What’s holding teachers back? The psychology of changing jobs

We all know a colleague who has remained in the same job for what seems like eternity. Yet this may not be down to job satisfaction or lack of opportunity – it could be the result of a psychological barrier. Tes speaks to an expert to find out more

Kate Parker

Why Teachers Stay Put

Simon has been teaching in Year 5 for five years at the same school. This was his first job as a newly qualified teacher. But although he’s got that itch signalling that it’s time for a new challenge, he hasn’t applied for any other jobs.

Simon isn’t alone. Despite a plethora of opportunities available, thousands of talented teachers stay in one school, in the same job, for years. While some fall in love with their school and see no reason to leave, many others will stick it out despite the inclination to try something new. 

Why is it that a teacher can feel ready to move on but find themselves ducking the issue when it comes to filling out an application? And what can be done to help them get over their fear and take that leap into what could be the perfect new job?


Career paralysis

Career psychologist Rob Archer says there are five common psychological reasons for this fear of moving on, which he calls “career paralysis”.

1. Too much choice

The first is what Archer terms the paradox of choice. “When teachers think about other places they can go, or indeed other careers, the choice can be mind-boggling,” he says.

“We also start to think about what might have been and regret those decisions. It’s a double-edged sword: we find it hard to make a decision and then we regret the decisions we do and don’t take.”

2. Negative bias

The second reason people stay put, Archer says, is that our minds are negatively biased. This means that we instinctively pay more attention to the negative.

“If our ancestors weren’t sure if they saw a bear or a blueberry bush, it [was safer to assume] you saw a bear: if you got that wrong, you’d be rapidly weeded out of the gene pool,” says Archer.

“Negative thoughts and emotions keep us safe, but when you apply that to a career choice, it’s at a cost of something that is truly meaningful.”

So, he says, if we are faced with a choice between a safe old thing and a scary new thing, our minds are predisposed to exercise caution.  

3. The easy option

Another barrier, according to Archer, is that people prefer short-term ease over long-term gain.

Human motivation works by pulling us in two different directions: moving us away from unpleasant experiences (your current job), and moving us towards positive gains (a new job). Most people, Archer says, will want to head towards their future goals and values.

But this direction is scary. Applying for a new job conjures up feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and fear of failure. And because the short-term consequences of moving towards our goals provokes uncomfortable emotions, we are likely to pull away from this discomfort and back towards the familiar – and the job we currently have.

“We naturally make it a priority to avoid difficult emotions and this, in turn, means we avoid the things that are worthwhile,” says Archer. “But by prioritising the avoidance of difficult emotions over the things we really value, we lose control of our lives.”

4. Sticking with what you know

Functional fixedness is the fourth barrier that often prevents people from seeking out new opportunities. This is the sense that we can only do what we’ve always done, Archer explains.

“People get functionally fixed on their own identities. For example: ‘I am an extrovert’, or ‘I am a Scorpio’, or ‘I am a Year 5 teacher’. It’s a rigid way of thinking and yet that’s how we tend to describe ourselves,” he says.

These rigid ways of thinking can hold us back and prevent us from seeing how we could become something more, he adds.

5. Believing you aren’t good enough

The fifth obstacle we face is that our mind treats thoughts as facts: this is called cognitive fusion.

If your mind is telling you that you aren’t good enough and that you won’t succeed, you are less likely to take a risk in putting yourself out there, says Archer.

“We treat our thoughts as if they are true, and we allow them to dictate what we move away from and towards,” he explains.

Overcoming your fears 

So, how can teachers move past these mental barriers that are preventing them from applying for that bigger, better and more challenging job – or from simply moving on to find a school that is a better fit for them?

‘When it comes to career change, it’s important to recognise that your mind isn’t exactly your enemy but it definitely isn’t your friend,” says Archer. “Your mind isn’t evolved to make career change in any way natural. It’s definitely going to give you a lot of emotions that are really difficult.”

He uses the analogy of a chess board to explain: “The white pieces are your good thoughts and the black pieces are your bad thoughts. Every time you try and move your white piece forward, it seems to be countered by a negative piece.

“People can get into a trap inside their head with this chess match. They are always trying to beat the other pieces but, actually, the metaphor is that you are not the pieces. You are bigger than that: you are the board.”

Once you’ve recognised – and, crucially, accepted –  that it’s perfectly natural to feel this range of challenging emotions, Archer recommends that you make a list of “decision criteria”.

This should be a list of 10-15 things that you truly want from your career, including how much you want to be paid, where you want to work and how meaningful you want your job to be.

All of your criteria should be different but, collectively, they should describe what it is that you really want in a job.

“This then acts as a compass that helps you navigate forward, and allows you to access your options against a clear, defined list of what you want from a career move,” says Archer.

When to stick or twist

It seems that overcoming the barriers preventing us from moving forwards in our careers might not be such a difficult task after all, then. 

But, even if teachers do learn to conquer their fears, how often should they be trying to change jobs? Is there a risk that career paralysis could be replaced by “career hopping”? And would that be such a bad thing?

In the UK, the average worker will change employer every five years, according to research by life insurance firm Liverpool Victoria.

Meanwhile, Patty McCord, former chief talent officer for Netflix, says job hopping is a good thing, and that young people should plan to move jobs every three to four years.

Professor Alan Benson, of the department of work and organisations at the University of Minnesota, agrees. He says that teachers shouldn’t let the fear of moving on too quickly stop them from seeking out a new opportunity if the moment feels right.

“People are more likely to change their jobs and careers, especially in the UK and the US, more often than they did in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

“For older generations, a lot of people stayed in the same job for a long time, but now, in the current climate, it’s more common to move on quickly. Employers do expect graduates straight out of university to look to make a step up or move on within a couple of years. It’s a great way to build your skillset, and see what other roles you could be good at,” says Benson. 

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