After all, the pandemic has transformed leaks in our educational system into a flood, submerging schools, teachers, parents, and most of all our students in a sea of worries about what the next school year may look like.

While there is no magic solution to teacher attrition (at least none has emerged). It seems like this is as good a time as any to consider all options. Here are a few ideas that struck me as worth exploring or scaling up.

  1. Consider a variety of incentives and benefits. Why not assist teachers to purchase homes nearby their schools, like universities offer their staff? Providing housing has kept teachers in one of the most inhospitable places on the globe – Arctic Alaska.[5] Or, what about providing free airline tickets for teachers to use to go anywhere in the U.S. for personal or professional development? Instead of paying lip service to self-care, why not provide educators with access to yoga, gym memberships, or monthly massages? Whatever keeps the boat afloat.
  2. Do teachers believe they are doing a good job? If teachers don’t believe they are having positive effects on their students, why should they stick around? Teaching is a team sport, and educators need time with each other to bring out their best work. Just ask anyone that’s recently returned to a school building. It’s also worth mentioning that literally thousands of studies have shown collective teacher efficacy (a group’s shared belief in its capacity to impact lasting change) is three times more predictive of student achievement than the socioeconomic status of students and parent involvement [6]. It makes sense! There’s power and assurance in knowing you are working on a supportive and effective team.
  3. View teacher retention as a systems issue. It’s important to understand that teacher retention is a symptom of larger issues affecting schools and districts. Just like a spider web, a school is an interrelated and dynamic organization. That’s why one-size-fits-all solutions (e.g., pay raises, smaller class size) may help, but may not address all the underlying issues pushing teachers out. For example, a recent survey showed 96% of principals thought their teachers were involved in making important decisions compared to only 58% of their teachers [7].  One way to address teacher attrition is to ask educators for their input and feedback on what’s working or not in their schools. Be sure to ask teachers about the climate of their schools – it turns out perceptions of school climate is a big factor determining whether a teacher stays or goes [8]. In Oregon, the TELL survey is an example of a teacher survey used for this purpose.
  4. Rebrand the profession. During the last 12 months, I watched as bars, restaurants, and beauty salons all re-opened for business months, ahead of our schools. It was a clear example of where our educational priorities lay as I tried to explain to my children why their cousins in Ireland and England were heading out the door to school. In China and Malaysia, teachers are viewed the same as doctors. Even if teachers are not yet compensated like doctors, after last year, it’s hard to argue against the idea that educators serve an essential and potentially life-saving function. Hairstyling, maybe not so much.
  5. Teacher training should not be a “one and done.” Training and supports for educators need to be accessible, effective, and ongoing. For example, many teachers today only get a semester in educator preparation programs on how to manage student behaviors. Yet, research has shown teachers need 3 to 7 years of ongoing training and mentorship to become highly skilled in their jobs. Providing more teachers with sustained training and mentoring programs could make a huge difference. I could help them feel supported and equipped to be effective in their roles. Here’s one example of a program focused on building teacher capacity that has had impressive impacts on student achievement.

Back to The Clash. “So come and let me know” is a thought many teachers may be wondering right about now.

The verdict is still out on what lies ahead for our teaching workforce in 2021 and beyond, but it’s a safe bet that returning to the status quo is not going to turn this ship around. Our children are counting on us to ensure that the next year is better than our last. As schools re-emerge from the pandemic, we need to focus on implementing approaches that research and practice have shown can support and retain our teachers – or else our “trouble may be double.”

[1] Ingersoll, R. M., & Smith, T. M. (2003). The wrong solution to the teacher shortage. Educational leadership60(8), 30-33.

[2] Gray, L., & Taie, S. (2015). Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results from the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007-08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study. First Look. NCES 2015-337. National center for education statistics.

[3] Kaufman, Julia H., Melissa Kay Diliberti, Gerald P. Hunter, David Grant, Laura S. Hamilton, Heather L. Schwartz, Claude Messan Setodji, Joshua Snoke, and Christopher J. Young, COVID-19 and the State of K-12 Schools: Results and Technical Documentation from the Fall 2020 American Educator Panels COVID-19 Surveys. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License, 2020.

[4] Haynes, M. (2014). On the path to equity: Improving the effectiveness of beginning teachers. Alliance for Excellent Education.

[5] Kaden, U., Patterson, P. P., Healy, J., & Adams, B. L. (2016). Stemming the revolving door: Teacher retention and attrition in arctic Alaska schools. Global Education Review3(1).

[6] Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy, grades K-12: Implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning. Corwin Press.

[7] Johnston, W. R., Akinniranye, G., & Doss, C. J. (2020). How Much Influence Do Teachers Have in Their Schools? It Depends on Whom You Ask. Data Note: Insights from the American Educator Panels. Research Report. RR-2575-1-BMGF. RAND Corporation.

[8] Kraft, M. A., Marinell, W. H., & Shen-Wei Yee, D. (2016). School organizational contexts, teacher turnover, and student achievement: Evidence from panel data. American Educational Research Journal53(5), 1411-1449.

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