Why do teachers leave?

When I meet with folks in Chinese private schools, they often ask me “Do you know American teachers you can send us?”

Me: How long do your expat teachers stay right now?

Often: Two years.

Me: What would get them to stay for, say, 4 years?

Often: Higher salary.  But we can’t afford that.

Me: What about improving the whole school?

Often: I work in recruiting, so I can’t do that.


What does research say about teacher departure?

Often it shows that teachers crave improvements to their day-to-day working lives, more than salary.

This is how charter schools often try to compete with traditional schools to attract the best teachers.

Here is a study from Penn State University on teacher stress and health:

They describe 4 main sources of teacher stress (and therefore departure).
1. School Organization: Leadership, Climate and Culture
A supportive school culture, strong principal leadership and a collaborative, collegial environment are associated with higher job satisfaction among teachers and intentions of novice teachers to continue teaching.
High teacher trust in both their colleagues and leadership is related to lower stress and burnout.
Unsatisfactory relationships with administrators, colleagues, or students may increase teacher stress, lower job satisfaction, and lower commitment to students.
There is also a relationship between teacher turnover and principal
2. Job Demands
Continued high demands on the job are a key predictor of teacher stress.
Increased use of high-stakes testing at the state and district levels may be
exacerbating this problem by limiting teachers’ control over the content and pace of their own work, and increasing threats of teacher termination and school
Managing students with behavior problems and working with difficult parents are two other demanding interpersonal challenges that produce chronic stress and leave teachers more vulnerable to depression.
3. Work Resources: Support and Autonomy in Decision-Making
When school leaders create opportunities for decision-making and collaboration among teachers, teachers feel empowered and have higher satisfaction.
Among professional occupations, teachers rate lowest in feeling that their opinions count at work.
4. Teachers’ Personal Resources and Social-Emotional Competence
When high job demands and stress are combined with low social-emotional competence (SEC) and classroom management skills, poor teacher performance and attrition increase.
A teacher’s own SEC and well-being are key factors influencing student and classroom outcomes.
My thoughts on the study:
a. There is no “one correct way” to address these issues.
b. Instead, the key idea here is clarity.  Clarity with teacher candidates about your school’s choices in all these matters.  Don’t try to make it all “sound good.”  Vie instead to be honest.  Let them decide if it’s a fit.
It’s much better to “lose” a candidate in the interview  process, by being clear and honest, then to have them arrive only to feel disappointed.
For example:
* KIPP says to candidates: “Our school requires many more work hours than other schools.”
This helps some good teachers think “Not a fit for me.  My own kids at home need my attention.”
It helps other teachers say “Great, this is what I want.  For 5 years, I’ll go really hard at teaching, and at KIPP, the other teachers will too.  Maybe down the road I will switch to a school with less work hours.”
* Or Success Academies says to candidates: “If you want to create your own curriculum, do not apply here.  We have our own set curriculum, and it really  helps kids make great academic gains.”
Again, this helps some good prospective teachers think “Not a fit for me.  I would find this to constraining.  I should not take a job at Success.”
It helps other teachers say “Great, this is what I want.  I can focus my attention  more on building relationships with students and their parents, worry less about curriculum.”
A friend in China writes:
I totally agree getting teacher to stay for four years in stead of 2 is a great idea. It’s hard for achievable. My humble opinion is the culture really matters, and how to establish it?
For start ups, we need one “soul leader” to form it; set the foundation then enlarge the influencers among the team.  I am proud that many of the teachers that I hired ten years ago now still in the same school and both school and teacher developed so well.

Yes. You need a “soul leader” to set the culture.

BUT at least as important: you need teachers who have previously agreed to your school’s way of doing things.
For example, “my” tribe of teachers in USA really cares about strong, respectful culture of learning – and to achieve that, a mix of warm/strict we call it. There’s a big time-consuming part, out of class time, where teachers build the warm relationships, sometimes directly with kids, sometimes with parents.
I’m not saying that’s the only way to run a school.  Far from it.  I’m just saying – it’s our way.
There are at least 2 other approaches.
1. Strict teachers.
2. Warm teachers.  Kids feel the teachers cares, so they follow him or her.
However, a common problem is that it’s not easy to be a warm teacher; there is a bad version of that
3. Soft teacher.  Teacher tries to be “friend” of the student; kids don’t respect him or her; so many students don’t try hard or goof around.
None of the 3 groups listed particularly likes our tribe’s warm/strict approach.  It is time consuming.
Strict teachers don’t like the requirement to build relationships.
Warm teachers don’t like that all teachers must use the same rules (they have rules that work for themselves).
Soft teachers know their warm/strict peers will not respect them.
Bottom line:
Schools that have several different tribes of teachers struggle t collaborate. They’re always stuck at the high level questions, never getting agreement.  So they can never get the details right.
And details are everything in a school.
If you have one tribe — a group of teachers who know exactly what they signed up for — then they can collaborate, focus on the details, solve problems, improve.


