Teachers Love to Teach. So Why Are They Leaving the Education Profession?
“Don't forget, a person's greatest emotional need is to feel appreciated.” - H. Jackson Brown
In order for our economy to thrive, we need a strong workforce. And in order for our workforce to be strong, we need a quality education system. That's why it's so important to support our teachers, principals, and district-level leaders. Teachers, specifically, are the backbone of our education system, and they work hard every day to help students learn and grow. However, many teachers are currently leaving the profession. As they are leaving education, many businesses are discovering that teachers have valuable skills that translate very easily into a wide variety of industries. It is only natural then that teachers would move to industries where they feel they can use their skills meaningfully. Unfortunately, this shift out of education is a significant problem for our schools and our economy as we are losing access to teachers who are passionate, creative, and engaged in preparing our children for the future.
Writing about teachers leaving schools is not a controversial topic. They are leaving. Even before the pandemic, teachers identified a desire to leave the profession. The pandemic seems to have only exacerbated and accelerated teachers' departure from the classroom. This problem extends beyond just teachers, however. School systems are having difficulty finding substitute teachers, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is preparing for a mass exodus of school principals. In fact, some states are even calling in the National Guard as substitute teachers and bus drivers. Working in school systems and teaching has always been challenging work undertaken by people who believed they were making an impact. The current departure out of the profession suggests that the impact that education professionals have no longer outweighs the negative workplace culture, underappreciation, low pay, and other inherent difficulties in the work. That is what the sentiment suggests, but what does the data have to say about this?
In 2021, the team at Psyince had the privilege of working on a project with a school district. This project focused on improving school leadership and school workplace culture across the district. After surveying the district, there were a few remarkable findings. First, the data from the district indicated that teachers love to teach. Teachers get into the profession to make an impact, and they feel that the work they do is meaningful. They want to help and support our children and to make them successful. Secondly, the most significant problems identified by respondents on our survey were directly related to perceptions of leadership and the organizational culture/climate in their schools. Specifically, teachers identified workplace problems such as low trust amongst colleagues, not feeling appreciated, lack of empathy from leaders, low psychological safety, and lack of genuine professional development and mentoring. If these results were presented for any other industry, this constellation of characteristics would be immediately identified as a toxic work environment.
Our findings from this project are not unique. For example, in North Carolina a 2019 report from the Center from Optimal Learning Environments indicated that "School Leadership continues to be the major reason (at 30%) educators list as the construct which affects their willingness to remain teaching in their current school." This report went on to list problematic aspects of school leadership and workplace climate similar to those from our survey results. These findings are important because when the main issues driving education professionals leaving the industry are leadership and workplace environment problems, schools can't simply spend their way out of the problem. A problem where the workforce does not feel appreciated and valued in their current role is a problem that needs human connection and trust.
From a societal level, education professionals not feeling appreciated is a failure that we all collectively share. The pandemic has clearly shown us how important educators are in our society, and we should all recognize that. However, school leaders are in the best place to make direct and meaningful impact on teachers. We at Psyince believe that school leaders, at all levels, should have access to evidence-based leadership training that focuses on the interpersonal and workplace climate areas of leading. This training has been successful across every industry that has implemented it, and there is no reason to think it will not work in schools. It is important that school leaders understand the positive impact of empathy and emotional intelligence, and apply those skills to their workplace.
At Psyince, we fully recognize that education professionals leaving the workforce is an issue where there are no easy solutions. However, school leaders can develop practical skills to improve the workplace and ensure they create an environment where people want to work. If we can create a better and healthier workplace for teachers and principals, who are professionals already in love with the work of educating, maybe they will think twice before leaving the profession. Or, as we recently heard a school board member say, “people don’t leave teaching, they leave bad leaders.”
Let’s create better leaders and better workplaces so we can keep our best teachers!