Public-school teaching is a notoriously high turnover field. The stresses of working with more than 100 students each day, stagnant salaries, and long hours have led to teacher attrition rates rising 50% in the last 15 years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Almost half of all teachers leave the profession within five years of graduating from education programs.
Just like in other fields, replacing teachers is costly. Not only do schools lose money, but the lack of continuity can result in poor results for students. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development found that high teacher turnover is associated with a number of negative outcomes from higher class sizes to lack of professional development.
A recent study published in Education Week explored what factors are associated with teachers who stay versus those who leave. The study particularly looked at onboarding programs for new teachers, or what they call “induction” in the educational field.
“A Lack of Respect”
One of the study’s investigators, Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic that when he quit teaching high school, it came down to intangible factors:
“But it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.”
Teachers are often told what to do, then given minimal support to do it. Teaching is mostly done in isolation from colleagues and supervisors. Teachers often serve apprenticeship as a student-teacher during their last semester of college, then are expected to carry a full-time teaching load. Often new teachers receive the most difficult assignments, as senior teachers have more say over which classes they take.
The study also described the experience of most first-year teachers:
“This isolation can be especially difficult for newcomers, who, upon accepting a position in a school, are frequently left to succeed or fail on their own within the confines of their classrooms — often likened to a ‘lost at sea’ or ‘sink or swim’ experience.”
The Impact of Induction Programs
The study found that induction programs make a significant difference in teacher turnover. Those schools with longer, more in-depth programs tend to retain teachers at a higher rate. Schools have already been working on this. For example, the number of teachers in mentorship programs in 1991 was 61,000. In 2008, the number had trebled to 179,000.
However, the study discovered that just mentorship alone wasn’t enough. In addition to mentorship and regular conversations with administrators, teachers who received a more comprehensive package led to greater success. This could include participation in a seminar for beginning teachers, common planning time with other teachers in the same subject, a reduced course load, and assistance from a classroom aide. However, only 5% of teachers received such a package as of 2008, according to the study.
In the long-term, public schools need to make staying in teaching more attractive if they want to reverse attrition rates. But no matter what field you’re in, supporting employees and providing comprehensive onboarding is a difference maker. Businesses that ignore this fact risk costly high turnover rates.
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