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Why good teachers leave teaching

Many young teachers, even the good ones, are leaving the profession. Struggle image from

As another school year comes to a close, there are some early career teachers quietly packing up their desks and walking out the school doors with no plan to return next year.

Some estimate the attrition rates in teaching to be as high as 30% in the first three years. The truth is, we don’t know the exact numbers. With so many teachers employed casually upon graduation, there is no data on how many of them just give up on the profession. They simply disappear - and there is no exit interview to find out what has prompted them to leave.

Good teachers leave

We might suppose that the teachers who decide to leave are the ones who just couldn’t cut it in the classroom, and that this is natural, and possibly desirable, attrition. However, research suggests that this is not necessarily the case.

Too often those who leave are those who have high expectations of themselves and of their learners. They came into teaching with a strong desire to make a difference in students’ lives. They are usually high achievers who have done well academically. They are just the kind of teacher we all want for our children.

So, why do they leave? Particularly when they have committed so much time and money to become teachers.

Don’t let me forget

In a recent study, I followed 14 teachers closely through their first 16 months of teaching.

About three months into the study, one of the teachers made a plea:

Don’t let me forget the teacher I wanted to be.

She was, and is, an amazing young teacher. Like most new graduates, she had entered her first “very own” classroom filled with enthusiasm, energy and motivation. She had terrific ideas, and strong ideals.

The first term at school knocked the wind out of her sails.

Some of it was simply the shock of the new, the overwhelming sense of responsibility and the sheer exhaustion. But so much of it was the realisation that nobody really cared about the teacher she wanted to be, her ideas, and her innovations.

She could feel her vision slipping away. She said:

I want to be the teacher that I know I can be. I don’t want to just go with the system and then…be scared I’ll never do anything else.

Her story is shared by many new graduates. Too often new teachers are treated as “empty vessels” who are simply required to slot into existing programmes and methods. This would be fine, if all we want is to keep doing what we have always done in education.

However, all the indicators tell us that what we’ve always done isn’t good enough anymore.

This is no time to be treading water. Education needs to be transformed.

Preparation and support

Teacher education programs can do better. There is no debate - the best teacher preparation makes clear connections between the theory and the practice of teaching. Almost every teacher education faculty in the country either already has, or is now in the process of implementing, innovative school university partnerships where theory can be played out, and played with, in the real world of the classroom.

But better teacher preparation won’t be the answer to high attrition rates.

Employers will have to play their part too. Their task is not simply to induct new teachers into the “system” - they must mentor these bright and enthusiastic teachers to be the teachers they have always wanted to be.

Providing this kind of support can be a challenge for school leaders who are so busy implementing the latest barrage of mandates. They often forget the educator they themselves wanted to be, let alone find the time to ask the question of their early career teachers.

Yet, schools should make the most of the passion, vision and skills of these new professionals. They have, after all, just finished a degree where they have had the time and guidance to explore the ideas of great educators, thinkers and innovators. It has been a time of intense professional engagement and learning that is very hard to recreate once full-time classroom teaching begins.

Asking the right questions

Everybody understands that quality education depends upon quality teachers. Quality teaching is, justifiably, one of the four pillars of Education Minister Chris Pyne’s vision for education.

But quality teachers are leaving, and we need to be clear about why. If we misunderstand the reasons, then we offer misguided solutions. It’s not about the money, although undoubtedly teachers deserve every penny they get, and every pay rise they can achieve in the future.

New teachers are very often disillusioned with what they find when they get into schools, and disappointed with the support they receive. Too often, good teachers leave because they care too much to stay.

So parents, don’t be nervous next year when you hear your child has a newly qualified teacher. Their enthusiasm and fresh ideas will create an exciting learning environment for your children. And at that very first parent teacher night, forget the questions about homework books and spelling lists. Ask them to tell you about the kind of teacher they want to be.

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