Putting Education Reform To The Test

Classroom Contemplations: Why Teachers Leave The Classroom

Half of all teachers leave the classroom within five years, according to one study.

dpapworth / Flickr

Half of all teachers leave the classroom within five years, according to one study.

We all agree that every student should have good teachers.

I think we also agree that there are three ways to improve the teaching force:

    • We must get “bad” teachers who cannot or will not improve out of the classroom

    • We must help “mediocre” teachers improve.

    • We must keep “good” teachers in the classroom.

Now, time for some of the critical thinking we ask of our students: Of these strategies, which is the easiest?

I would argue that it’s the third. It simply requires us to keep people in the classroom who are already there.

So, how are we doing with this?

Richard Ingersoll, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has done a lot of work looking at the changing workforce of teaching. He has found that nearly half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years.


We’re not doing a bad job at retaining teachers. We’re doing an abysmal job.

There are many reasons for this, and in the next few posts I will be exploring them through the stories of a few teachers who have left or who are contemplating leaving. People leave teaching for many of the same reasons they leave any job — lack of professional growth, perceived lack of control, inhospitable working conditions and lack of or too much responsibility.

But let’s start with one factor that comes up in almost every discussion I have with teachers about why they leave. Salaries.

Teacher pay is way too low.

Pay does more than just compensate people for the work they do. Salaries schedules also send messages about the relative worth or prestige of a profession, and of people at various levels within a profession. Salaries can attract people to a job, they can keep people in a job, or they can chase people out.

Let’s look at the annual salaries for the first five steps of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools pay schedule for teachers to see what message we’re sending.

Step one:        $40,000

Step two:        $40,000

Step three:     $40,000

Step four:       $40,000

Step five:        $40,300

Five steps of almost complete stagnation at a salary already relatively low for an entering professional who will be working 50-60 hours a week (a conservative estimate for your first few years in the classroom).

With this type of salary structure we’re not encouraging teachers, particularly young teachers, to stay in the profession.  We’re not making it attractive to start teaching, and we’re definitely not making it attractive to stay.

During those first five years, which most teachers will tell you are the hardest years, you get no monetary reward until the fifth year. Then, you get a whopping increase of less than one percent.

When I’m arguing salaries with people outside of education, I often hear that teachers shouldn’t be in it for the pay, they should love the job.

Teachers absolutely should love their job.  It’s a hard enough job to do when you do love it, and I can’t imagine how hard it is when you don’t.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still pay teachers well.

Loving your job should be a prerequisite for lots of careers.  Take baseball players, for example, and here is where we start to see the message society is sending about the relative worth of teachers.

I think baseball players should love their job.  They shouldn’t just do it for the money, they should do it for the love of the game.

And yet, the minimum salary for a major league baseball player who is on a team’s roster for a full year is  $480,000, whether he plays or not.  It would take me eleven years at my current salary to earn that.  And the highest paid baseball player?  $25 million.  That would take me 600 years.

Even with performance enhancing drugs, I don’t think I’ll be able to teach for 600 years.

In the next several posts, I will be introducing you to teachers who have left or who are deciding to leave, and we will hear a lot of different reasons.  But as you think about teacher retention, I urge you to keep the issue of salaries in the back of your mind.

Teacher pay is how we tell our teachers what they are worth.

And the message many teachers are getting — particularly new teachers — is that they aren’t worth much.

Jeremy Glazer is a Miami-Dade teacher writing about classroom issues for StateImpact Florida. Want to sound off on something Glazer has written? Want to suggest a topic for him? Send us an email at Florida@stateimpact.org and put “Classroom Contemplations” in the subject line.


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