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.


  • Jen

    Pay does tell a teacher what they are worth. In my 10th year and my contract is for $36,000. I cry every year I get the contract feeling slapped in the face. I an not recognized for the endless hours tutoring, Saturday field trips, and summer development and excellent evaluations.

  • Victoria Cochran

    It’s a lousy salary for a good teacher. It’s a very good salary for a lousy teacher. A graduate in technology demonstrating rigorousness in their choice of classes and academic achievement comparable to that of the least qualified teachers, could hope for not much more than 15K a year. And, they would not be put in charge of anyone. 40K and the command of 20 to 100 students and, indirectly, their parents…is a large entitlement for a minimal investment —incentive to hang on, at any cost.

    • Monica

      Who is this “technology graduate” making $15,000 a year? That’s ridiculous. And less than minimum wage. This is the kind of poisonous reasoning that is keeping the salaries of all teachers pathetically low. Oh well, there are some crappy teachers out there, so to be sure that they don’t make too much, let’s pay them all shit. There are plenty of desk monkeys, at businesses across the country, doing a mere fraction of the work that even the worst possible teachers must do to stay afloat, and making much more than they’re worth. No one seems to be outraged about that.

    • Victoria Cochran

      I believe I advocated for paying someone a salary that matches the rigor of their education, as well as the level of their achievement. It’s insulting to receive less; but it’s equally dismissive of the value of one’s effort to see those whose educational choices and achievement would entitle them to 40k in no other professional field, walk on at that level.

      • Cele

        Where on earth do you live? I don’t know any technology graduates with certifications, 4-year degrees and internships whose starting salaries are $15K. “Command of students”? “Incentive to hang on at any cost”? “Commanding students” certainly isn’t some kind of perk. Luckily for the world, most teachers really do love what they do, because for the stress involved most people would say “you really couldn’t pay me enough”.

      • Victoria Cochran

        Close reading: the tech student whose academic achievement is comparable to the least qualified teachers, those who took the least demanding qualifying courses as undergrads and achieved minimum passing scores, will enter at the lowest rung, and yes, not make much more than minimum wage. That’s a fact.

        Salaries for new tech grads are commensurate with depth of subject matter knowledge and academic performance, and the field is highly competitive.

        What has also been documented, nation wide, is that not only are the most highly qualified teachers underpaid at hiring, but that over the course of their careers, they also receive lower financial reward than their less qualified colleagues. The fact that low pay for the most highly qualified teachers is not simply a matter of entry level dynamics, but of pervasive and ongoing system dynamics, should raise eyebrows. If career-long systemic unfairness that results in the departure of the best does not raise eyebrows, or questions, then I refer again to the final sentence of my first post.

        Here’s one thorough study. You can easily verify Mackinac’s reputation and non-partisan stance. http://www.mackinac.org/archives/2008/s2008-05.pdf

        This is my last post on the issue. The assumption that I don’t know what I’m talking about with regard to technology, or that I am not an experienced educator, rather than that I have ample experience in both fields…is interesting, but not compelling.

        • Had_enough

          The Mackinac center is absolutely a Partisan organization, regardless of what their mission statement says. They are based in Michigan where I am and are a ‘non-profit’ mouthpiece for corporate interests in the state here. They have done an enormous amount of damage to what should be a constructive discussion on how to improve education and helped turn that debate into a ‘lets find another way to punish the teachers’ extravaganza. The ‘reforms’ (think Michelle Rhee) they have helped push forward has gone a long way to dismantling education in this state and are, in part, of why I am walking away from 15 successful years in the classroom as well as finding somewhere else for my children to attend school. Because my state legislature has frothingly adopted the initiative recommended by such ‘non-political’ very conservative organizations, all that Michigan has accomplished in the past few years is to take an education system that needed improvement and turn it into something more like what is seen in Texas instead. There is nothing to be proud of in any of the changes that have happened under the advice of organizations, the Mackinaw center and others, about what they have brought to my (soon to be former) state.

          • G flint

            Well spoken Had enough. I got out after 38 years but I got out in 05 before the political barbarians destroyed the profession. I am one of the lucky ones.

          • not a sheep

            You are so correct about the political barbarians destroying the profession! You are one of the lucky ones!

        • Adalaide

          The rigor of a teacher’s past grades and classes is not what makes them a good or lousy teacher. Part of it is: their ability to connect with students and parents, to put together engaging lessons that works with the strengths of every students, to deal with the abundant paperwork that comes their way, to follow guidelines set forth by the power that be (that may seem a bit ridiculous), and to of course help each student improve.
          …and $40,000 is a lot for a beginning teacher. Most teacher salaries begin quite a bit lower; NC is around $28,000.

        • Kathleen Perez

          I have worked both as a computer programmer (tech!) and a school teacher and your $15K figure is a joke! If you ARE an educator then I weep for your students. You are unable to express yourself clearly and succinctly. Is English your second language?

    • BB

      I’m not sure I understand what you are trying to say. Consider revising your post to make your point in a more succinct manner. Your attempts at colorful phrasing via interruptive hyphenation are confusing and obscuring your point. That’s advice from a teaching assistant who makes 15k.

  • Josh

    How come no one says, “They should do it for the love of it, not the money,” to lawyers, or doctors, or stock brokers…or CONGRESSMEN? Or like…any other job?