Parents in China

China now has about 800 “taught-in-English” private schools.  My guess is a 15% growth rate over the next 5 years, similar to the growth rate of American charter schools in the early 2000s.   So let’s say that in 2022, China will have 1,600 such schools.  (About 8,000 charters now in USA).

In the USA, each of 50 states decided its own approach for charter schools, so political risk is spread out.  Arizona allowed many charters, Vermont forbid charters, Massachusetts chose a “medium” course.

In China, however, education policy tends to be national.  So the uneasy legal status of all these private schools could change at a moment’s notice.

In my last post, I wrote about teachers.  I described the shortage of British and American teachers there.  It will only increase.

Today I’m thinking about parents in China.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, paired with Little Soldiers, are 2 great books from an American-Chinese perspective on parenting and schools.

I asked a couple of very sharp Chinese school leaders: How are you planning for increased competition?  What will Chinese parents care about in 5 years that they don’t care about now?

They had sharply different responses.

Chinese Edu CEO #1 predicted:

Mike, 5 years is a short time horizon.  Parents won’t change much, in China or anywhere else in the world.  Understand: China is a low trust society.  So parents care about brand.  Beautiful buildings.  Affiliation with a famous school in USA or UK, with lots of Western sounding classes, like design thinking.  Plus hopefully a few graduates who went to Harvard.  That’s what brand means here.   

Teacher quality matters mostly “on paper.”  Credentials, certifications, years of experience.  But beyond that, parents don’t really sit in the classroom.  So they’re not good judges of teacher quality.   Is that so different in American private schools?  Can Andover parents describe the stylistic difference between their son’s math teacher and history teacher?  I doubt it.  They have no clue. 

Your idea, to help start an English medium school built on quality teaching, is nice-sounding but naïve.  Very naive.  Parents won’t respond well because you’ll be putting money into teaching (which they can’t see) and not in buildings (which they can see). 

Chinese Edu CEO #2 had a different take:

As more private schools open, Chinese parents will become more sophisticated customers.  They will care more about the actual day-to-day experience of their children.  That will be determined largely by teacher quality and teamwork.  

WeChat (China’s combo of Facebook, WhatsApp, PayPal) has parents constantly talking to each other.  Over time, word-of-mouth will re-rank schools.  Those with great teaching and “good brand” may overtake those with “great brand” but merely okay teaching.  

So, if you manage to bring a great team of American teachers over here, who do all this teamwork and parent engagement stuff you talk about, that should work with Chinese  parents.  Your teachers could even be a model that other schools study; Chinese are better than Americans at copying “what works.”  

Your problem is not the idea.  Your problem will be finding a trusted Chinese partner who is aligned with your vision.  Plenty of Americans have had school related partnerships here blow up, most unpleasantly.

Who to believe?

Basic psychology: I want CEO #2 to be right!

But I heard CEO #1’s narrative far more often while in China.  Most American teachers there were resigned to that reality (and it’s why they planned to leave soon).  And if that’s true, I’ll be wasting this next year of my life trying to start a school in China, because I’ll fail.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Harvard Innovation Lab, and a key idea there is “Lean Startup.”   Test your ideas small.  Fail fast.

So a first step to opening a new high school in China maybe something real small: recruit perhaps 5 American teachers to move to China, launch an after-school English program, test hypotheses, and see “what works.”

In the meantime, please get in touch to share any ideas/feedback/people-I-should-meet.

American Teachers in China

Yesterday I described the fast growth of Chinese “English Medium” private schools.

That surge has only worsened the shortage in American and British teachers over there, for which there is high demand.

