Why Teachers Are Quitting: 7 Brutally Honest Truths From a Teacher Whose Struggle Is Real
March 10, 2021
Turnover is especially high among new teachers, with over 40 to 50 percent throwing in the towel after just five years on the job.
Majoring in education as a college student seemed like the perfect fit for me. After initially struggling to choose a major, all the stars seemed to align at the end of my freshman year. I knew I wanted to become a teacher.
When I graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 2012, it was hard to find—let alone, land—a teaching job. Many of my teacher friends had to substitute teach for a while or move south in order to find jobs. The job market for teachers was saturated and there were hundreds of applicants for jobs within small school districts—all of which made me feel as though my hard work paid off when I was one of the few to secure a permanent teaching job after college.
Fast forward to today and you'll see schools scrambling to find teachers. In my district, teachers have to cover classes outside of their own almost every day due to the lack of substitutes. When I took maternity leave during the 2018-2019 school year, my district had to emergency certify someone to fill my role. The applicants just hadn't been there.
Why is there a shortage of teachers?
I’ve seen many teachers leave the field for other jobs and very few of my high school students go on to major in education. When I talk to people about why they stopped teaching, burnout is always a culprit.
According to a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, roughly half a million U.S. teachers either move or leave the profession each year. Turnover in the field is especially high among new teachers, with over 40 to 50 percent of teachers throwing in the towel after five years. It's not surprising, given that teachers often are expected to work 55 to 60 hours weekly in a role that can be draining on emotional, mental, and even physical levels.
Does it matter whether you have a master's in teaching?
I was fortunate to find myself in a great position after college, but I sometimes wonder if I should have majored in something different. While a bachelor's degree in education guarantees that students will learn how to teach others, it doesn’t really qualify them to do much else outside of the educational system. I’ve seen many people with undergraduate degrees in education become stuck substitute teaching for years.
Many others have returned to school for their master's degree, which can significantly increase a teaching salary and lead the way to additional opportunities in and outside of the classroom.
If you get a degree in a related field and want to become a teacher, you'll need to complete your student teaching field experience and earn certification. As long as you've met the requirements for your state, doors will open for much more than teaching alone with a bachelor's in sociology, computer science, biology, or any other non-education degree in your pocket.
Reasons teachers are quitting
If you're serious about an education degree, make time to consider a few of the common reasons that move many teachers to quit. This way, you'll know what to expect once out in the field—and maybe have a few survival tips of your own prepared.
The work days are about 30 percent too long
A report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that teachers work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes a day, which is three hours and 20 minutes more than the average required by U.S. public schools.
My schedule typically involves getting to work around 7 a.m., working straight through lunch, leaving around 4 p.m., and then—once I'm home—spending at least an hour planning lessons and an additional 2-3 hours grading assignments and prepping for the week ahead. Did I mention the time my husband puts in? He usually spends at least 2 hours a week helping me grade papers. I drag him into my classroom almost every Sunday to help make copies, clean and organize my classroom, and take care of any miscellaneous tasks that I didn’t get to throughout the previous week.
It’s rare that I get a full day off during the school year and in this regard, I know that I’m not alone. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been at school after-hours and I was the only teacher there. Most importantly, teachers are not provided compensation for work done before or after school, let alone on weekends.
Try buying groceries on a teacher's starting salary
According to the National Education Associate, teachers earn an average starting salary of $39,000 per year, which works out to about $20-$30 an hour. After factoring in monthly expenses like rent, groceries, student loan payments, and other basic expectations, it’s doesn’t exactly make for comfortable earnings.
The emotional toll reaches mind-boggling new depths each year
Whether I'm acting as a stand-in counselor, offering a shoulder to lean on, or watching a student try unsuccessfully to fit in, I often end of the school day fighting mental and emotional exhaustion.
For many teachers, this mentality is hard to turn off and makes being present for their loved ones at home difficult. My students are on my mind at all hours—and when they struggle academically, socially, or emotionally, I do too. A 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers reports that 58 percent of educators said their mental health was “not good" for seven or more of the previous 30 days. The findings also show that 61 percent of educators feel their work is "always" or "often" stressful.
No amount of training can prepare you to manage a classroom
I'm fortunate to work in a great school district that doesn't have many major classroom management problems, but across the profession, this is a huge reason why teachers throw in the towel. But, even with relatively few discipline issues, trying to teach some students while others do their best to derail your lesson can pull your mind in 10 different directions at once.
Teacher training provides some classroom management preparation, but many teachers learn their practice through trial and error—errors, of course, being most draining. Not being able to set academic expectations and maintain classroom behavior takes a toll on any teacher's confidence. It's exhausting and can feel insulting, especially for new teachers.
Standardized tests will kill your soul
With state mandates, regulations, and standardized testing, it’s hard for teachers to just teach what they think is best for their students. Some teachers spend six-plus years learning lesson planning and curriculum design, only to teach out of a workbook in order to get students ready for a test. This can make teachers feel like their education, experience, and knowledge isn’t theirs to use.
What's worse, high-stakes tests often detract from the curriculum, even though it's the curriculum—not the tests—that engages students in their learning and helps them discover their unique interests and skills. Due to national requirements, standardized testing has nudged aside learning opportunities in areas like music, fine art, foreign languages, and social sciences in favor of the big test subjects: English and math.
It's an administrative crime scene of red tape
The education field is notorious for mandates, training, programs, and requirements that change every few years. A lot of teachers don’t take training and professional development seriously because they know that they’ll just be asked to learn or take on a new approach with every recertification cycle. These programs can make teachers feel like they aren’t valued or trusted to actually teach. Even National Board Certified (NBC) teachers who hold a credential beyond state licensure must renew their certification every ten years.
More and more, when a child doesn’t do well in school, the teacher is the first person to be blamed. Students who dislike teachers or their teaching methods, or who simply take issue with their authority will not see the value of a teacher's time. Statewide budget cuts make teachers feel as though their work isn’t valued and force them to make do with inadequate preparation and supplies.
Because teaching is such a public profession, it’s easy for people to find fault in teachers. And when they do, it’s hard to want to continue. In a recent PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 62 percent of public school teachers reported feeling undervalued by their community. Teaching is a thankless job, of course, but it's another level of debilitating to be told your hard work isn’t appreciated.
But, being a teacher is still worth it (at least for me)
I’ve made a very strong case against becoming a teacher, yet here I am—a teacher. For those who remain in the profession, the good far outweighs the bad, and for those who leave, there are plenty of other opportunities that can better suit their personality and interests.
A degree in education can be worth it if you’re certain you want to devote your life to educating students. Every job comes with pros and cons, which are always things you should consider before choosing a profession. If you’re on the fence, though, it would be wise to consider other majors and to take time to add a teaching certification to your degree. This way, you can still try out teaching, but if you become one of the many teachers who opt to leave the profession, you'll have something to fall back on.
As thankless as teaching often is, it’s collaborative and constantly changing, and it certainly isn’t boring. As you get thinking about your plans for a possible career in education, try to keep these factors in mind—and be sure to thank the next teacher you see.
Alicia Betz is a writer and high school English teacher. She earned her bachelor’s in education from Pennsylvania State University and her master’s in education—as well as a certificate in online teaching and learning—from Michigan State University.
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