I used to be a teacher and, like so many others, I left the profession. Perhaps this is why I’m so interested in finding out more about the long-standing problem of teacher attrition. Why do so many qualified teachers continue to leave within five years, internationally and in the UK?
Today I am presenting data at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), from a survey of the past five years of UCL’s alumni database (around 3,500), which we have used to find out who had left the profession, who had stayed, and why. Of the participants, 18% had already left teaching, and from their responses, we predict a potential ten-year attrition rate of 40%.
For those who had left, the reasons given were to improve work/life balance (75%), workload (71%), and a target-driven culture (57%). The same reasons were given by those intending to leave. The data spoke to a discourse of disappointment. Participants found the reality of teaching worse than expected, and the nature of the workload, linked to notions of performativity and accountability, were a crucial factor in their decision to go. Within the data were many reports of stress and emotional upset caused by this culture, with 51% of leavers claiming ‘teaching is making me ill’. The surveyfound that teachers experienced excessive workload, not just in terms of long hours, but as a de-professionalising series of performative hoops. Many of the sample experienced a ‘loss of self’, causing physical and mental illness, and prompting some to leave the profession.
The focus of the survey was on why teachers had left or stayed, but I was struck by the many references to stress and loss of self as a reason for leaving. The teachers knew about the heavy workload and thought they could cope, but the reality was different. Workload was described as ‘incredible’, ‘unmanageable and unsustainable’, ‘insane’ ‘unrealistic’ and ‘extreme’. People claimed to work 11-hour days, 60-70 hours per week and spoke of ‘not having weekends or evenings free during term time to pursue personal interests’. They argued that the work was constant – ‘could never feel as if I’d finished for the day or week’, ‘always took work home with me’,’ could never switch off’. Many detailed their workload, for example: ‘I was up at 5am every day, commuting/in school until 5pm, then working at home until at least 10pm and working at least 4 hours each weekend day’.
Workload for the sample was very much linked with the hyper accountability culture in the schools. They complained about the amount of planning and marking – ‘the level of detailed planning and preparation and marking that was expected was simply not achievable’ as well as data, target and accountability pressures. One complained about the way that the accountability culture ‘just takes away from the purpose of my job which is helping all the children in my class’.
There was a theme in the data about the loss of self that came from this accountability and crying was another recurrent theme, as many respondents made reference to illness: ‘All in all, teaching made me seriously ill after just three years. So much so that they found me one morning crying in the cloakroom because I just couldn’t take it anymore’.
These findings amplify the problem of teacher attrition, as those who want to be teachers are committed to the profession and yet, somehow, that commitment is eroded. The general response from government in the UK is that teaching will be improved by reducing workload, removing unnecessary tasks and increasing pay. The US Learning Policy Institute suggests better incentives and improved mentoring and induction.
These measures may help, but these findings imply that much of the problem lies within the culture of teaching: the constant scrutiny, the need to perform, and hyper-critical management. Reducing workload and improving pay will not address these cultural issues. Teachers need a reduction of unecessary performative tasks, and support in schools to help deal with the accountability culture and the stress it causes. A settled teacher workforce is crucial to the well-being of society, and it is hoped that this project will contribute to positively influencing policy and school-practice to improve retention.
The session is ‘Teacher Retention: Hyper-Accountability and the Emotions of Teaching in Educators and Emotional Labor: Coping With the Emotions of Teaching April 8, 8-10, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, 700 Level, Room 704.