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What Causes Teachers To Leave the Profession?

June 21, 2024

A full classroom with students and a teacher at the front of the room

Ask anyone in the education system, and you’ll hear the same story: Teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers.

From elementary school through middle school and on to high school, in wealthy and poor school districts, full-time, part-time, and substitute teachers are in short supply.

The low number of teachers available has an impact throughout the education system. Teacher attrition means higher turnover, higher costs for schools, and less stability for students. 

In this post, we’ll dig into why school teachers quit. Then we’ll look at how school districts can slow down teacher attrition and boost retention rates.

How Many Teachers Are Leaving the Profession?

In the years since the pandemic, teacher attrition has reached worryingly high rates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teacher numbers have reduced by 600,000 nationwide since 2020.

Nearly 79% of schools struggled to hire teachers for the 2023–2024 school year, and 70% of educators say that their school is understaffed. Meanwhile, new job vacancies are constantly opening up as the demands of public education, especially special education, grow—worsening the shortage even further.

What Does Teacher Attrition Mean for Schools?

Teachers are the most important school-based factor in student performance. Without enough trained teachers, students struggle to reach their potential. Shortages in the teaching profession can also reinforce social inequalities, since poorer school districts find it particularly difficult to hire the staff they need. 

The lack of teachers creates a vicious circle in school systems. Due to the teacher shortage, educators battle unmanageable workloads, unachievable expectations, stressful working conditions, and a lack of support and professional development. 

As a result, more teachers are leaving the profession, piling even more pressure on the teachers who remain. That pressure impacts student learning, increases financial costs, and damages school culture. 

Impact on Student Learning

Teacher attrition means teacher shortages and higher turnover. That has a destabilizing effect on students, as they constantly have to adjust to new faces and teaching styles.

The lack of continuity in their classes can have a measurable impact on test scores by the end of the school year. The negative impact is even higher on Black and Hispanic students, low-income students, and those with low academic performance. 

School Financial Costs

Hiring a new teacher can cost districts thousands of dollars—not including their salary. Multiply that by the number of vacancies at many U.S. schools, and it quickly swallows up the budget. 

Schools are trapped in a cycle of lacking money for salaries and resources. Then, when burnt-out and underpaid teachers leave, the school loses even more budget to the hiring process. 

School Culture and Stability

Teacher attrition means that school staff are constantly changing. In addition to destabilizing learning, that can also negatively affect school culture. There’s a loss of institutional knowledge, values, and coherent messages to students. 

In the last few years, instability in schools has been linked to falling test scores and increased emotional needs from students. 

Once again, there’s a negative feedback loop at play—schools with a positive climate are less likely to experience teacher attrition. But when teachers leave, and the school culture suffers, it gets even harder to retain staff and maintain stability. 

Main Reasons Teachers Decide To Leave the Profession

Research suggests numerous reasons for the record number of resignations. Different reports point to a long list of causes, including violent student behavior, burnout, low teacher salaries, stress, political tension, COVID-19, unrealistic expectations, and increasing workloads.

The three most frequently mentioned issues are stress, lack of support, and low compensation, so let’s take a closer look at those now. 

Workload and Stress

The average American teacher spends 966–1,010 hours per year in the classroom, which is more than almost every other country. And the extra duties keep piling on—meetings, managing IEPs, recording data, professional development, and even handling student mental health crises. 

Many former teachers say that their workload was unbearable. A high teaching load, plus planning and other responsibilities, means that work expands to fill every waking hour.

Over time, that stress leads to teacher burnout, illness, and ultimately, attrition. Other teachers have to take on the departing teachers’ workloads, leading them down the same path of overwork and exhaustion.

Lack of Support and Resources

Many teachers mention a lack of support as a reason for leaving the profession. Even wealthy districts are experiencing a general shortage of resources, support staff, and teaching materials.

Teachers often feel that school leaders and administrators don’t understand the problems they face. And research supports their feelings—principal management styles have a measurable effect on teacher well-being.

Without resources, support, and recognition, teachers experience reduced job satisfaction, increasing the risk that they’ll leave.

Compensation and Benefits

Part of the gulf between teachers and administrators comes from expectations around salary and benefits.

Compensation is the top reason why teachers quit, and it’s undeniable that teachers earn less than other graduate professions across the board. Almost a third of teachers say that retirement benefits are a factor in whether they stay at a school—but only 6% of school leaders think that benefits are important. 

After the LEARNS Act raised teacher compensation in Arkansas, researchers found tentative signs of improvement in teacher retention, especially in areas that had severe teacher shortages. Bringing teacher salaries into line with other professions, and offering retirement benefits to match, could help solve the teacher shortage.

How Schools Can Prevent Teachers From Wanting To Leave

The teacher shortage has been a growing problem for years. But that doesn’t mean it has to last forever.

There are teacher shortage solutions that school administrators and leaders can begin implementing right away. Here are three strategies to help educators feel supported, valued, and in control.

Improve Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is a major concern for many teachers, especially since they’re tied to school schedules that don’t match the rest of the working world. 

School administrators can help by:

  • Offering flexible scheduling wherever possible
  • Setting clear priorities so that teachers can triage tasks
  • Using workload management tools to coordinate tasks and save time 
  • Respecting teachers’ downtime so they can rest properly

Enhance Support and Teacher Resources

Many teachers struggle with a lack of teaching resources, materials, support staff, and organizational tools. While some of those issues are budget-dependent, there are still steps you can take to enhance support for teachers, including:

  • Offering tools and training for workload management
  • Using digital libraries of teaching resources and lesson-planning ideas
  • Setting up professional mentoring programs to support less experienced teachers
  • Giving teachers a way to recognize and flag burnout and get help early on

Offer Professional Development Opportunities

Most teachers who leave the profession say it’s for salary reasons. But, once they’ve transitioned into new jobs, they’re more likely to talk about the increase in autonomy and pride in their work.

That points to another way to improve teacher retention. School leaders can:

  • Promote professional development programs and initiatives
  • Offer them extra feedback and encouragement through instructor evaluations
  • Encourage teachers to help each other through peer support and mentoring
  • Be open to teachers’ suggestions for new initiatives in their schools

Strengthen Your Teacher Retention Rates With Elevate K-12

Teachers are leaving the profession at increasingly high rates, primarily due to low pay, a lack of support, and worsening student behavior. Schools are paying the price through costly recruitment, staff shortages, destabilized school cultures, and poor learning outcomes.

But the problem is solvable. School leaders can make a difference by offering teachers more support, a better work-life balance, and professional development. In the long term, they can aim to offer more competitive salaries and retirement benefits. 

Elevate K-12 supports schools and teachers by offering high-quality LIVE teaching. Our certified teachers can address recruitment gaps, support students with specialized needs, and even offer a wider range of courses.

Find out how you can improve student outcomes and reduce the pressure on teachers with Elevate K-12.

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