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Teacher Retention and Power Dynamics

Recently, I had a conversation with my uncle, who is a small business owner, about teaching.  In the course of the conversation we noticed a confluence of these two unusual conditions of teaching.

  • First, unlike other professionals, teachers are disempowered through systems that regularly make decisions for us that directly impact our work and the conditions in which we carry it out.  We are also underpaid for the challenging, terribly important contributions we make to society.
  • Second, compared to other professions, there is an abundance of jobs available for teachers, at least in highly populated areas.  In New York City, it’s easy for teachers to move from a position at one school to a similar position at another school.

My uncle doesn’t experience either of these realities.  First, he is the main decision maker in his job, and second, there is no other “similar job” that he could easily jump into should he need a change. 

I ended up describing to him what I have seen over the years in NYC: leaving is one of very few power moves teachers have when things aren’t going well at a school.

Because of the way our profession is structured, teachers are often in a position of feeling powerless in the face of issues in their schools or districts.  When teachers feel unsupported at a school or find their needs or concerns falling on deaf ears, or their expertise is disregarded or undermined, we often make the one power move we feel we have, which is to vote with our feet.  I’ve seen teachers in these situations leave a school, move out of classroom teaching, or leave the profession altogether.  In urban areas, there are always teaching positions available, so unlike most other professionals, we can move fairly easily—perhaps too easily.  I know way more teachers than I can count who have left schools out of frustration, leaving gaping holes in their school communities when they go.

We have lots of research on what works to retain teachers in schools, but the problem is complex and a single initiative won’t solve it.  It’s not just salary, or just support from administration, or support from parents, or autonomy in teaching, or support addressing challenging classroom behaviors, or input into decision making processes, or too much testing, or lack of career opportunities for classroom teachers, or more time in the day to collaborate with colleagues. It’s all of these things, but they all stem from lack of teacher input into policies that govern each of these items at various levels of our system.  

I often think about what would have happened if it hadn’t been so easy for me to leave the East Harlem school, in which I first started teaching.  Though it was a tough environment, I loved teaching there.  After three years, I felt like I was really hitting my stride as a teacher.  At this time, the school was officially “in need of improvement” due to its test scores, and the principal was advised to mandate implementation of a semi-scripted curriculum to attempt to solve the problem (They also took the state’s recommendation to reduce the large ELL and SPED populations the school served in order to make it easier to raise test scores…yeah, that happened…).  Many aspects of the mandated curriculum conflicted with my own ideas about how I wanted to teach and what I believed was best for my students.  I, along with several others, left that year.

I don’t think anyone would say I didn’t have a good reason to leave.  But 6 years later, I still miss the students I taught there.  I miss the large light-filled classroom and the luxurious 90-minute periods I had.  I miss working among veteran teachers who came from the same communities as our students and taught me so much. 

I find myself wondering, what would have happened if I stayed and weathered that particular storm? And why did that “storm” have to happen, and why do I continue to see so much leaving over and over again in New York City schools?  

I hesitate to end this post on a negative note, so I’ll point to the incredibly aptly titled book Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave for inspiration. Could a transformed teaching profession--with increased hybrid roles for teacher leaders and professional compensation--solve the problem? 


Lana Adero commented on August 26, 2013 at 7:24pm:

I wholeheartedly think that

I wholeheartedly think that schools need to look at other avenues for keeping their best teachers.  I'm in my 8th year of teaching.  Though I don't profess to know everything, I also know that I've picked up some valuable skills along the way.  Wouldn't it be great if my administration recognized mid-level teachers such as myself by allowing me to mentor/ facilitate meetings/ visit other classrooms outside the building?

Kris Giere commented on August 26, 2013 at 9:12pm:

Voting with our feet...

I think you have highlighted a powerful truth.  Leaving is our only power most of the time, and for individuals who have chosen a profession where they believe in making a difference, it is demoralizing at best to think that leaving is the only bueacratic impact one can make when storms roll in.  Even for those who stay, morale plummets around those times.  When adversity strikes in professions that empower the labor force, a bonding call-to-action can swell larger than any storm.  And though there is no one intiative that can fix it all as you so aptly pointed out, the powerless lack of voice and autonomy is a clear contributor to the leaving you described.

Thank you for giving words and voice to a very important realization that needed it.

