Teacher retention – why do so many teachers leave or are thinking to leave the profession?

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The recent NFER report on teacher retention makes for some interesting reading. There is some encouragement in reading that:

                 The majority of teachers are not considering leaving the profession. Half of teachers are “engaged”, a third seem more ambivalent, but only a minority are “disengaged” (p2)

But the report also points out that the percentage of teachers considering leaving teaching is growing, leading to growing pressures on retention of teachers. The main factors identified as elements that can facilitate retentions were “job satisfaction, having adequate resources, reward and recognition, and being well supported by management“. So, how many of these elements do you recognise in your school, or your role as teacher?

Having worked in schools both as teachers and as teacher educators for over 15 years, we have come across a number of dissatisfied teachers and we would like to share some of the stories they had to tell when asked what they found frustrating about their school and its management.

One teacher told us that they didn’t feel their senior leadership recognised their hard work because they were not allowed to request any time off school for collecting an award for a project that had brought over £5000 to the school because “the students would miss valuable teacher time”. But when a PE teacher ran the London Marathon on a Sunday in the same school she was not only allowed to take the Monday off to recover, but she was praised in the staff briefing by the Headteacher for her achievement.

Another teacher told us that they felt completely unsupported by management, because they actively avoided confronting poor behaviour and left staff deal with issues that they felt should have been dealt with at senior level. A worrying episode they described to qualify their statement was when this teacher was walking in the school courtyard towards their department during lesson time (free period for this teacher) and just a little further the two Deputy Headteachers were also walking in the same direction (so they could not see the teacher). At some point “the two worst behaved students in the school” appeared walking in the opposite direction and smoking. When the two deputies saw them, they turned around the corner and changed direction, so they would not have to confront them.

I know you might think these are just anecdotal accounts, but it is hard not to ask the question: How many of these sort of incidents are consistently pushing our teachers closer to the threshold of leaving the profession bit by bit?

The NFER analysis reveals other interesting figures that might actually support the view that episodes like the ones described above might not be isolated incidents and could be more common than most think. The below diagram is taken from the NFER report (p12) and shows some interesting and revealing patterns.

From the diagram it is clear that the group of teachers with the greatest intent to leave teaching is male teachers with 5+ years of experience and in terms of subjects, science seems to be the one that is hit the hardest by this trend. Could this be due to the frequent demand on science teachers to teach outside their subject specialism? We hear of many biology teachers having to teach physics at GCSE (and sometimes A-level). In most cases, these teachers feel ill equipped to cope with their lack of subject matter knowledge and even less able to develop appropriate pedagogical content knowledge.

The group that shows the greatest intent to stay in teaching, by a very large margin, is (perhaps unsurprisingly) senior leaders. So, what could senior leaders do to share their enthusiasm and support teachers who want to leave teaching? Why do maths teachers seem to be more satisfied than science teachers? How can we shift these trends?

Perhaps a good starting point could be to trust teachers’ professional judgement a bit more and not load them with very heavy loads of accountability and instil a fear of failure that choke their practice. As Hattie (2014) says “school leaders and teachers need to create schools, staffrooms, and classroom environments in which error is welcomed as a learning opportunity, in which discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed, and in which teachers can feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge and understanding”. In an environment where teachers can explore and feel safe to learn from their mistakes job satisfaction is likely to raise. We are built to learn new things and to strive for our best, so let us encourage teachers to be the best they can be and not to consistently make them feel like failures. Then, we might just have built a professional environment that people will want to join, not try to escape!

In light of these considerations it should not surprise us to hear Finnish teacher education researcher Hannele Niemi say:

“Many people ask why Finnish students perform so well in school and many young Finns choose teaching as their life career. There is no regular standardised testing, school inspection, teacher evaluation or ranking of schools in Finland. Public education has a central role in enhancing equality and well-being in Finnish society. High quality academic teacher education ensures readiness to work in other areas of the Finnish labour market. Most importantly, in Finland teachers and schools enjoy strong public confidence. Parents trust teachers the way they trust their dentists… I believe that because teachers – as a result of academic education – have clear moral purpose and independent professional ethos, they are trusted. Research-based teacher education is essential in making that possible.”

Trusting teachers? What a thought, uh?

References

Hattie, J., 2014. Visible learning and the science of how we learn. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London?; New York.

Lynch, S., Worth, J., Bamford, S., Wespieser, K., 2016. Engaging Teachers: NFER Analysis of Teacher Retention. NFER, Slough.

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