You Earned a Ticket!

Which school do you want to support?

Lesson 3.3

How to Retain a Teacher

They say half of all teachers quit within five years. Surprisingly…

hero image

It is often said that half of new teachers quit within five years. Like all good myths, it contains a kernel of truth.

This lesson explores what leads some teachers to stay in the classroom, what motivates others to move on, why it matters, and what schools do to retain teachers they want to keep. It also explores the corrosive effect of partisan politics on the profession.

The five-year teacher myth

Let's start with the myth, because it's interesting on a lot of levels. As we explored in Lesson 3.2, people don't just get teaching jobs on a whim. They go through years of college, then pay hundreds of dollars to endure a hazing ritual of certification tests that most find disappointingly easy. They make personal sacrifices to choose a career that they know from the start doesn't pay very well. After all that effort, is it true that half of them really walk away, even chucking the pension they will receive only if they stick it out at least for a fifth year?

The short answer is no, of course not. Most who start teaching stay with it well beyond five years. But the longer answer is that the quit rate varies. Teachers are more likely to quit if they are working in difficult conditions and if they are unprepared for it.

For years, the "half quit" myth persisted not just because it was quotable — it was surprisingly hard to disprove. Education data systems were (and still are) pretty awful, even when it comes to the simple job of counting noses. Teachers tend to change jobs within schools, take leaves, change schools, and change their names. School systems don't necessarily connect to one another. With repetition, an incorrect estimate mutated into conventional wisdom.

Do half of new teachers depart the profession within five years? No, that's a myth. It's closer to a quarter.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tried to set the record straight in 2015 with a longitudinal survey that found at least 82.7% of those who started as teachers in 2007 were still teaching or serving in other education roles five years later. Other studies, using different methods, concluded that this estimate might be too rosy, pegging the average five-year teacher retention rate at about 70%. There's room for interpretation, but either way: myth busted. It's definitely less than half.

But the point isn't purely wrong. In today’s developed nations, most people are career-changers, and this includes teachers. Teacher turnover is a big challenge for California schools, especially in high-need areas like special education and bilingual education.

Why do teachers leave?

Most of the reasons why teachers leave a school are not unique to teaching. The big drivers are personal needs like the birth of a child or a spouse's work. Teachers leave their jobs at rates that vary widely among schools, with high-poverty schools generally experiencing the highest turnover rates. Teaching can be lonely work, and nobody likes to feel unsupported. Factors like poor working conditions and lack of administrative support can feel like a form of disrespect.

Partisan divides are reducing public education from a universal priority to an "issue area"

The eroding social standing of the teaching profession has become a growing factor in teacher retention. For generations, public education was a bipartisan priority. Teachers, like physicians, were widely perceived as working beyond the realm of politics. In 2023, a set of studies by Pew Research confirmed that those days are over: education has become another brick in the partisan wall that divides America.

Why don't teachers leave?

Teaching matters to kids, families, communities, and the world. People who choose a teaching career are only half-joking when they say they are paid in the form of psychic benefits or good karma.

In the private sector, it's normal to changing employer every so often, even expected. In teaching, by contrast, the incentives are entirely different. As explained in Ed100 Lesson 3.8, the pay system for teachers is strongly based on seniority. Teachers who move from one district to another generally lose their seniority and can face a pay cut. Less obviously, the financial hit of a pay cut is multiplied by the teacher pension system, which is the subject of Lesson 3.11.

Why does teacher retention matter?

It takes a few years to learn any new job and get good at it. Over time, teachers develop ways to collaborate. Turnover disrupts those patterns. Recruiting and on-boarding of faculty is costly. Students in poverty are more likely than other students to attend schools with high teacher turnover and less-experienced educators.

Great school leaders work very hard to retain their best teachers because their impact is massive. In a study involving 2.5 million students and 18 million test scores, researcher Raj Chetty and colleagues demonstrated that a teacher whose students consistently perform better than predicted based on past measures, can have a large, long-lasting effect on students' success in school.

Teacher shortages

As described in Lesson 3.2, the labor market for teachers drastically changes depending on whether the economy (and thus tax revenue) is growing or shrinking. When budgets are very tight, school districts often can't afford all of their teachers. The newest ones, with the least seniority in their district, check their mailboxes for warnings that they may not have a job. (These notices are commonly called pink slips.) When budgets are growing, by contrast, school districts may experience a teacher shortage, meaning that there are not enough candidates with the right credentials to fill open positions. Teachers with seniority may take advantage of the moment to negotiate a shift to a school they like better. School districts fill the gaps with whoever they can get.

These on-again, off-again cycles in the labor market for teaching have become part of the expectations for new teacher candidates. Teaching is a deeply meaningful job, but until you gain seniority it can't be assumed to be a safe one. (We take up this topic further in Lesson 3.10)

Staffing has become challenging throughout California schools in recent years, especially for schools in rural and disadvantaged areas. Bilingual teachers and special education teachers are in particular demand.

