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Teacher Retention: How Education Leaders Prevent Turnover

A teacher works with her students in a classroom

Teachers play an essential role in American society, educating young people—the country’s future—on a variety of topics, including mathematics, English literature, world history, and physics. Despite its significance, the profession is experiencing a major workforce shortage as teacher retention becomes increasingly difficult. A study by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 17 percent of new teachers leave their jobs within the first five years of teaching. What makes such statistics troubling is the evidence that high teacher turnover negatively affects student achievement. It’s imperative that education leaders develop teacher retention strategies to turn these figures around.

Why Do Teachers Leave?

Studies show that many teachers aren’t just leaving one school for another. Instead, they’re leaving the field altogether. Edutopia reports 260,000 people leave the profession every year, contributing to a nationwide teacher shortage. In an attempt to determine why the American education system struggles to maintain a steady workforce, governmental and nongovernmental bodies have conducted studies and surveys.

Former teachers commonly cite the following reasons for leaving their jobs:

  • Lack of compensation: The NCES study found a correlation between teacher retention and higher pay grades. Those who earn a salary of at least $40,000 annually in their first year are more likely to return the following year compared with those who earn less.
  • Teacher preparedness: According to the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), teachers with alternative certification instead of a traditional university degree are 25 percent more likely to leave their jobs. Training plays a significant role in job satisfaction.
  • Dissatisfaction with working conditions: Departing teachers surveyed by LPI reported poor administrative support and a lack of access to funds for technology and supplies.

Future leaders can introduce policies to address these factors impeding teacher retention.

Why Is Teacher Retention Important?

Improving teacher retention serves to improve the education system as a whole. Teacher turnover is costly, as new teachers must be recruited and trained. Edutopia reports that the cost per departing teacher can range from $9,000 in rural areas to $21,000 in urban districts—money that could be spent on new scholastic programs or technology for students. Higher retention means less financial strain and more investment in the tools children need to learn.

The disparities in teacher retention also result in disparities in public education that leave select students behind. For instance, LPI reveals the turnover rates at Title I schools, which serve low-income students, are 50 percent higher than average. There are likewise differences according to location, with turnover rates higher in the South and lower in the Northeast, where salaries tend to be higher. Given the drawbacks of high turnover, children in underprivileged school districts are more adversely affected than their counterparts. Special education also suffers higher turnover rates. Increasing teacher retention can support greater equality across the US education system.

High turnover rates create constant flux, making it significantly more difficult to institute changes in education policies. Experienced teachers who are familiar with the needs of a school and its students are best poised to provide advice on how to meet those needs. When they leave, these voices are lost, and education policy suffers, as senior education administrators no longer receive their feedback on the success (or failure) of different initiatives. Reducing turnover and reliance on temporary substitutes is an integral step toward shaping scholastic policies informed by firsthand insights into local communities.

How Does Teacher Retention Impact Students?

Losing experienced teachers has a direct impact on students. A beloved educator can serve as a role model or mentor. For some children, the disappearance of such a figure can be discouraging and result in a loss of scholastic engagement. They may become less inclined to participate in class, leading to a drop in grades and test scores.

Losing educational staff also increases reliance on substitute teachers, who tend to have less experience and lower credentials compared with full-time educators. Qualified teachers know how to create lesson plans that adhere to a set curriculum while keeping students engaged and excited. Most substitutes don’t teach regularly and may be less equipped to create engaging lesson plans. When teachers leave midyear, substitutes may struggle to successfully take over.

Poor teacher retention has been shown to concretely impact students in terms of scholastic performance, The Graide Network reports. One Stanford University study found that students of teachers who left after one year suffered in terms of achievement gains. Another study by the University Council for Educational Administration showed that New York elementary school students who were subject to higher teacher turnover scored lower in subject areas such as math.

What Teacher Retention Strategies Can Education Leaders Use?

Improving teacher retention can directly benefit school systems and students. As principals, superintendents, and other education policy makers try to lower turnover rates and keep high-quality educators, teacher retention strategies have emerged.

Education leaders should focus on the following areas:

  • Mentorship: Teachers who are assigned mentors in their first year are more likely to return in their second year. Mentorship programs pair new teachers with experienced ones, providing new teachers with access to advice on navigating the daily challenges of the profession.
  • Compensation: When teachers are adequately paid, they are more likely to remain in their positions. Promotion schemes and pay raises can be part of integral teacher retention strategies. Professionals need to see the potential room for growth in their field.
  • Teaching conditions: Working conditions in schools can be affected by access to technology and supplies, as well as basic amenities such as air conditioning. School districts can consider increasing their budgets for these expenses to improve overall satisfaction among their teachers.

Based on the existing research, focusing on these three points when developing future teacher retention strategies should lead to lower turnover.

How a Master of Education Can Advance Your Career

Those interested in shaping education policies should consider pursuing a graduate degree in the field. American University’s Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership and Online Master of Arts in Teaching, for example, can open the door to senior-level positions, including school principal, administrator, and superintendent, which provide opportunities to effect real institutional change. Courses such as “Foundations of Education” and “Educational Leadership and Organizational Change” equip students with the knowledge and skills to lead in education and improve learning environments.

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