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.


2 thoughts on “Why do teachers leave?

  1. Pingback: Housekeeping – New School In China

  2. Pingback: Housekeeping 2 – New School In China

Comments are closed.