Who Leaves and Why

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Barbara Miner

Ariel White with a few of her students.
Photo: Barbara Miner

“I couldn’t pay my bills.”

“I never even had time to go to the bathroom.”

“I felt so alone.”

“All we did at my school was test, test, test.”

“My principal was a control freak.”

Whether you are a policy maker, parent, or community activist, you probably know someone who’s left teaching.

The reasons vary, and aren’t always the ones the media focuses on. What’s more, while a family-supporting salary is a prerequisite, by itself it is not enough. Working conditions are equally if not more important.

One popular misconception is that teachers at private schools are less likely to leave than public school teachers. Or that teaching is easier on one’s personal life than other jobs because of summer vacations and holiday breaks.

Both assumptions are wrong.

There were about 3.2 million public K-12 teachers in 2005. The most comprehensive survey of who leaves teaching or changes schools — and why — is the “Teacher Attrition and Mobility” study by the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education. The study looks both at teachers who leave the K-12 classroom and those who move to another school or district.

Following up on a survey from 2004-05, the 2007 report’s key findings include:

  • Some 8.4 percent of public school teachers leave the classroom every year (including those who retire).
  • Teachers rarely left because they didn’t want to teach. Of those not retiring, the largest percentage stayed in education (25 percent), but not as a K-12 teacher. Only 15 percent said they were “dissatisfied with teaching as a career.”
  • Some 76 percent of public school teachers are women. Almost 19 percent of those who left teaching said pregnancy or child rearing were “very important” or “extremely important” reasons. Another 20 percent cited family or personal reasons.
  • Almost the same percentage of teachers transfer schools (8.1 percent) as leave the profession.
  • The three main reasons teachers moved to a new school was because they had a chance for a better teaching assignment (38 percent), they didn’t like the old school’s administration (37 percent), or they didn’t like the old school’s working conditions (33 percent).
  • Schools with 50 percent or more students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch had significantly more teachers changing schools or leaving the profession. The same held true for schools with 35 percent or more students of color. (This has led to what is sometimes called the “qualified teacher gap.”) A U.S. Department of Education study released in September noted that high-poverty schools tend to have less qualified teachers, especially at the high school level. The states with the largest gaps have large urban populations, such as Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
  • Public school teachers who left the field of education found working conditions far superior in their new jobs — from social relationships with colleagues, to opportunities for professional development, to intellectual challenge, to availability of resources and support from their bosses. Overall, 65 percent said their workload at the new job was more manageable and that they were better able to balance personal life and work.

The study also dispels some myths concerning private school teachers. For instance, they leave the K-12 classroom at a higher rate (13.6 percent) than public school teachers (8.4 percent). At the same time, they switch schools at a slightly lower rate (5.9 percent compared to 8.1 percent).

The two main reasons private school teachers switched schools was for better salary or benefits (46 percent) or higher job security (33 percent). About half switched to a public school. It was rare, however, for public school teachers to switch to a private school.

Overall, the study is in line with other analyses. A 2006 study from Duke University, for instance, found that new teachers stayed or left primarily based on the principal’s leadership and school climate. If teachers felt they were respected members of a schoolwide learning community, they were more likely to stay.