How would you feel if there were no teachers at your child’s school with more than five year’s experience? How would you feel if you were a new teacher at school and there were hardly any teachers who had worked there for more than few years? These are the reality at many schools, especially in poor areas.
Is it really that bad?
Yes. Between 40 and 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom within their first five years.1 This problem is worse in lower-income schools: 45 percent of all public school teacher turnover took place in just one quarter of the population of public schools: high-poverty, high-minority, urban, and rural schools.2 Teacher turnover is truly a pandemic, albeit not one that gets much attention.
How much does it hurt us?
A huge amount. School systems in the United States spent $4.9 billion on teacher turnover in 2005 and we can safely assume the cost is significantly more today.3 Urban districts can, on average, spend more than $20,000 on each new hire.4 The cost of substitute teachers is around $4 billion annually.5 And, most importantly, there is the cost to student learning. Teacher turnover rates in schools negatively impact student achievement for all the students in a school, not just those in a new teacher’s classroom.6
Why does it happen?
Stress. Teachers experience extremely high levels of stress. 46% of teachers report high daily stress during the school year. That’s tied with nurses for the highest rate among all occupational groups.7 Another survey of teachers showed 58 percent reported they have poor mental health, double the national average in all jobs. The vast majority of teachers say demands of the job interfere with family life are and that they are physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day.8
Why so much stress?
An unrealistic workload: teachers simply have too much to do. “Prior to taking on any extracurricular activities, teachers work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes a day, three hours and 20 minutes beyond the average required work day in public schools nationwide. Those teachers who take on extracurricular clubs or athletics (43% of teachers) add another 90 minutes on average to their work day. As one Kentucky teacher put it, “Our work is never done. We take grading home, stay late, answer phone calls constantly, and lay awake at night thinking about how to change things to meet our students’ needs.’”9
Teachers in the US spend more time in class with students and less time planning, grading, etc. than teachers in most other highly-developed countries.10 Teachers who do an excellent job are often working in unsustainable conditions (e.g., 60 hours per week, relentless stress, inadequate resources, lack of support or time, etc.). At "no excuses" schools where idealistic, energetic teachers work overtime to help struggling students, teachers typically leave after only a few years on the job. In challenging schools, teachers' job requirements and the intensity required to meet them are not realistic to sustain for more than two to three years.11
What should we do about it?
“To improve the quality of teaching,” says one leading researcher, “You need to improve the quality of the teaching job.”12 Amen! We have been trying to reform public education for decades with limited success because we have been ignoring the root cause: teacher turnover. How can we expect teachers to become good at their craft when so many only stay in the job for a few years? How can we expect teachers to stay in the job for more than a few years when the job itself is so stressful and demanding of time. Here are a few things we could to make the job more sustainable:
5Substitute Teachers are a Large Presence in American Schools