Why Do Teachers Quit?

Teachers don’t just leave their jobs because of low pay and retirement, new research shows. Their perceptions of a broken education system also contribute.

In a trio of studies, education experts examine the relatively new phenomenon of teachers posting their resignation letters online. The findings suggest a nationwide focus on standardized tests, scripted curriculum, and punitive teacher-evaluation systems frustrate and dishearten educators at all grade and experience levels.

In the US, teacher turnover costs more than $2.2 billion each year and decreases student achievement as measured by reading and math test scores.

“I did not feel I was leaving my job. I felt then and feel now that my job left me.”

“The reasons teachers are leaving the profession has little to do with the reasons most frequently touted by education reformers, such as pay or student behavior,” says Alyssa Hadley Dunn, assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.

“Rather, teachers are leaving largely because oppressive policies and practices are affecting their working conditions and beliefs about themselves and education.”

An example is the open resignation letter of Boston elementary school teacher Suzi Sluyter, which appeared on a Washington Post blog:

“In this disturbing era of testing and data collection in the public schools,” she writes in part, “I have seen my career transformed into a job that no longer fits my understanding of how children learn and what a teacher ought to do in a classroom to build a healthy, safe, developmentally appropriate environment for learning for each of our children.

“I did not feel I was leaving my job. I felt then and feel now that my job left me. It is with deep love and a broken heart that I write this letter,” writes Sluyter, who had taught for more than 25 years.

Such feelings of abandonment were common in the resignation letters, researchers write in one of the studies published in the journal Linguistics and Education.

The second study, published in Teaching and Teacher Education, suggests that by posting their resignation letters online, educators are gaining a voice in the public sphere they didn’t have before. “All of the teachers’ resignation letters and their later interviews [with researchers] attested to the lack of voice and agency that teachers felt in policymaking and implementation,” the study says.

Administrators must allow teachers to engage in the development of curriculum and educational policies so they do not feel like they have no choice but to resign (and then publicly declare it) in order to get their voices heard, Dunn says.

The public resignation letters combat the “teacher blame game” and the prevalent narrative of the “bad” teacher, the third study, published in Teachers College Record, suggests. These common claims—in which teachers are blamed for school and societal failures—are used by conservative education reformers to advance accountability measures to evaluate teachers, Dunn says.

But the resignation letters, rather than painting educators as disinterested and lazy, illustrate their intense emotion. “The letters are filled with emotion, with regret, and with an overarching personal and professional commitment to the best needs of the children,” the study says.

Ultimately, policymakers should heed teachers’ testimonies and support a move away from efforts to “marketize, capitalize, incentivize, and privatize public education, in order to do what is best for children, not for the bottom line,” Dunn says.

“In the absence of such moves, teachers’ working conditions, and thus students’ learning conditions, are likely to remain in jeopardy.”

Source: Michigan State University

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