    That’s the most ridiculous, uncritical, non-analytical thinking on can engage in. It sets up the false dichotomy that you can EITHER love a job OR be well compensated, but NOT BOTH. Preposterous! I suspect that mantra was begun by people who have a reason to want to not pay teachers commensurate with their effort & education.

    Loving a job doesn’t pay the rent/mortgage, doesn’t feed my children, doesn’t pay my bills, and doesn’t allow me to plan for my retirement.

    The fact is that people who say things like that DON’T want teachers to love anything outside of their classroom. They are perfectly happy to let teachers use themselves and their own money up for their jobs and leave them fiscal, physical and emotional husks too tired to fight for the rights of their students or themselves. And frankly, teachers who do go around referring to it as a calling, or saying that they’d teach no matter what, because they can’t imagine doing anything else…they’re hurting themselves, their brother and sister teachers, and ultimately their students; it makes every non-teacher who hears you say that think that those of us who don’t go around publicly proclaiming that automatically don’t feel the same way. It’s okay to think that way, but please stop making public or digital pronouncements of that sentiment.

    • not a sheep

      I enjoyed your comment. Thank goodness there are still some teachers left that aren’t passive sheep.

  • Karen Wolfe

    No question teachers deserve higher pay and the system is becoming rigged to do just that. Importing temp teachers who have no intention of staying beyond a couple of years–like Rahm Emmanuel did in Chicago–is making matters far worse. Even the federal legislation to stop the government shutdown included a provision to give teacher positions to Teach for America temps. Terrible!

  • Soddribble

    10-month schedule, a first-year teacher in the Miami-Dade County school system is making $930 a week. That’s great money.

    • mf

      Do you think they don’t need to live the other two months?

    • AWall

      I have heard this comment repeatedly in regards to teacher compensation. What I don’t believe the average citizen understands is a teacher does not work a 10 month schedule. Teachers are required to put many hours in over “summer vacation” with the school district, at least a week of time prepping their classroom and lesson plans before the new school year, and must legally take a certain amount of college credit hours equalling approximately 3 grad classes every few years. The grad classes/continuing education alone add up to a good chunk of that summer vacation. Then you look at what is technically left of that time and figure out how many weeks of “vacation” a teacher truly gets and back it up with 50 hour work weeks. If you do your homework you will find that the average teacher has approximately the same number of vacation weeks as the average employee with the same level of education in the business field. So truly, divide that $40,000 over 12 months and roll in the cost of their education and the grad courses they are required to take and tell a man or woman how their compensation reflects the importance of their job to society at large. To paraphrase NOT great money.

  • Tim

    If you think being a teacher is both easy and pays well… Go do it. Try it. See how easy it is. See how easy it is to have patience beyond anything that is socially accepted as a parent. See how easy it is to differentiate instruction to a class of 30-40 when most people have a hard time explaining a story to a group of a few. See how great the pay is. You have the option to do it. Go. Go be a teacher. Try it. Until you do…. Don’t talk down to them. It’s an impossible unthinkably hard job that people seem to think of as an afterthought that most if not anyone could do. The pay is adaquate the time off is amazing!!!! Go out and become a teacher then.

  • Max_1953

    Starting base salary in Texas is $27,320, unless you are employed by a school district that can afford to pay over base. I work for a poor school district that can’t afford to pay much, if anything, above state base. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we can’t attract and retain good teachers. Several left my district last year because they couldn’t make ends meet. My wife and I manage to get by financially, because our years of Peace Corps service taught us how to live frugally. However, this is not the kind of argument I would want to use in order to persuade college graduates to enter the education “profession”. After 38 years in education I still earn less than $49,000 a year. Texas base salary tops out at $44,270 after 20 years. Yes, there are better paying districts I could go to, but if everyone thought that way there would be vast numbers of Texas youth who would have no one to teach them. Unfortunately, there is a catch-22 here, because this type of thinking is partly responsible for keeping teachers at the mercy of legislators. In the long run, I believe our compassion does a disservice to our youth and to education as a profession. We will never attract and retain the best and the brightest from our universities, in the numbers needed, with the salaries currently offered by the state. Besides, these graduates probably remember the hell they gave their teachers. Who wants to be part of that?

  • Kill Your Boss

    I will tell you this: teachers are slaves to society. I dare you to try that job for such a lousy pay. We come in loving education of children and society as a whole, and then everyone (especially administrators like Mike Rice of Lake Mary Highschool in Lake Mary, Florida) bullies us. We are human beings like the rest of you. And if you are not careful you will see how pissed off we can be when treated unfairly. Teachers need to rise up and Fight Back for Real Education… Not this Indoctrination! You were all children once! Remember your child in you! You are more then this physical shell! I am done with this bullshit! Let us fix this problem ourselves. The politicians will never fix education and the administrators are just puppets of the politicians. We Have to All Rebel for Real! Our society is crumbling around us you can no longer be passive! Your children Will Have No Future Unless YOU Stop Following The Rules NOW!

  • J Z

    I have 24 years of experience, a Masters degree I paid for and earned during my “free” time, and make $40,000 per year. I am glad to have a job in this economy.
    Side bar- the government waves many restrictions and regulations for Charter schools and they credit their achievements to small class size. The public school where I teach has small class size, and the government keeps trying to regulate us out of existence. I cannot follow the logic on that one.

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