Auburn education researchers offer solutions for nation’s teacher retention, shortage problem
America’s education system is in the throes of a teacher shortage crisis that was magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. With job satisfaction low and high percentages of educators leaving for other fields, teacher retention is a problem on the forefront of the K-12 landscape. Auburn University College of Education Assistant Professors Andrew Pendola and David Marshall have discovered ways for schools and administrators to combat the teacher retention and shortage problem after conducting extensive research on the issue. Below, they remark about the current state of affairs and offer research-based suggestions for how the nation’s education system can stem the tide of teachers leaving the industry.
Teacher retention and teacher shortages have been developing problems in the country for years, problems that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. What are the national and statewide numbers of teachers who are planning on leaving the profession?
Pendola: While the numbers vary widely depending on where you look, in Alabama, roughly 8% of teachers leave the profession each year, which is right about at the national average. In 2019, before the pandemic, about 34% of teachers nationwide said they had thought about leaving the profession in the next few years. After the pandemic, that number jumped to 54%. Alabama is no different.
In a recent survey by the Alabama State Department of Education, 38% of teachers said they were planning to leave in the next five years, and another 17% said they were thinking of leaving. This leaves us with over half (55%) of teachers reporting they are considering leaving the profession. On top of this, over the last 10 years, we have seen a 40% decrease in the number of students entering teacher education programs, meaning that it will be increasingly difficult to find replacements.
Marshall: Teacher retention is a challenge that has existed for years. Even before the pandemic, as many as half of all teachers left the profession within five years and between 6-8% exited teaching annually. However, these figures have been exacerbated by challenges associated with the pandemic. My colleagues and I conducted a nationwide survey in January 2021 and found that 15.5% of the teachers we surveyed planned to leave the classroom at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
This past May, we conducted another nationwide survey of 830 teachers and found that nearly three-fourths of teachers (76.4%) considered leaving their jobs during the 2021-22 school year. What is more concerning is that 57.6% of the teachers who participated in our research shared that they looked at job postings for positions outside of education and 22.4% of them actually applied for a job outside of education. So, although the general trends have existed for some time, we have evidence to suggest that this is getting worse.
What has your research shown about the main reasons teachers are dissatisfied and looking to leave their careers as educators?
Pendola: After talking with lots of teachers, and then sending out a state-representative survey, a few things became clear. First, teachers are most bothered by the sense that they are pinched between conflicting expectations—such as being responsible for the test scores of 30 students in class while being expected to offer personal care to each student all at once. Second, they are bothered by the sense that paperwork and test scores are treated as if they are more important than positive interactions, emotional well-being and meaningful relationships.
All of this combines into a sense that the realities of the profession detract from meaningful learning experiences and children’s social and emotional needs. So, it’s not that teachers don’t want to help or want to leave students—it is that they feel true help isn’t recognized in today’s environment.
Marshall: The job of being a teacher was difficult before the pandemic, and it was even more challenging during the past two years. Teachers have had additional demands placed on them, in many cases without being afforded additional professional time to achieve them. In the early stages of the pandemic, teachers were asked to teach in a manner for which they were unprepared, and their students were asked to learn in ways which were unfamiliar. Teachers had to move all of their instruction online. When schools began to reopen for in person learning during the 2020-21 school year, teachers were often tasked with teaching students who were present in the school building along with students who were attending remotely, and they had to enforce COVID-19 mitigation strategies while maintaining an instructional environment. Fortunately, many schools offered teachers some additional professional planning time to account for these increased expectations.
This past school year (2021-22), most schools returned to a “mostly normal” routine, albeit without the additional planning time that was afforded to some during the year prior. The Delta and Omicron variants of the virus continued to spread, often leaving teachers to give up their planning time and cover their colleagues’ classes when they had to miss work. In short, the expectations placed on teachers continued to change over the course of the past year, often leaving teachers with a greater workload and a more complex job (e.g., teaching remote and in-person students simultaneously) and with less professional time afforded to them to complete their professional work.
What can be done to reverse this trend and change educators’ mentalities about staying in the profession?
Pendola: While this may all sound fairly negative, there is actually a silver lining here. Instead of asking for more pay or time off, most teachers simply want to feel respected in what they do, have the support to nurture meaningful student interactions and be recognized for their efforts. This means that efforts to reduce teacher turnover don’t need to be costly, don’t require an act of Congress and can start right away.
To reduce turnover and dissatisfaction, school principals and leaders can work to ensure they have supportive, respectful and relationship-driven school environments. Parents and community members can show their support. While salary and resources are certainly part of the equation, this research shows that sometimes all it takes is a kind word to keep a teacher from leaving.
Marshall: Fortunately, we have found a couple of things that can help mitigate some of the additional challenges placed on teachers over the past two years. Findings from our May survey, as well as from focus groups we’ve conducted with teachers this fall, suggest that teachers who have greater levels of autonomy in the classroom and teachers who report having greater levels of support from school leaders had higher levels of morale and job satisfaction, lower levels of burnout and were more likely to remain in the profession. The good news is that both things are within a school’s locus of control.
In our focus groups, we spoke with several teachers who shared that they would have quit the profession altogether had it not been for their principal being so supportive. In some cases, the issue that was challenging for the teacher was not able to be addressed, but simply having a principal who listened and attempted to address the issue mattered quite a bit.
Echoing Dr. Pendola’s findings, when we asked teachers what they need to be successful, their immediate answers weren’t about pay, but rather about having respect and support from colleagues and school leaders, having reasonable expectations in terms of their workload and being provided the professional time to do their work. School leaders who micromanage less and provide their teachers with a supportive work environment are likely to have fewer issues in terms of teacher attrition than those who do not do these things.
What can units like the College of Education at Auburn do to help prepare those who are studying to become teachers for the world that awaits them after graduation?
Pendola: Teaching is still a great career. If we look at why most people ultimately leave their jobs, it is because they don’t find the work meaningful or fulfilling. But teachers overwhelmingly find purpose and value in their work. In this sense, I think that it is important we emphasize that, not only is teaching important and noble, but it is also an extremely fulfilling career. Money can’t buy that.
Auburn already does a great job preparing future teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed. We work to ensure our teachers know that it is OK to advocate for their needs in their schools and that our school leaders know the importance of emphasizing relationships and respect. But most importantly, what we are doing now is reminding our aspiring teachers to pay attention to and protect the relationships, purpose and personal satisfaction they get from preparing the next generation.
Marshall: The College of Education already does a good job of giving students multiple opportunities to have experience in the classroom prior to graduating and getting a classroom of their own. The best thing that we can do for our students is to continue to ensure they are prepared to successfully integrate technology in their instruction and give their students opportunities for hands-on experiences in schools. It also will be helpful to directly address the issues that have led to teacher dissatisfaction during their preparation and give pre-service teachers the tools to navigate some of the challenges that we have seen emerge during and following the pandemic.
David Marshall, left, and Andrew Pendola are assistant professors in Auburn University's College of Education who have conducted extensive research into the state's and nation's teacher satisfaction and retention problems.
Andrew Pendola is an assistant professor in Auburn University's College of Education. His research focuses on educator recruitment, retention and turnover, as well as education labor policy and school finance.
David Marshall is an assistant professor in Auburn University's College of Education. His research focuses on high school graduation outcomes, school choice and charter schools and innovative approaches to preparing teachers.
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