The Public School Teacher Attrition Crisis

The Public School Teacher Attrition Crisis

Elizabeth Emery
Elizabeth Emery
10 min read

In spring of 2019, I finished a semester of student teaching, completed my Master of Arts in Teaching, and accepted a full-time job offer to teach high school English at a public school just outside of Salt Lake City. A couple of weeks ago, after teaching only one full semester, I quit.

Although I loved teaching English and engaging with students, the current working conditions at my school—and in schools across America—are so poor that teachers are leaving in alarming numbers, causing a vast teacher shortage that has escalated to a crisis in many states. Considering that enrollment in teacher training programs is drying up and the teacher shortage is only set to increase, it is important to understand why teachers are leaving the profession. I can only speak for myself, but recent research and an internet full of anecdotal evidence support the idea that I am not alone.

It goes without saying that we need talented, passionate teachers who can impact students positively, especially because teacher turnover harms student achievement and is expensive for schools to resolve. But nationwide, issues like administrative lack of support and incompetence, overwhelming class size, burdensome paperwork, and disciplinary issues overshadow the joys of teaching and make public schools intolerable places to build a career. Teachers, especially those in their first years, have to ask themselves: “Do I really want to commit the next 30 years to working in this kind of environment?” Increasingly, the answer is no.

A study done by Utah Leading through Effective, Actionable, and Dynamic Education (ULEAD) reports that nearly four in 10 teachers leave the profession in the first five years, and research by the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the numbers are similar nationwide. Annually, the Learning Policy Institute cites a nationwide annual attrition rate of eight percent. The effects of this shortage are even worse in urban schools that serve poor and minority students, which experience even higher turnover rates and have up to four times the number of uncertified teachers that well-funded schools do.

Task forces trying to stem the hemorrhage of teachers leaving the profession tend to focus mostly on pay raises, while ignoring what teachers are actually saying about why they’re leaving. A promised pay raise sounds good, but it is a dishonest and ineffective way of solving the problem because the reasons for the teacher exodus are actually well-studied and understood. This isn’t to say that pay doesn’t matter. But teachers know going into the profession how much they’ll be paid, and they decide to become teachers anyway. Indeed, polls support the idea that while a low salary might keep people out of the teacher profession, it factors minimally into the reasons that current teachers leave. So why do they leave?

Lack of administrative support is perhaps the most crucial issue that contributes to a poor working environment, particularly when it comes to the importance of principal effectiveness. In my own school, our principal seemed to be driven primarily by statistics. Rather than focusing on academic rigor, respectful student behavior, and supporting teachers, he seemed to be focused on an inscrutable combination of bad policy and wishful thinking. Warnings to teachers about suboptimal graduation rates and poor percentages of students with Fs were presented along with a desire to model our school atmosphere on a book he read about Disneyland—that is, making school about the user experience. What, he asked, could we teachers be doing to motivate students better so they didn’t get Fs? What could we do to make every day magical? We were even encouraged to go back retroactively and “make deals” with students to turn in work from past quarters, negotiating the earned “F” to a more mild “Incomplete.” When students failed, the principal blamed the teachers.

The vice principals at our school were just as problematic. More concerned with placating upset students and parents than backing up teachers, they would accept absurd excuses and tolerate unacceptable behavior. In my first quarter of teaching, I had a student who publicly posted a picture on her Snapchat account (a social media platform where people can post pictures that disappear after a set time limit) in which she offered to pay someone to do a project in my class. When other students who had worked hard on the project showed me this Snapchat post, I felt the most appropriate consequence was for her to fail the assignment. When I confronted her about the cheating and failing grade, this student threw her homework at me, called her mother to come “yell at me,” and then got back on Snapchat and threatened that whoever snitched was going to “catch the smoke”—a euphemism for retaliatory violence, particularly shooting.

