Riding the Turnover Wave

Helping parents understand why teacher turnover happens, and what schools (and they) can do

August 21, 2017
whimsical illustration of a sailboat floating tranquil on large waves

When you drop off your child at school this fall, you might see some new faces, and not just among the students. Over 200,000 teachers leave the profession every year, for a total of about 8 percent of the teaching workforce. That’s about twice the rate of countries like Finland and Singapore that are considered leaders in education. Among American preschool and daycare teachers, the turnover rate is even higher, at about 15 percent overall, with half of all centers experiencing some churn every year, according to a 2014 report [PDF] by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

Turnover is not necessarily cause for panic, but it can warn of systemic problems in a school. And while many of the remedies are in the domain of school leaders and policymakers, parents can help their children by being informed and by understanding what is, and isn’t, cause for concern.

If teachers are leaving a school in droves because they are frustrated and unsupported, that should concern any parent. 

What Drives Teacher Turnover?

Even under the best of conditions, teachers are at high risk for burnout. 

  • Teachers have to be “on” all day, with few breaks and little schedule flexibility during the school year (for example, to go to their own children’s school events). Every year they are encountering higher numbers of children dealing with the stresses of poverty and trauma. If you know what it’s like when your children are overtired, uninterested in focusing, and asking for three different things, magnify that by a factor of 5 or 10, and then try to teach math.  
  • Elementary and secondary school teachers earn about 17 percent less than other college graduates, and the outlook is even bleaker for early childhood teachers, almost half of whom qualify for public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid despite working full-time. But low salaries tell only part of the story; in fact, national data show that money is not among the top reasons elementary and secondary teachers leave the profession. (It is the most common reason among early childhood teachers, however.) K–12 teachers more often cite stress over assessment practices and accountability policies, inadequate support from administrators, and feeling like they have no voice in decisions affecting their classrooms.

These factors are concerning, because they affect students as well as teachers. Studies show that the quality of teaching and learning is better when educators have opportunities to collaborate with each other, share their ideas with administrators, and take on increasing responsibility and leadership roles. If teachers are leaving a school in droves because they are frustrated and unsupported, that should concern any parent.

How Can Schools Help?

Burnout is not inevitable, and it does not have to lead to dropout. Districts can support teachers and improve retention by, first and foremost, ensuring effective leadership at the school level. Other strategies include:

Helping teachers cope with stress
An important piece of the puzzle is having sufficient support for students so that teachers don’t have to do it all themselves. When schools have adequate numbers of counselors, special education teachers, and behavioral specialists, students are able to function more effectively in their classrooms and teachers can focus on teaching. When teachers get training in social and emotional development, they are better equipped to handle challenging situations, and they know how to cope with their own feelings. In Sunnyvale, California, for example, the district has made a strong commitment to social and emotional learning, including providing a mental health clinician who is available to teachers to talk about stress in a confidential setting. These efforts seem to be paying off: student discipline referrals are decreasing and teacher satisfaction is increasing, according to staff and administrators.

Encouraging teachers to grow on the job
Mentoring programs can help teachers cope with challenges and encourage them to stay. New teachers are at especially high risk for burnout, and somewhere between 17 and 40 percent of them leave the profession within the first five years. But when they have coaches or mentors to help them, they tend to be more satisfied with and committed to their jobs, and more likely to remain in the profession. (Their students do better in school, too.) 

What Parents Should Know
  • Teacher turnover can warn of systemic problems in a school.
  • If teachers are leaving each year, ask school leaders what they’re doing to prevent turnover.
  • Inquire about programs to reduce teacher stress and to aid professional development. (And consider how valuable it is to fund such programs.)

What Can Families Do?

Mentoring programs are a signal that a district is taking care of its teachers, and therefore its students — but they are not always visible to parents. It’s worth asking administrators if these kinds of supports exist, and it’s important to keep in mind how valuable it is to fund them, even if the money doesn’t appear to go directly into the classroom. 

Families should ask administrators and fellow parents about other ways their school is preventing turnover. You can inquire about supports such as SEL programs and school counselors. And look for warning signs among the staff, like teachers who are exasperated, negative, or isolated in their classrooms.

And what to do if there is a wave of turnover at your child’s school?

Create as much continuity as you can. Children, especially young ones, thrive on familiarity, so see if you can keep their schedules and routines consistent. If your child’s favorite teacher leaves, help him find other staff he connects with, like the music teacher or guidance counselor. Talk to the new teacher or principal about what will change in the classroom (routine, instructional approach, discipline style) and discuss it with your child in advance. And remember that children take their cues from us; keep things positive and your child is more likely to maintain an open and optimistic attitude, too, making him better able to adjust than if he feels anxious or critical.

There will always be political and economic factors driving turnover. Although parents can’t control those factors directly, we can help by staying informed and involved in the systems that influence our children’s school experiences, from voting for local school councils to being aware of national education policy. Beyond inflammatory rhetoric about teacher unions, pay-for-performance, and other hot-button school policies, we need to be thoughtful about how our decisions affect teachers — and, ultimately, our children.

About the Author

Suzanne Bouffard
Suzanne Bouffard is a writer and a researcher focusing on child development and education. She earned a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Duke University and is the author, most recently, of The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children (Avery, 2017). She has also written for the New York Times, parents.com, and the Harvard Education Letter. 
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