Why do new teachers quit?

This is the situation in the public schools of America. The farther you travel away from the classroom the greater your financial and professional rewards.

Frank McCourt

Teacher Man

As an undergrad at DePaul University, there was a begging question pitched me on the way out – find out why such a significant amount of teachers quit the profession after their first three years, tell us what we can do to mend this leak. They were a little frustrated. They being the highly learned faculty under whom I studied, occasionally.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 3.7 million teachers working in public elementary and secondary schools in the 2003-2004 school year, 333,000 of them left the profession altogether for another career or line-of-work.

I won’t make up training cost statistics here, but I know how much it cost Chili’s to train a new server when I worked there through college. There is the cost of the trainer, an extra $10 an hour, the training pay itself for the new employee, about $10 an hour, the training meals, and then the many comped meals due to the new employee’s inexperience with the staff, menu and guests – my general manager told me that it cost nearly $1,000 to train a new employee. And that’s Chili’s.

Way-the-by, next time you are in a Chili’s, ask your server for the nutritional information on a particular section of the menu. It is restricted information.

How much does it cost to train a new teacher? When I was hired by the Hawaii DOE, a high-up recruiter conversed with me about 6 times over the phone totaling about 3 hours or so, I was given a $900 (after taxes) moving bonus – I wish I told them I lived on the east coast cha-ching, and I was given some new-teacher training the dollar amount of which I am unsure. Then there are the processing costs for my teaching licenses and certifications and new-employee stuff at the central office. In other words, hiring costs a significant amount of money to the DOE and to the hired teacher. The moving stipend I was given doesn’t even come close to covering the expense of moving over an ocean and getting set up. I was fortunate enough to have caring parents to support my move but a fellow newbie I worked with for a couple years actually took out a bank-loan to move and get started. I also haven’t taken account for the staggering number of student loans that we new teachers incur in order to become properly certified to teach in our stellar schools.

So why do we quit?

We have thousands of bucarroos invested in our careers – tuition, professional start-up costs (clothes, classroom materials, and loads of time!), and our very passions.

We chose these careers knowing that the financial return wouldn’t be astounding, so the shock of an personal economic slowdown can’t be exclusively to blame. Plus, the alternative career options aren’t much more lucrative.

We get lots of lovely time off to explore the world, buffer our incomes, or just live dammit.

Why do we quit? Why do we give up and go elsewhere?

Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man is a wonderfully honest memoir of a career teacher always looking away from the classroom for fulfillment. He teaches in rough inner-city schools, earns his master’s and teaches in community college, pursues a PHD at Trinity and comes back to the teaching profession all with a lingering attitude that all this effort and time should amount to something bigger. He wants his life to have meaning beyond the 170 students driven in-and-out of his class each day. There is an endlessness to how he describes the life of the classroom teacher, but there is also a romance with the work which kept him teaching for nearly 30 years. McCourt fed an inner muse by teaching and anguished over it most-of-the-time (keep in mind, this is a teacher who actually enjoyed teaching). He found excitement in the work because he knew there was something else waiting for him. And so we have Angela’s Ashes. But ask McCourt about the business of school, working the bell schedule day-in-day-out. He was bored.

This is why we all quit so early in the game despite such a heavy academic and financial investment. Consistency is touted over excitement. As a new teacher, you look around at all the wonderful veterans in the classrooms. Some are resigned to a redundant job of shuffling kids in-and-out of the room, training them to pull the lever for food; while other seasoned teachers display a pleasant calmness in the classroom and with their colleagues. More often than not, the more negative teachers don’t have much else going on outside the classroom and the more positive teachers have a pursuit away from campus – a hobby, travel, family, etc. But if we did a venn diagram tracking the attitudes of both sides, in the middle we would find a similar sentiment – the business of school is boring, boring, BORING!

It doesn’t matter how creative your class is or how much fun or success you and your students meet – the bell still rings every 50 or 80 minutes, there are still looming fundraisers on the horizon, purchase orders are due, there are meetings every Wednesday, attendance must be taken, school policy must be enforced, and you better prep your students for that standardized test which keeps on changing every year.

This never, NEVER, ever, EVER, ever changes. I don’t think that young teachers get tired of teaching necessarily, they are scared of the boring prospects of the field if teaching is what they like to do. In my first few years of teaching, I had the pleasure of learning from some great mentors who had taught for upwards of 25 years. Each of them found their own little niche on campus which brought him or her a bit of personal satisfaction, some are involved with the union, others mentor the robotics team or start a surf board company on the side. However, each of them still is burdened with the same business of conducting school. Business which often times could be completely eliminated with the school still in tact.

