By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

Why Do Teachers Leave Their Profession?


ago, all the directors of teacher education programs in North Carolina received this question through email from our N.C. State Board of Education members: “Why are your graduates with teaching licenses not going into teaching?”

The best way for me to answer this question was to tell the stories of two excellent graduates who both have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be excellent teachers, but chose either not to enter teaching or not to remain in the classroom. I changed their names for privacy reasons.

Sam was a double major in business and elementary education. He is also brilliant in math and a great baseball player. Both of his parents are teachers, and he is the type of kind, sensitive, creative, funny and intelligent young man who all of us would want in the schools. After finishing his business degree in three years, he wanted to stay and play baseball (he had a scholarship) so he decided to declare a second major in elementary education. He was amazing in the classroom and fell in love with teaching. But his scholarship money ran out before the student teaching semester, and being good at math, he realized the loans he took out for teaching were crazy because his salary would be so little in the beginning and throughout his teaching career.

Sam graduated without a license and took his first job managing a for-profit business making around $50,000 (a sum significantly above the average beginning $30,000 salary of first year teachers in North Carolina). I see him several times in the community and each time we talk, he promises that he is saving his money so he can do what he really wants: teach in the public schools. I truly believe Sam will find his way to the classroom and become an educational leader in his 40s and 50s, but as he says now, “I have to make a living first so I can support my own future family.”

Emily was one of the most out-of-the-box creative preservice teachers I have had the opportunity to observe, and she was a natural leader in our small college community. In her student teaching, she organized a “Pirate Week” that parents and teachers in the community tell me their children/students still talk about. Evidently, Emily’s father is a pirate by hobby (go figure — I think he is actually a psychologist by training) and does an amazing performance for schools and community groups. Anyway, the kids prepared for his coming for a week, reading books about Blackbeard and learning about boats and geography and marine life, counting pirate gold, and learning the phonetic language of a pirate and wearing eye patches — 21st century interdisciplinary curriculum planning and enacting at its best.

After Emily graduated, she took the first job offered nearest her hometown, a school that proudly boasted the highest standardized test scores in the region. I thought all was going well. Who would even doubt that it wasn’t knowing Emily, until I received a call with her in tears, telling me that she was going to quit in the middle of the year. She then described an elementary school that was totally controlled by a principal that ruled by fear and a place where teachers were isolated and forced to do canned testing programs. She was discouraged from taking her students out for recess and when she wanted to bring the amazing “Pirate Day” to this school, she was told that she could do it for her class, but that the other teachers would be working on math and that was the priority for the school and she should stick to the curriculum. Emily felt that she could not be the creative and student-centered teacher she was educated to be.

When Emily went to the principal to ask for help, the principal told her that she “was not cut out to be a teacher in this school.” Emily was strong enough to advocate for herself and talk about her need for collaboration and mentorship in her first year of the teaching profession, but it seemed not to resonante with a principal who herself was under immense pressure to keep test scores high for accountability and did not have professional development resources or knowledge to help create a learning atmosphere in the school.

I begged Emily not to quit in the middle of the year and have a red flag on her record, and I told her I would introduce her to some of the great elementary schools in the region that were wonderful professional learning communities. There are many. But she did quit in the middle of the year and moved to Georgia to begin a program in nursing.

The last time I spoke with her, she was volunteering in a wonderful elementary school and the principal, recognizing her gifts, was trying to get her to try teaching again.

These two talented young people’s stories speak for themselves, but still the following question resonates as I think about why they are not currently pursuing their first choice of professions: If all of the money currently being spent on companies designing high-stakes accountability systems and standardized tests and all the time spent on test preparation curriculum were to be reallocated to the education of pre-service teachers, the professional development of practicing teachers, and the nurturing of professional learning communities within the school environment, would we finally see the authentic educational reform that we need? Maybe not, but at least Sam and Emily might be in a classroom this fall. The research tells us that it only takes one great teacher to change a life.

(Burrows is director of teacher education at Brevard College.)


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