Why are teachers quitting?

Written by: Dr Valerie Butcher | Published:
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It’s not the same job as it used to be. There are, of course, positives from that - but also many ...

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Workload has been identified as a key factor behind the retention crisis and why so many teachers choose to quit. But Dr Valerie Butcher asks whether it is also down to the type of work we’re asking teachers to do?

Recruitment and retention have always been linked as it is not just about encouraging fantastic people to join the profession, it is about developing and keeping them.

Working with initial teacher education (ITE) candidates to explore their predispositions and dispositions to the teaching role as part of the recruitment process, developing their professional teaching identities as part of their training, and continuing this maturation process into employment serves to support the early career teacher in developing a prolonged teaching career.

Unfortunately, this is not as seamless as it may appear.

In my experience, those joining the profession do so for reasons of social justice or social mobility or, put simply, wanting to help young people reach their potential.

Of the reasons given for leaving, workload is often cited. In general discourse, the term “workload” is used as a summative term to describe a range of competing tensions associated with work/life balance, including the amount of time taken to plan, prep and resource lessons, oversee assessment processes, or manage accountabilities, compliances and quality assurance procedures.

Workload has also occupied government thinking in its attempts to boost retention rates. Education secretary Damian Hinds spoke about plans to reduce the workload burden when taking up his post last year. He then introduced a workload reduction toolkit for schools in July 2018 and in November backed the recommendations of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group on data.

This follows on from work by his predecessors Justine Greening and Nicky Morgan – the latter creating the “Workload Challenge some five years ago, leading to reports and advice on three of the principle causes of workload (DfE, 2016).

However, whether this type of focus will address the reasons why teachers are leaving the profession is questionable. The issue of workload is symptomatic of deeper issues affecting teacher retention.

Speaking with trainee teachers and alumni at Manchester Metropolitan University, the reasons given for wanting to become a teacher are often altruistic, followed by the pragmatic and idealistic.

They want to improve the lives of those they teach and to help their students achieve their potential.

Passion for the subject and a desire to share this with students is a key theme. The teaching salary seems to play a lesser part in their decision; those joining the PGCE in particular have often had a “first career” and may have earned more while employed within it. In making a choice to become a teacher, they acknowledge that money is not the key driver for them.

Whatever the reasons given, the common denominator is that they want to want to work with young people. This statement seems simple yet despite this drive many teachers are making the decision to leave the profession before the end of their first or third year (according to national data).

The underlying complexities are significant. Teachers want to teach and that is where the issue lies. The demands of the changing role deflect teachers away from their core aim and motivations in wanting to become a teacher.

Teaching is a creative profession. It attracts people who are independent, autonomous, imaginative, curious, inventive, risk-takers and adventurers. They have the ability to communicate effectively with others. They are individuals wanting to work in a unique way. Many who join the profession are also brilliant leaders.

In considering these characteristics, it opens up a series of questions. If teaching is a creative profession, is society – or indeed the government – asking the wrong things of the types of people attracted to it? And by doing so, are we unwittingly placing them on a trajectory to leaving? In other words, are we asking teachers to be something they don’t want to be?

Teachers do not choose to be administrators or data collectors; they cannot take over the role of health professionals, social workers, police officers and, above all, parents. If teaching is the core purpose, and if teaching is what teachers want to do, a clash between societal and government expectation and teacher perception of the teaching role is inevitable.

And have we cornered teachers to such an extent that they see no choice but to leave the profession?

I now realise that in my early teaching career I had the “luxury” of being involved primarily with teaching. I had time to think and to plan; I had autonomy over my working day; I was teaching at a time when the teaching profession was held in high regard.
Parents’ evening was an example of this: the teacher’s professional judgement on a child’s progress was sufficient, it did not require further endorsement by external agencies. There was recognition of a teacher’s professional knowledge, skills and identity.

The changing status of teachers, the increasingly performative nature of the profession, and the continuing shifts in what teachers are responsible for restrict teacher autonomy and distance teachers from the original reasons for joining and staying in the profession.

The reduction in teacher autonomy is symptomatic of the continuing deprofessionalisation of teachers and teaching.

Enabling teachers to regain their professional position and voice within society would reduce the need for constant external checks and compliance.

Teachers may then want to remain in the classroom for more than four years. 

  • Dr Valerie Butcher, a former head of school for teacher education and CPD at Manchester Metropolitan University, is a researcher and practitioner. Her research interests include leadership in teacher education and initial teacher education (ITE) partnerships.

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It’s not the same job as it used to be. There are, of course, positives from that - but also many flaws.
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