Why do so many teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years?

Posted: March 9, 2013 in blogsync
Tags: , ,

It is an extremely uncomfortable question.

As teachers we want to see a profession which is effective, innovate and forward-thinking; we want constant improvement in the pursuit of excellence, because by nature we are problem-solvers; we want pupils to have the best possible experiences and gain the qualifications they need to succeed in the rest of their lives.

But something is wrong. Every single year a new cohort of excellent NQTs emerge from teacher training institutions across the UK, eager to play their part in the development of educations system which should, by all accounts, be some of the best in the world. Many of them succeed, and go on to make an immeasurable difference in the lives of their students, but too many simply don’t survive and, as David Didau has already discussed, up to 50% of them leave within the first five years.

As we all know the education systems in Scotland the rest of the UK are worlds apart, and having never taught outside my home country I am only really qualified to suggest why so many teachers leave the Scottish system, although I suspect that the fundamental reasons are much the same across the board.

Some of the reasons for leaving the profession are obvious and don’t really need much explanation: some people realise pretty quickly that they have made the wrong choice in career, in which case it is better to leave quickly; others may be drawn away by other opportunities, or family circumstances; and some, to be frank, probably just aren’t up to it. These factors affect all careers and there is no reason that teaching – which is every bit as emotionally, socially, personally and intellectually demanding as any number of professions – should be any different.

It is crucial, however, that we are completely, painfully honest, and realise that many of those who leave do not fall into the above categories, and could – should – have helped to deliver the exceptional education that every single pupil deserves. What, then, is it that is forcing them out, and depriving children of someone who could have inspired them to achieve everything that they are capable of and more?

To be honest, I’m not really sure – the question is far too expansive and complicated, and I certainly can’t comment on what motivates other people; what I can do, however, is explain why I know, deep down, that there is a chance that I may well find myself part of the group that leaves the profession early. Perhaps in sharing my own feelings I can begin to understand what might drive others to leave a job that I find immensely rewarding.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do love teaching. I never expected to become a teacher (I still remember rejecting the possibility with an expletive-laden rant when the question came up as I neared the end of my undergraduate course) but, now that I’m here, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve ended up at a brilliant little school which suits my outlook, personality and style beautifully, and in less than two-years have become hugely invested in the success of my pupils. I spent my NQT year in the same school last year and experienced a superb balance between feeling supported and being left to just get on with it, and have been made to feel like a valued member of staff since day one. Having survived a series of utterly dreadful jobs since the age of 16 I feel as though I’m finally using my skills and experience to help people, which is all I ever really wanted to do. Teaching makes me happy.

But what if it isn’t enough?

One of the reasons that I love teaching English in particular is the freedom it gives me to tailor absolutely everything around my students, therefore pushing them as far as I possibly can. In the short time that I’ve been teaching I’ve already had some major successes, and there are plenty more on the horizon. For every success, however, there is another frustration, and I wonder how long it will be before battling with them becomes a fight that can’t be won from within the four walls of a classroom. I am not ‘burned out’, I don’t face a conveyor belt of horrendous behaviour each day, and I’m not a victim of workplace bullying (as I said already, my school and colleagues are absolutely superb) but there is a niggling issue that refuses to go away.

The one individual who, more than any other, inspired me to teach left the profession for similar reasons, and while I couldn’t understand it at the time, I am already starting to see his point. Schools can indeed, in his words, be ‘stifling’: everything must be quantified for Local Authorities; innovative ideas (especially when they involve new technology) are regularly hobbled by a system of hurdles and hoop-jumping; and the worst part is that, in many ways, the Curriculum for Excellence – something which is supposed to liberate teachers and which I have always been in favour of – is actually becoming more and more of a constraint on what I am trying to do.

I wonder, then, if these might be the same things that irreparably damage so many new teachers? We want to be brilliant and, all too often, are prevented from achieving excellence not by our own shortcomings but by the constraints of a system which should empower teachers but instead achieves the opposite.