One headmaster told me he’d attended a particular international recruiting conference in 2017, where 2 Chinese schools were in the mix.  There he made 8 offers and hired 3 teachers.  In 2018, at the same conference, 20 Chinese schools were there.  There he made 0 offers.  Increased demand, lower quality of supply.

Add in teacher visa issues.

Add in competitive alternative employment: that American and British teachers can stay home on their sofas and teach online if they wish.  VIP Kid is just one of the unicorns rapidly adding teachers.

Add in the short stay at these schools.  Often expat teachers stay just 2 years.

What does that remind you of?

You may have said: urban charter and district schools.   After Match Charter School’s first year back in 2000, we lost 3 of 6 teachers.  I did a lot wrong as the founder.

Rapid turnover makes it hard to build a positive professional culture.  Which in turn drives even faster turnover.

One substitute in China is more Filipino teachers.  Down the road, Chinese parents will probably become more comfortable with Chinese-born English teachers, as another substitute for expat teachers.

What about the core issue?  How could these Chinese schools keep these expat teachers for an average stay of 4 years, instead of 2 years?  This would halve their hiring, and improve culture.

I asked that in my travels.  Most common answer?

“More training.”  And by that they mean traditional “sit in the room, hear a presentation” type training.

In the USA, many have come to realize that type of training doesn’t work.  It doesn’t change adult behavior.  Not in medicine.  Not in teaching.  An American organization called TNTP published The Mirage, which carefully documents how ineffective most training actually is.

I suggested to my Chinese friends that America’s best schools focus more on improving professional culture.  Alex Hernandez describes this as rowing in the same direction in his excellent June article on The74.  It’s harder to explain, and much hard to actually accomplish, than mere “training.”

Indeed, in China, I saw bilingual schools where the Chinese teachers were in fact doing that (rowing in the same direction), but the expat teachers were all individuals…”let me close my classroom door and do what I wish.”

To my suggestion, recruiters in China pushed back: “Sounds nice but idealistic. The reality is I’m already coming up short.  If I add another box to check, I’ll be even further behind.”  I sympathized.  Again, reminds me of urban district recruiters in USA, who say the same thing.

I had to concede that point.  Short term.  My argument was that the “winning” happens in the medium term.  That’s why outlier, high performing schools follow Jim Collins, and absorb 2 types of pain.

  1. Define in plainspoken language what it means to truly row in the same direction – what teachers all need to do, emphasizing not the “cool stuff” (perks) but the hard, more controversial stuff that candidates might like the least (therefore giving them a really easy path to opt out).  Writing that out can be painful.
  2. Get the right people on the bus.  “Right” means aligned with your school’s specific details, not inherently “better.”  If it’s a close call, say “no” – even more pain that can only be overcome with sheer recruiting hustle.

If you get that right, I said, recruiting within a couple years will be WAY easier.

If I manage to help start a school in China, I’ll try that approach.

Hire a team of American teachers, who are aligned; rather than a collection of individuals.  That worked very well in my efforts at Bridge International Academies.  By being aligned, we had a common vocabulary and many shared ideas and examples of success and failure.  That allowed our team to focus on what was different in Kenya, Nigeria, etc….i.e., we didn’t need to discuss a topic like “Should teachers expect to be observed and given feedback” – we took that  as a given…

Gaokao or SAT?

  1. What is the Gaokao?

From a CNBC story in June:

Nearly 10 million Chinese students have been preparing for this Thursday and Friday since kindergarten.

Gaokao, China’s university entrance exam, directly determines which universities students can go to. To some extent, it determines whether they will become blue-collar or white-collar workers later in their lives. 

Many countries have a similar approach for college admissions.  No GPA.  No essay or recs or interview.  No list of extra curricular activities.

Just the test.

In the USA, we use the expression high-stakes tests, but compared to other places, our “stakes” are perhaps in the 3 out of 10 range, versus 10 out of 10.

So most Chinese parents spend a ton on after-school tutoring centers, way more than Americans spend on the likes of Kumon.

More recently: coding at some of these centers, per the excellent Sixth Tome.

  1. Chinese to America

A growing number of Chinese families hope to bypass Chinese universities altogether, and send their kids to American universities.

It’s estimated to be about 330,000 students now.  So a large number in absolute terms, though low compared to Gaokao takers.

Four thoughts/trends:

a. First, partly because of this aspiration to American colleges, brand new private K-12 schools are cropping up all over China.

