Keeping Good Teachers In The Classroom

1.6 million teachers will retire over the next decade

Teachers are retiring, and too few new teachers are replacing them. Lack of upward mobility, low salaries and demoralizing work are causing new teachers to burn out and leave the profession within a few years of starting. Classrooms are overcrowded. Quality science and math education is suffering.

Given these commonly addressed woes, it would seem that the sky is falling on the state of education in America. But is it?

"This is a time for great optimism, in my opinion," says Brad Jupp, an Education Department senior program adviser. "People are starting to wrestle with the challenges."

For years, public-school teachers typically stayed in their jobs from graduation to retirement. The teaching profession is changing, affected by such factor as the retirement of baby boomers, a cultural shift away from long-term career commitment, more opportunities open to women and people of color, economic factors, demographic changes, and a common desire for professional satisfaction among young adults.

Over the next decade, 1.6 million teachers will retire and, according to Jupp, about 200,000 teachers join the teaching force each year. At this rate, the force will replenish itself – if teachers stay. And if they stay depends largely on their perceived sense of efficacy in the classroom.

National averages indicate that one-third of new teachers stay in their jobs, one-third change schools, and one-third leave the profession within seven years of starting. Sixty-two percent of new teachers say they feel unprepared for classroom realities.

Jupp searches for root causes and tries to address systemic issues. For him, there are two main questions: "What motivates people to come into teaching, and what motivates them to stay?"

Jupp cites the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, led by Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University, which found that teachers who stay in their jobs believe they are achieving or working toward efficacy in the classroom, while others are resigned to inefficacy. Others become discouraged and leave the profession. Supportive work environments and career ladders for professional growth will contribute to teacher retention.

When it comes to math and science, Jupp acknowledges that schools need to work harder to attract strong candidates and to give them more opportunities and better pay. The difference between an effective math teacher and an ineffective one could amount to an entire year.

It’s also untenable to throw a first-year teacher into a classroom with the most needs and the lowest skills. According to a majority of principals and superintendents, new teachers are unprepared to deal with classroom discipline, students with limited English language skills, diversity and disabilities.

In addition to increased training, schools need to create good working conditions, and "not just [treat] you as a replaceable part," Jupp says. "The more you feel ineffective, the more likely you are to make a bad decision, either to leave, or to stay knowing you’re not going to make a difference."

While the education sector is facing myriad challenges that vary from district to district, overall the industry is booming. Recruiting and retaining the best teachers in these changing times is among the greatest tasks, but it’s not an insurmountable one.

"People are thinking differently about the system,” Jupp says. “They’re thinking about what it means to be a skillful teacher."