There are always students who behave disruptively, and this student was appropriately expelled by the district for making the threat. The situation was deeply unpleasant, but by itself it wasn’t intolerable. What made things so difficult was the administration’s attitude: “But do you have proof of the post?” asked one vice principal, despite the student admitting to it. “If not, you’re going to be the bad guy here.” Later, after meeting with the mother of this child, the same vice principal said, “The mother told me to tell you to stop using other students’ phones to get her daughter in trouble—just for what it’s worth.” Upon the student’s expulsion and transfer, this vice principal came to me and asked if I would give this student a passing grade to take to her new school. “If all this hadn’t happened, would she have passed?” he wanted to know. I almost quit right then.

That situation got worse. This student had a reputation for hanging out with a group of kids who beat other kids up. When several students independently warned me that the offending student’s mother was “scary,” and if she showed up to “leave and get help right away,” I expressed concern for my safety and asked administration to have someone walk me to my car after school for a few days. This request was met with a scoff and dismissed as unnecessary. The entire experience made it painfully clear that, given the choice between supporting teachers or supporting parents and students—no matter how badly they behaved—the administration would not side with teachers.

This wasn’t my only bad experience with administration, it was just the worst. I was encouraged by one vice principal to bring in writing from another class to give credit to a failing student who hadn’t turned anything in. A different vice principal expressed concern that, by discussing LGBT topics in class, a parent might complain that I, the teacher, “turned their child gay,” and so I should know my audience and behave more circumspectly. I realize that this is anecdotal, but if you ask any teacher about administrative issues, they will provide an arsenal of stories in which they were actively undermined by administration—forced to change grades, forced to switch failing students to new classes so they could avoid doing difficult work, asked to rework their curriculum because the academic rigor was simply too much for students to pass… It goes on and on.

Naturally, you might wonder, if administrators are such a problem, why not just fire the bad ones? That would seem sensible, but reality tells a different story. Criticism of public schools often focuses on the difficulty of firing bad public employees, including administrators, and rightly so. In 2013, the New York Post reported that just two out of 14 principals in New York City reported for misconduct over the course of three years had been fired. A good friend of mine who also teaches was regularly harassed by her principal, who had an unfortunate tendency to rub teachers on their lower back or ask if they enjoyed anal sex. After years of complaints of sexual harassment, this principal was removed—only to be placed in another school. This is not uncommon. Ineffective principals are often reprimanded and then shuffled around to another school or promoted in a real-life manifestation of the Dilbert Principle. Why? Because there aren’t enough qualified people to step in. So bad administrators stay in place and teachers and students suffer the consequences.

Enormous class sizes are another challenge teachers face. In my school, classes typically held 37 – 40 students. Some elective classes were smaller, but only a few. While the state officially lists its average secondary class size as 29, in most schools class sizes are far higher, sometimes reaching nearly 50. Teaching and grading homework for classes of this size borders on the impossible, to say nothing of daily classroom management. If only one in 10 kids are disruptive and wild, it’s sufficient enough to derail the entire class, and teachers certainly cannot take the time to give quality feedback on each of 250 student assignments if they hope to sleep or see their families.

Frustratingly, the good teachers who manage despite all this are rarely recognized or rewarded. In my case, within only one semester of teaching, I achieved the “Highly Effective” level of teaching that is expected after three years of experience. My students consistently told me they loved my classes and “actually learned.” The quality of their work reflected this. But a great yearly review and positive student interactions don’t yield a raise. Instead, a raise is granted each year, to each teacher, regardless of competence.

The ironic truth is that good teachers end up working even harder with little in the way of recognition or compensation. The consequence of having a reputation for being a good teacher is that the students of disliked, unmotivated teachers transferred into my classes and the classes of other teachers who were competent and friendly, yielding even higher class sizes and more time spent grading. Good teachers are also asked to pick up more leadership, committee, and advisory activities, many of which are not compensated. It’s hard to understand why anyone would spend hours outside the classroom scouring materials and preparing rigorous, engaging lessons, when teachers who turn off the lights every class and flash PowerPoints while they shop on Amazon are compensated exactly the same.

This is because somehow, in an age of burdensome standards and regulations, there is not sufficient monitoring to ensure that teachers who don’t actually teach are reprimanded and removed. Insofar as data is collected, it serves primarily as a preventative measure against litigious parents, rather than as a standard for measuring teacher efficacy. Standards that purportedly measure a teacher’s effectiveness are specious and easily worked around by pushing paperwork at exhausted administrators who are all too happy to check off a box and call it a day.

