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Teacher Retention: Preventing Teacher Turnover

October 13, 2022

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 science. Despite its significance, the profession is experiencing a major workforce shortage as teacher retention becomes increasingly difficult. 

A 2022 poll conducted by the National Education Association (NEA) found that 55 percent of educators plan to leave the education field sooner than they had expected to, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. What makes this statistic troubling is the evidence that high teacher turnover negatively affects student achievement. Education leaders should develop retention strategies to turn these figures around.

Teacher Turnover Rates

Studies show that many teachers aren’t just leaving one school for another. Instead, they’re leaving the field altogether. Nearly 1 in 4 respondents in the Rand Corporation’s “2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey” stated they were likely to walk away from teaching by the end of the 2020-21 academic year, contributing to the 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.

The NEA poll cited several issues that may spur teachers to leave the profession in the next several years. According to the poll:

  • Burnout is an issue of some seriousness for 90 percent of the polled educators
  • Low pay is a serious issue for 78 percent, with 49 percent calling it a “very serious” issue
  • The general stress from the coronavirus pandemic is still a very serious concern for 61 percent
  • Lack of respect from the public and parents as well as a lack of planning is a very serious concern for 44 percent 

Some of these issues have been prime forces behind teacher turnover, such as pay. However, the unique stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated the level of strain exacted on teachers. A significant amount of this stress comes from the pandemic’s byproducts, such as having to cover for a higher-than-normal level of colleagues and not being able to devote as much one-on-one teaching time to their students.

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. If fewer teachers were replaced, then, instead of financing recruitment and training, school districts could spend money on new programs or technology for students. Higher teacher retention means less financial strain and more investment in the tools children need to learn.

Retention disparities can also result in differences in public education that leave select students behind. Low-income students tend to be particularly impacted by this disparity: A fall 2021 study conducted in Washington state schools indicated that teacher vacancies are substantially greater in high-poverty school districts. Given the drawbacks of high turnover, children in underprivileged school districts are more adversely affected than their counterparts in wealthier districts. 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 education policies informed by firsthand insights into local communities.

How Does Teacher Retention Impact Students? 

Losing experienced instructors to teacher turnover 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 engagement. They may become less inclined to participate in class, leading to a drop in their 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 negatively impact students’ educational achievement, according to the Learning Policy Institute. A 2020 study published by AERA Open found that high teacher turnover yielded notable drops in the academic performance of middle school students, particularly in reading and math.Future leaders can introduce policies to address these factors impeding teacher retention.

Strategies to Improve Teacher Retention

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

Education leaders should focus on the following areas to help stem the tide of teacher turnover:

  • 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.
  • School climate: Teachers experiencing burnout may feel as though the burden of education rests squarely on their shoulders. When schools strive to build a culture of positivity and supportive teamwork, these feelings of isolation—and the tension and conflict such feelings may foster—can dissipate.
  • Autonomy and growth opportunities: School districts can allow teachers to apply their skills to developing educational strategies that play to their strengths as an educator. Doing so not only can make them more comfortable in their role, but it can also enable them to grow stronger in the role. This in turn can prepare them to take on leadership roles in education.

How a Master of Education Can Advance Your Career 

Those interested in shaping education policies and improving teacher retention 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, that provide opportunities to effect real institutional change. 

Courses such as Education Program and Policy Implementation and Educational Leadership and Organizational Change equip students with the knowledge and skills to lead in education and improve learning environments. Learn how our program can prepare you to broaden your horizons in a crucial field.