Teacher retention programs and strategies

Some school districts help new teachers learn the ropes by investing in training and mentorship programs. In education lingo, this kind of on-the-job support is known as an induction program. If they are well-implemented, induction programs not only reduce the "rookie ratio" in schools, they also save money that would otherwise be spent recruiting and hiring new teachers. California has made induction programs the preferred way for a teacher to complete requirements for a clear or professional credential. Some teacher induction programs are better than others, though. In order to raise the level of quality of such programs, California has established standards for them.

Successful teacher induction programs save money.

Some of the state's larger districts take a “grow your own” approach to teacher recruitment and education. Many of these local programs aim to cultivate and support teachers with a deep commitment to a community. For example, the City College Teacher Prep Center of San Francisco provides information, resources, and advice for students interested in teaching as a career. This includes assistance with university transfer for advanced degrees as well as support to obtain elementary, secondary, and career technical education (CTE) credentials. (Hear Carol's interview with Kathleen White about it on KALW.)

Nationwide, school districts are chronically short of teachers with the proper credentials to teach students with special education needs. To fill openings, many districts offer extra pay for these positions, according to an October 2019 study by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), which found that “Twenty-nine states require or explicitly encourage additional pay for teachers who work in underserved schools and.or shortage subject areas.” ECS followed up with a fifty-state survey in 2022.

What is teacher burnout?

Burnout is the feeling that no matter how hard you work, nothing you can do will make a difference. Teaching is demanding work. When a school environment is effective and teachers feel like they are pulling in the same direction, it can be exhilarating. But when teachers feel unsupported, it can be physically and emotionally exhausting.

School communities sometimes try to address teacher burnout by signaling their appreciation, for example with celebrations or messages of support. These actions can be helpful, but often don't address core issues. The demands of teaching are bottomless. There is always more you could do to support students. To address teacher burnout at a fundamental level, sometimes the highest-impact investment a school system can make is training and support for school leaders. Nobody likes working for a bad boss.

Some turnover is good, right?

When great teachers leave, kids lose, especially students of color and low-income students. Reducing turnover for its own sake, however, is not the point. Some teachers are more effective than others. When school districts have to lay off teachers, what happens then? This topic is central to Ed100 lesson 3.10, Tenure and Seniority.

Our next lesson, however, turns to a simpler matter: who teaches where? How are teachers placed in classrooms?

Last updated October 2023


About what percentage of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
Learn More

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 20, 2024 at 7:38 pm
Pink slips reappeared in 2024 as the state budget dipped and federal COVID assistance ended.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 9, 2023 at 4:05 pm
Teacher Shortage: An important report from Lynda Darling Hammond,"Policymakers Should Ring In The New Year With Action To End Teacher Shortages", analyzes the teacher shortage and provides smart strategies to remedy this including Federal tax credits for teachers.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 15, 2022 at 3:01 pm
This District Trendline examines the incentives that states and the largest school districts across the country offer to attract and retain special education teachers.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 3, 2022 at 4:35 pm
In a scathing commentary on EdSource titled A Guide to Making the California Teacher Shortage Even Worse, former teacher Martin Blythe argues that the system drives away teachers by imposing credential requirements and induction programs that are more burdensome than helpful. It's a well-expressed argument for the "less is more" approach.
user avatar
erin phelps July 18, 2021 at 10:10 am
If we respected our teachers and paid them what they are worth, we would get better teachers and be able to keep them
user avatar
Jenny Greene July 3, 2020 at 8:15 am
I am not sure why teaching in California seems attractive to teachers when, as the Ed100 information points out, schools in California are ranking as some of the lowest in the country? What is attractive about that?
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 14, 2019 at 10:55 am
Apart from the people who really didn't gauge their interest in teaching properly and thus leave, I feel that pay and on the job support are two of the strongest factors in retaining teachers.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 29, 2016 at 2:43 pm
The Learning Policy Institute provides policy briefs that look at strategies on retaining teachers:
Teacher Residencies:
A Case Study: Residencies at Work:
user avatar
Lori M. April 22, 2015 at 6:31 pm
With the new funding issues, it is going to be difficult for some districts to retain well qualified teachers.
user avatar
Janet L. April 19, 2015 at 5:03 pm
As a revenue limit district surrounded by basic aid districts, many of the teachers that leave our district are leaving for higher pay from surrounding districts. If California schools were funded fairly, we would be able to pay our excellent teachers a competitive salary.
user avatar
Stacey W April 6, 2015 at 6:25 pm
At my son's high school, quite a few of the teachers attended the school in their teens and returned upon receiving their teaching credential. Those teachers are very proud of the school and its heritage. The school serves a large Hispanic population, and I think it is empowering for current students to hear about their teacher's background (roots) and know that they can also be successful if they continue their education.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
Design by SimpleSend

Sharing is caring!

Password Reset

Change your mind? Sign In.

Search all lesson and blog content here.

Welcome Back!

Login with Email

We will send your Login Link to your email
address. Click on the link and you will be
logged into Ed100. No more passwords to

Share via Email

Get on Board!
Learn how California's School System works so you can make a difference.
Our free lessons are short, easy to read, and up to date. Each lesson you complete earns a ticket for your school. You could win $1,000 for your PTA.

Join Ed100

Already a member? Login

Or Create Account