Unfortunately, paper pushing and working around endless policies and meetings are just more problems driving teachers out of the profession. Rather than giving teachers as much contract time as possible to prepare their lessons and materials, hours upon hours are wasted sitting through endless meetings with material that could be covered in one well-written email. Any open time is seized as an opportunity for professional development, and school districts spend tens of thousands of dollars bringing in the latest and greatest presenters of educational trends that will be quickly dispensed with as soon as the next fad emerges. The sheer amount of paperwork, especially for special education teachers, is truly mind-boggling, and is almost entirely collected in an effort to prevent parents from suing the school. During my time teaching, I had to pass out anonymous quizzes gauging student interest in sports because our district was getting sued for not funding a girls’ tackle football team.

Angry parents, who are increasingly entitled by administrators who refuse to set limits, can also make life miserable for teachers. And their children, who are also increasingly entitled and poorly behaved, are empowered by district and school policies hesitant to discipline students for fear of appearing racist or ableist and getting sued. A recent article in Quillette detailed the tendency of schools to coddle the worst-behaving students, rather than support the learning of the students who are engaged and well behaved. California has implemented a ban on suspending students for “willful defiance,” and other states are set to follow suit. In large part, these bans are coming into effect because a disproportionate number of students who are suspended are black or Hispanic, which is used as incontrovertible proof of racism on the part of teachers. But when the suspensions are compared to the demographics of student misbehavior, racism as an explanation for who gets suspended and for how long is very small. California bureaucrats might not like it, but by their own admission, black and Hispanic students tend to misbehave more often, both inside and outside of the classroom. Ignoring their behavior in favor of a politically correct disciplinary agenda removes teachers’ and administrators’ ability to deal with disruptive students effectively.

Teachers, therefore, are stuck when it comes to student discipline. Do you let a rowdy student disrupt the learning process, or get chastised by administration and possibly have to confront angry parents? I only kicked students out of class twice: One for suffocating my classroom with the reek of marijuana, and another for refusal to follow rules and confrontational insubordination. On both occasions, I was admonished. I had one administrator tell me that when I kick a kid out of class, I “lose all my power” as a teacher. How do they believe this, rather than the opposite? How has this reached such a point? When did we decide that the soft bigotry of low expectations was the appropriate alternative to boundaries, discipline, and academic achievement?

And, more importantly, how could these problems exist and still possibly foster an environment of excellent behavior and academic learning? Why would a bright, capable young professional build a career in a setting such as this? Unfortunately, more and more teachers are facing the sad reality of the problems of the public school system and choosing alternative career paths. Veteran teachers at my school who truly loved teaching talked about how much things had changed, how bad things had gotten, and how they wished they could leave. I loved teaching, too, and I was good at it. But I’m not the type to martyr my sanity for the good of everyone else. So I left.

All this paints a fairly stark picture of the public schooling system. Throwing more money at the problem and crushing alternatives to public school, as some Democrats suggest, is not going to make things better. Neither is being as stingy as possible on education or letting charter schools run amok, as many Republicans would do if they had their way. Regardless of the quality of charter and private schools, we will always need a public alternative.

The solution doesn’t have to be so complicated. The basics of great education have been around for thousands of years; it simply doesn’t take tremendous amounts of money to teach well. In an English classroom, we rarely need more than a pen and paper and a book or an essay to get the job done. Small class sizes, high expectations for student academic performance and behavior, and diligent, invested, highly respected educators backed up by an administration who supports teachers over parents and students would fix so many of these problems. But until it starts getting better, fewer and fewer ambitious and competent youngsters will see teaching as an attractive profession. And so the teacher shortage problem is going to continue to get worse.

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Elizabeth Emery

Elizabeth Emery has a Master of Arts in Teaching and currently lives in Chicago, IL. She has been published in Cracked, the Utah Statesman, and has an article forthcoming in Heterodox Academy.