Leaving because they care too much to stay

Too many talented newcomers exit the profession in those first vital years. We need to listen to them, not knock them into shape

Misty Adoniou

This year, a large number of newly qualified teachers will walk out of a profession that has been, for many, a long-held ambition. According to studies in the UK, US and Australia, attrition rates can be as high as 30 per cent in the first three years of teaching.

Of course, not everybody is suited to teaching, and just wanting to be a teacher and completing the training is no guarantee of success in the classroom. So we could conclude that those who decide to leave just can't cut it and that this is a natural process.

However, research suggests that this is not the case. Too often, those who leave are those who have high expectations for themselves and their students. They came into teaching with a sense of mission. They are usually high achievers. In short, they are just the kind of teachers we all want.

So what goes wrong? In a recent study, I followed 14 high-achieving and highly committed new teachers through their first 16 months in the classroom. It allowed me to see what they were good at, what they struggled with, and how their training could have been better and their employers more supportive. Most extraordinarily, the project revealed that, at some stage during their first year, every one of them considered leaving teaching.

The project also provided me with a number of more subtle - and human - insights. For example, there was the teacher who, three months into the study, made a plea: "Don't let me forget the teacher I wanted to be." She was, and is, amazing in the classroom. She had been a university high-achiever and was a terrific performer during training. She was impatient to get into school. She had brilliant ideas and strong ideals. She had a vision and couldn't wait to see it fulfilled.

The first term at school knocked the wind out of her sails. Some of it was the shock of the new, the overwhelming sense of responsibility and sheer exhaustion that fills every day. But so much of it was the realisation that no one cared about her ideas and her innovations. As she put it: "I want to be the teacher that I know I can be. I don't want to just go with the system and then... be scared I'll never do anything else."

Her story is shared by many new entrants. Newly qualified teachers walk into their first classrooms nervous but excited to be finally doing the job. However, too often they are treated as "empty vessels" who are simply required to slot into existing systems. This would be fine if all we wanted was to keep doing what we have always done. But an ever-growing tail of underachievers around the world tells us that what we have always done isn't good enough. So what steps should be taken to keep these teachers in the system - and, crucially, to keep their enthusiasm and ideals intact?

Parents, school leaders and governments want quality teachers and much energy goes into recruitment. More recently this has focused on fast-tracking high-achieving graduates and locating the training of teachers within schools - neither of which, so far, appear to have improved attrition rates or students' results.

What is missing here is an understanding of teaching as a long story, one that starts even before candidates turn up to their teacher preparation courses and continues long after they graduate.

Although efforts to improve the quality of teaching have focused on teacher preparation and training, these are just small chapters in the story of developing good educators. We must not ignore personal motivations. These are what bring people into the profession and, when unfulfilled, will push them out again. And, vitally, we must pay close attention to the many remaining chapters in each individual's story - that is, the schools and systems in which they work. Creative and intelligent teachers aren't going to stay around in a system that gives them no autonomy and stymies their ideas.

Motivation matters

It is only when we take account of these personal motivations within the context of training and employment that we can understand why so many choose to leave. When we misconstrue the reasons, we offer misguided remedies. If policymakers think the problem is merely that training should be more hands-on or that the profession lacks standards, then their solutions are destined to continue alienating good teachers.

Training programmes must do better. There is no debate. The best teacher preparation makes clear connections between theory and practice, and teacher education faculties around the globe have innovative school-university partnerships where theory can be played out, and played with, in the real world of the classroom. We must be careful not to implement school-based apprenticeship models that sidestep theory altogether. Education needs transformation, not replication.

One young teacher described the importance of continuity in the professional story: "Even though there were things about university that frustrated me, it still made me be a teacher and I learned so many valuable things. To have a complete break from it and then to be... in the big wide world of teaching and to not be connected with those things any more... I just like having that connection."

When done well, university is the crucible of innovation and change in education. But teacher training alone is not the answer to high attrition rates. Employers play a major role, too. A teacher's first school is central to the process of them becoming the practitioner they want to be; it is where they decide if they like the idea of the final destination. Yet schools frequently see themselves as a whole new story that a newly qualified teacher must fit into. They induct new teachers into the "system".

Too often, good teachers leave because they care too much to stay. So what is the answer? Is there a magic bullet to bring down the attrition rate of good teachers?

For me, the answer lies in a question. School leaders, senior staff, colleagues and parents should purposefully ask young teachers: "What kind of teaching do you want to do?" The answer will be inspiring.

Misty Adoniou is a former primary school teacher and a senior lecturer in language, literacy and teaching English as a second language at the University of Canberra, Australia.

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Misty Adoniou

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