Why are so many teachers leaving our classrooms? We know that somewhere between 40% and 50% will not make it into their 6th year, and nowadays the annual turnover rate is about 15%. Of course, the high departure rate is explained in part by the aging of the baby boomers, but we are also losing a lot of experienced teachers who, if all were going well, would be helping our children learn for many more years.
The situation seems to be worse in North Carolina, where some counties in that state are experiencing a 35% turnover rate. What’s happening in North Carolina  is worthy of your attention, because it could be the canary in the mine.
Last week I wrote about the best teachers I’ve known in nearly 40 years of reporting . This week, your opportunity to hear directly from teachers who won’t be teaching next year, and why. I had the chance to speak with 6 North Carolina teachers recently, and I invite you to hear their stories.
A word about the video: The first 2:15 is some sort of PSA. I do the talking for the next 4 minutes or so, setting the stage for an audience of 1300. I asked everyone in the audience who either had been or was now a teacher to stand, and about 1000 people rose. Then I asked those who were no longer in classrooms to sit down. That left about 300-350 men and women still on their feet. You have to take my word for this because the camera is focused on a small part of the crowd (no wide shot, unfortunately). Then I said something like “If you would leave teaching if you could, if you got a better job or if your spouse suddenly got a big raise, or if you could find some other viable exit strategy from the classroom, please sit down.” Here the camera’s tight focus is kind of interesting, because you can see, even feel, people weighing what I said, shifting from one leg to the other while deciding whether to sit or stand. Eventually, about 100 more people sat down, leaving 200+ men and women still on their feet. We gave them a huge round of applause, and then the 6 men and women on the stage told their stories. Skip to 6:30 or so for their stories, which bring the dry data to life. I think you will feel what your rational self knows: this is not good for our children or our country.
Money is one issue in North Carolina. Teacher pay dropped 16% between 2002 and 2012 in inflation-adjusted dollars to $45,947, well below the national average of $55,418. Once near the national midpoint, North Carolina is now either 46th or 48th.
But that’s not the key factor. Respect is an issue, as is the human need to feel that one’s work has significance. Panelist Vivian Connell, who left her job in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system out of frustration with constant testing and other mandates, explained, “I was tired of not having a voice. No one listens to teachers.”
Many have written about this, including Daniel Pink (who also spoke at the meeting in Raleigh). Richard Ingersoll of Penn, who is the nation’s leading authority on teacher retention/departure, is himself a former public school teacher. He told The Atlantic why he left. “One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible,” Ingersoll says. “But it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect,” he says. “Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.”
All 6 of my panelists spoke movingly about the system’s ‘obsession’ with test scores and what all the testing and test-prep is doing to the profession. Sharon Boxley moved from North Carolina to Maryland (where she is making close to $15,000 more) and is still teaching. Her comment about test-prep produced an audible gasp. “I am still in the classroom,” she said, “and I miss teaching.”
It ought to be obvious that the profession cannot afford to lose its lifeblood. As I have said before, we need to make it harder to become a teacher but easier to be one. We seem to be doing the exact opposite.
- 1. Former New York Times Education Editor Edward Fiske and Duke Professor Helen Ladd have written this analysis of the North Carolina situation. (.pdf)↵
- 2. Three of whom, as it happened, were from North Carolina!↵