What is the Problem with Teacher Retention Anyway?

As an educator for six years in Middle Schools throughout Oakland, I know the joy of being a public school teacher: the constant barrage of hugs that come every day, watching students learn how to time jokes, how to engage with their peers, learning how to be themselves, seeing them grow as learners and thinkers, the joy that comes from seeing a group of students defend their opinions with facts and civility.

There is nothing that has fully filled that space of joy since leaving the classroom.

However, I did leave. I had set a pace for myself that I could no longer keep up with. I had forgotten, over time, that my health and wellness mattered. I spent hours, day in and out, doing what was best for kids and slowly, over time, it began to erode my personal balance. Examples looked like:

  1. Removing a workout by taking on an extra hour of tutoring each week
  2. Eating most of my meals on the run, either in the car, while grading papers, or while lesson planning
  3. “Holding off” illness until the holiday, weekends, or breaks

I left because these micro-exchanges turned into long-term disease. By year three, I was 30 lbs heavier, exhausted, and most importantly feeling that my absence was necessary, irrelevant of the impact on my students and school.

My story is not unique. In Oakland, 70% of all teachers leave the classroom within 5 years (2012 study) and nationally it is not much better (45%).  In the teacher community it is not abnormal for March Madness to mean more than basketball or for a teacher to accept that to ½ of the their staff will not return in the fall. When taking home the trauma of our students lives or juggling roles of educator, therapist, and social worker, each year we are asked to do more whether or not funding comes in and the urgency is REAL. Teachers burn out and they leave schools that desperately need them.

Turn over has a cost. A report in Forbes Magazine estimated that teacher attrition costs the U.S. around $2.2 billion each year. Others at Forbes estimate that it can be as much as $7.3 billion a year. By state, this costs anywhere from $2 million in Delaware, to $235 million in Texas.

Equity for all students means long-term change. Long term change means teachers need to be able to stay in the classroom.

Self-Care for teachers is not about us. It is about being the most effective care-givers and members of society we can possibly be. It is about celebrating the wins of our students and watching the whole family come through your school. It is about your joy working for youth buoying your efforts in spite of low salary or challenges that many of our districts and schools face. It is about building resilience to stay on the front line and make a difference.

When excellent teachers stay in the classroom, students win. When they burn out and leave, everyone loses. That’s why we started The Teaching Well—we want to combat burnout and bolster sustainability. In our bi-monthly blog series, we will continue to give you most of the socio-historical contexts about problems with teacher sustainability as well as introduce you to some of the solutions we provide. Its time for all of us to go back to the well—the communal source of stability and wellness—a place where we can join together and thrive for the benefit of our entire communities. Welcome to The Teaching Well. Join us, and tap the well within.


Here’s to thriving,

 Kelly Knoche, Founder

Kelly Knoche