School is taught either partially or totally in English.  Overview here.  AP courses, SAT prep, etc.  Lots of Harkness tables.

For Eduwonk readers, of interest is perhaps that BASIS is operating schools in China, as well as Chris Whittle.

I was impressed with the excellent HD schools; their campus in Ningbo just had its first graduating class.  School is taught half in Mandarin, half in English.

Many parents I met in China want Western style teaching.  I’m not sure whether the cause of that is “Western teaching helps you prepare for Western universities” or simply “We’d rather our kids in classrooms with more discussions and less cramming/lecture.”

No charter schools, though.  No Catholic or other lower-cost private schools, either, that I saw (though it’s a big country…so I’m probably wrong about that).

I’ll write more tomorrow about teachers in these new private schools.

b. Second, bumpy Trump/Xi relations will affect things.

Propaganda/spy concerns here and here.  New visa limits for science grad students, with implications here.  The trade war.

c. Third, anxiety/depression/isolation.See NY Times here.

And for Chinese kids attending American private boarding schools, that issue is even worse…according to my decidedly unscientific survey of conversations with prep school teachers and headmasters back here in USA.

In some ways, this reminds me of minority Americans who are first in their families to go to college, where the likes of KIPP and Posse Foundation do great things to support them.

– Everyone wants to celebrate upon admission to the prep school or university, but the sizable risk of failure is swept under the rug.

– The “Do I belong here?” question never quite goes away.

– If you fail, it’s not just a personal setback: you feel like you let your whole family down.

d. Finally, in part because of the bamboo ceiling, more sea turtles are returning to China after graduation from American colleges.


This week I’m guest-blogging on Eduwonk.  That’s a widely read blog about education policy in the USA.  So this is cross-posted there.

My first guest blogging there was 13 years ago.  In some ways, not much  has changed.  Boston needed a new superintendent then, and we do once again, for example.

Yet progress too!  A 2005 concern, now progress.  Idea here, actuality here.

I’d founded Match, a small charter high school, and in 2005, we’d just had our first graduating class (+ lots of attrition).  These days Match is K-12 but less tutoring, provides free curriculum to teachers, runs a small grad school, has a tutoring spinoff called Saga, and a higher-ed spinoff called Duet.

More recently, I spent 4 years as CAO of Bridge International Academies. Bridge has schools in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, India, and Liberia.  I know: Eduwonk readers usually shy away from “international,” with the possible exception of Chilean sea bass.  I invite you to reconsider!

Bridge operates (way) more schools than awesome CMOs like KIPP, IDEA, Uncommon, and Green Dot combined.  With results, questions about pedagogy, parent motivation, and politics that you’d recognize.  And there are many other fascinating international efforts, like thisthis, and this.

No matter what your policy preference, I submit that working (with appropriate humility) with folks abroad is an amazing way to learn about other cultures and expand your thinking. 

Also, not everything is red/blue tribe like here.  It’s way better than reading Twitter all day and feeling jumpy.

My next adventure: China.  Or so I hope.I’m just back from Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzen.  I’ll share thoughts all week.  Context: one-child policy is over, class size can hit 70 (paging Leonie), there’s a vast migration from the sticks to the cities, private schools are tiny in number but growing fast, and China really wants to do better in World Cup.

Here are impressions from Christi Edwards, a North Carolina math teacher who just visited Nanjing and Chengdu.  “Teenagers are teenagers wherever you go,” she said.

I agree.


The Journey Begins

I hope to (help) create a new school in China.

I may fail.

The challenges are daunting.  Schools in China are complicated to launch.  There are many great education entrepreneurs there already.  I’m an American based in Boston.  I’ll elaborate on these (and many more challenges) in the coming weeks.

With that said, I do have a few things in my  favor.

I’ve collaborated with others to open several schools in the past 18 years, in 6 countries.  Elementary school, middle school, high school, even a graduate school of education.  I’ve met talented educators and entrepreneurs in Shanghai, Shenzen, Ningbo, and Beijing, who have been generous with encouragement and caution in equal doses, and advice.

Back in 2008, I created a blog that chronicled the creation of this place.  Blogging helped in that process.  First, writing forced me to clarify my ideas.  Second, I built a small tribe of readers, who provided all sorts of helpful ideas, critiques, and introductions.

Maybe that can happen again.