How many teachers pour their heart and soul into a new idea only to be cut down by a voice from higher up the pyramid of hierarchical authority? How many individuals find themselves being forced into conformity by top-down requirements for explicit learning objectives and graded lesson observations? How many of those leaving the profession are creative individuals desperate to make a difference, but  in reality find their creativity being micro-managed until the only way to save it is to find a new environment? It seems rational that the frustration caused by such a situation could easily account for a good number of those leaving teaching.

I suppose all of this is directly associated with the theme of my first blogsync post – trust. I suspect that one of the main reasons for the number of teachers abandoning the profession is the perception that they are not trusted, which over time is sure to wear down even the most enthusiastic of people, eventually forcing them to look elsewhere for the sort of personal satisfaction that a profession like teaching should be more than able to satisfy.


You can find out more about Blogsync, and sign up to contribute, by clicking here.

  1. Joel says:

    Thanks for the post Mr. McEnaney. I teach in the US and the lack of trust and micromanaging that has been overwhelming our profession is one of the more demoralizing aspects for myself and my peers. I recently listened to a lecture by Dan Pink about motivation and he listed autonomy, purpose, and mastery as three of the necessary components for motivating an employee to be creative and highly engaged in their job. In education in the US we seem to be doing the opposite of this. We are using external motivation and micromanaging to improve teachers’ performance because of a lack of trust and it is creating a tremendous amount of pressure and dampening of creativity that pushes people away from the career and out of the career.

    • Mr. McEnaney says:

      Hi Joel, thanks for the reply.

      I wrote this quite a while ago but my opinion remains the same, and I recognise the issue you mention regarding micromanagement in relation to teacher performance.

      If teachers aren’t trusted to be professionals without being constantly checked-up on then they will be unable to do their best work and, ultimately, many will leave the profession – I really do think it’s as simple as that.

  2. Leah says:

    Your point about micro management driving out creative individuals is absolutely key to understanding the reason so many teachers abandon the profession. Creative teachers love inspiring learners so they are excited enough to pick up their pencils and do something they’d thought they wouldn’t be able to. They love sharing their passions and watching other people share in them. They love watching children grow as individuals. They don’t love having to remember to get children to underline their learning objective, write in their neatest handwriting and place their numbers in the squares on their squared paper. They don’t like telling half the class to put their hands down because that they haven’t got time to hear their views on God, questions about the universe or comments on global warming, instead they need to fill in their sheet and stick it in their book as ‘evidence’ that the lesson took place. They don’t love being told to give the bulk of their attention to the middle attaining children because they’re the ones that “will actually make it.” They don’t like the very concept of judging children’s success against a national benchmark that serves to pidgeon hole children’s potential. Will an arbritrary assessment of a class’s progress account for a child who didn’t speak until December and six months later can’t keep his hand down? Will the assessment take account of how much a child’s life has been transformed, because they found the strength to confide their trauma to a teacher? Can you put a grade on children being excited to come to school because their teacher is ‘really fun Miss. Like you’ve got the energy of a kid or something!’ Who are the teachers whose lessons you remember? The ones who always had perfectly trimmed sheets ready to stick into your books? The ones who made you rewrite your work if it was messy, regardless of whe content? Or the ones who, in their own crazy, creative way, inspired you to understand, challenged you to think outside the box and whose lessons stick with you long into adulthood. Today, they are the kind of teachers who get slammed in book scrutinies for children failing to underline their dates or having days with no written work as “evidence of learning”. They are the ones, who will abandon teaching, not because they don’t love inspiring children and watching them grow, but because the education system devalues and demoralises them. They leave because if they stay too long, conformity will banish their sparkle and their creativity will be crushed under the pressure of uniformity. I think that is a tragedy for education.

  3. […] James McEnaney: Why do so many teachers leave the profession? […]

  4. […] James McEnaney: Why do so many teachers leave the profession? […]

  5. […] then there are the more personal issues  as highlighted in James Mcenaney’s   followed up in Ben Preston’s post  these are his […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s