Why Teachers Leave

Last month the excellent @edutronic_net #blogsync topic for education bloggers was: “Why do teachers leave?”  As someone who recently ‘left’ teaching (at least temporarily) I wanted to take longer to answer this question than allowed by the group so I didn’t join. But here’s my belated thoughts. Apologies in advance for the bad photography.

Teaching is personal. When you start, people will tell you that it’s not, but they lie. Not only is your person (i.e. your mind and body) the thing that you teach with, but you – like everyone else – only get one go on your current personhood’s merry-go-round and if you don’t like the job that you are doing then you are going to feel that, personally.

At the weekend I finally got my hands on a copy of Christopher Day & Qing Gu’s “The New Lives of Teachers”. Day’s work was partly what led me into teaching; I first came across it when studying for an OU degree in Social Science while working in my first graduate job for KPMG. Day had sat teachers down and asked them to draw out graphs of their teaching careers that look like this:

graph of teaching

These graphs fascinated me. As a fresh-faced graduate I suddenly realised that (a) working life was a marathon, and (b) it wouldn’t inevitably get better. (At which point I decided that if being a management consultant wasn’t inevitably going to get better, I needed to leave).

In Day’s latest book he added some other graphs. These show the negative and positive influences on teacher’s lives across different stages (e.g. 0-3 years in the job, 4-7 years, up to 30+ years). They look like this:

teachers lives influence

teachers lives influence.JPG 2

What is particularly noticeable is the creeping importance of personal issues to a teacher’s job satisfaction. Only ‘practice setting’ (i.e. workload, leadership, etc) has a more important influence. So even if you argue that teaching itself isn’t personal, but the personal certainly gets in!

We know that 50% of teachers leave the profession within 7 years, just about the time when personal matters are interfering the most. Intuitively this makes sense – at 7 years in people are at ages/life stages where they may be married, having children, looking after parents. Day also hypothesises that at 7 years you start deciding whether or not to “cut your losses” if teaching seems untenable.

From my own perspective I agree that practice settings made the biggest difference to how effectively I could do my job and how satisfied I was with it. The personal, however, mattered too. I’ve written before about the impact of an illness on my job; and – in part – my decision to take a break from classroom teaching and pursue a Fulbright scholarship was due to considerations around my other half and how our lives and careers were going to work together (his career has a US dimension).

People will argue that every professional needs to consider their family but they don’t all leave their jobs – what makes teachers different? Simple: our job’s lack of flexibility.  Unlike most other parents or partners we can’t take an afternoon off to attend a school play, we can’t go on an inexpensive mid-September break to Spain, we miss out on family weddings and reunions and funerals – all of which are deeply personal issues. One of the reasons why the 190 days are so fiercely protected is because it provides some flexibility for working with the other people in our family who are very often put slightly ajar during term-time. For parents that’s a particularly difficult thing as it means seeing less of one’s own children in order to better help someone else’s. Many times it is this precise personal dilemma that I’ve seen colleagues ponder before either quitting or emotionally withdrawing from their work and instead saving 10 or 20% of their energies for their own children.

Day argues that for some the commitment to teaching is so strong it can overcome this issue, but I also believe that this overcoming relies on your relationships. If you have people around you who are able to forgive your constrained timeframe; who are equally passionate about your work, or at least at supporting you, then it can be done. But when something in this framework falls apart –  perhaps through death, divorce, illness – it can  be incredibly difficult for people to stay effective in their teaching or to stay teaching at all.