But what are the options for advancement?

1. Get a Master’s

2. When you’re bored again, get another Master’s

3. Go into administration

4. Become a counselor

5. Work for a test-prep company, you might get to travel

6. Teach abroad, at least you can make your environment more exciting

Frank McCourt’s above quote starts to pop with resonance – advancement in education takes you away from the classroom. How do we keep talented teachers teaching class?

I think that the entire business of doing school must become changeable. The non-negotiable items which we find so exasperating – attendance, purchase orders, teaching the same load of classes year-after-year, should become negotiable. After 25 years of teaching, most successful teachers think that they were successful despite the system of schooling. Despite it.
I read a cover story for Newsweek titled, “We Must Fire Bad Teachers.” Although I think we should be able to fire bad anybodies (Banking institutions, I’m winking), I think that the article misses the boat. A more effective topic would be, “We Must Retain Good Teachers.”

So what do we do?

I don’t think it is really a matter of doing anything. I think it is a matter of allowing education to change. It wants to. It wants to be trusted. It wants to be excited. It wants to wear a new suit of clothes.

Sometimes a new shirt changes everything.


Frank McCourt. Teacher Man. (New York: Scribner, 2005)

Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert. “Why we must fire bad teachers.” Newsweek 3/6/2010


3 thoughts on “Why do new teachers quit?

  1. Jake says:

    It’s a little known fact, but I was a teacher once. I taught ESL in public schools in Japan and in private schools in the States. I loved the job in Japan, because the students ate up everything I could give them. My classses were their breath of fresh air.

    I grew to hate teaching ESL in the States, even though the students wanted to be there. I was teaching for college entrance exams. Boring.

    Ultimately, I left for the money and went to work in the business world.

    Your piece is well written. Thank you. You bring up some salient points. There are so many restraints placed on teachers in the classroom these days. The worst is the boredom.

  2. Crystal says:

    I hadn’t even considered the issue of boredom when I made the decision to leave the field, but now that you bring it up, it is rather boring: teaching the same class five times a day, grading the same essay 120 times through all five revisions.

    But at the end of last year I decided to quit for another reason. My reason was perceived value.

    Teaching doesn’t pay; no big surprise there. But education had a value in society. Teachers were important in a community with a well-defined role and that ever-on-stage quality of being a role-model to the hundreds of young lives you encounter over the course of a school year. Now we sue teachers who give kids a bad grade and send the message loud and clear to the rest of the world that school is worthless, so worthless we’re going to close it down every Friday. For me, it boiled down to this simple sentiment: if you don’t care (and I’m talking to you local, state and federal government alike) I’m not working my ass off for ridiculously low pay for you.

    So I quit and now I’ll be making more money serving cocktails at a casino than I ever could teaching. And that’s pretty lame.

    I absolutely agree with you that education is ready to change. Next question: how do we tell that to the world?

    1. teachinthepresent says:

      It’s hard not to feel undervalued as a teacher since we constantly have to defend mere operating budgets to keep schools staffed and powered. However, is there something to listen to here? I don’t think there is really anything teachers have to tell the world that we aren’t being told in so many other ways. Yes, the economics (and my vocaculary is a little cumbersome) of teaching versus service industry are baffling when subjectively thrown between them as many educators are in order to pay the bills, but restaurants change their offerings to meet their clients’ demands – do schools? Do individual classrooms? Definitely not. In fact, most public schools, instead of increasing the choices for teachers and students and parents, have pared down the menu to meat and potatoes in response to “crisis”. That makes for abland diet- which is good for you if you have digestion problems- but mainly uninspiring. I don’t think things like furloughs would ever ever happen if school hadn’t turned into the archaic babysitting service it has. Parents can sue schools for giving bad grades, but it’s hard to blame them too much for this reaction when grades are actually quite meaningless and a rather clumsy barometer for learning. If a video game is boring we don’t play it anymore. If school is boring, we are given punitive tests. Undervalued yes, but understandably so. I think that we should listen and adapt to the circumstances and allow education to change when it wants to rather than when we have no choice. I don’t think it’s about “how” it’s about “allow”. Why can’t i use YouTube at school? It’s because education systems are more like the old codger sitting on his yelling at kids to “get of my lawn!”

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