Brianna Crowley commented on August 26, 2013 at 9:35pm:



Your thoughts here are spot-on. Unfortunately, when professionals don't feel that their expertise, time or voice is valued, any other "perks" or "benefits" cannot keep them feeling fulfilled or purposeful. Teacher attrition is not only bad for the cohesiveness of the school community, but is also bad for school budgets. Each new hire needs induction, training, and potential mentorship (if that's in place). Some of these numbers are compelling enough that you would think districts would be investigating more about how to keep their "talent." But that mentality only seems to permeate the business world. I wonder why that is?

To promote discussion here, I cross-posted this to CTQ's platform on Click on the link below to see the teaser. Thanks for starting this important discussion!

Renee Moore commented on August 31, 2013 at 10:50pm:

CTQ has a GOOD page? Who Knew!

Thanks for that piece of useful info, Brianna. And thanks to Ariel for yet another necessary discussion for us to have. 

I think about all the teachers with whom I've worked who have left or been driven out of schools where they were desperately needed, and  I realize that it is an indecently long list. One sincere, effective math teacher was asked to resign because his state test scores average slipped from 90+ percent students passing to only 85%.  Teachers (myself included) who were forced to leave schools because we insisted on standing up for students and teachers. In our state, there has never been teacher tenure or collective bargaining; every teacher must get a new contract every year regardless of how long or how well one has taught. It is relatively easy to dismiss a teacher or strip away a teaching license. Working conditions in manyparts of our state are such that there is more incentive for ambitious, idealistic young teachers to leave than stay. As a society, we push the myth that "anybody can be a teacher," but it doesn't take very long in the classroom to realize that is not true. 

There is important work happening on a number of fronts to make entry into the teaching profession more effective, appropriate, and yes, rigorous. I'm thinking of work being done by CAEP (teacher education accreditation), and many states. Closely related to that is work being done by groups such as NBPTS, the teacher unions, and oh year---CTQ-- to elevate the entire teaching profession with support and options at every stage of our careers. But I believe those changes can only occur if a critical mass of teachers raise our voices and make it clear that we want such professional change, not waiting for forces outside education to do it or impose it. 

Sandy Merz commented on August 27, 2013 at 12:45pm:

Too Easy to Leave

Your point that it is too easy to leave is something I think about often.  Usually, it's because of teachers applying to my school from another that is a miserable place to work.  I don't know why that's not a red flag to district administrations that a school is "sick" and needs attention. 

On the other hand, I've seen brand new teachers last less than a single semester before they bailed on the career.  That open a whole other topic, I know, but I wonder if maybe it were harder to  leave, some younger teachers might work through the challenges we all faced in our first year.  I can say, at my school at least, it wasn't because of lack of support or mentors, the new teachers (I'm thinking of two) just decided teaching wasn't for them.

Wendi Pillars commented on August 27, 2013 at 9:40pm:

Important topic

Such an important topic, Ariel...and I bet many agree with your thinking, wondering the what-ifs had they remained at their original schools...your post made me wonder otherwise, too--and Sandy touched on it with his response about new teachers--making it more difficult to leave. 

I wonder, too, if a teacher knows he/ she is in a school for a minimum time--if they could be encouraged to make the best of it. And yes, I know shooting for the end of the proverbial tunnel in that case could be detrimental, but yes---make leaving a more conscious act, and a learning point for admin. Questioning teachers to determine their true resolve--what would they do differently in a new school (if it were a move to a nearby district or within the same district), or changes they would like to see (yes, that requires an open and receptive community!)...some districts don't allow those changes from one school to another, thereby forcing your hand---and in those cases, what's a teacher to do? 

Options are definitely welcomed--although it is certainly disheartening to think that one of the greatest we have is to vote with our feet. To me that signals a "win" for "Them", not our profession. It signals a disappointing lack of understanding and respect that we would be forced to do such a thing--and even then there's no guarantee that the grass is any greener on the other side, wherever that may be. 

A great quote I remember (can't remember who said it) applies here: "The grass is always greenest where you water it the most"...

So, if we water our "grass" the most, we need to be ok with that from the inside, no matter the turmoil surrounding us. Maybe it's the military stubbornness in me, but I've always been taught that ultimately it's about the mission--which would be our students' learning. 

But the longer I'm in the profession, the more I understand that "my side" counts, too--and the mission needs to include personal growth and development so that we are able to extend our reach, which is why I love that you brought up hybrid roles and professional compensation...such an interwoven web of complex ideals and issues needs grassroots experience and perspective to make a change. 

We aren't small business owners, and we may have more options, but we also need support to pursue our those options through our growth in different ways. 


Cheryl Suliteanu commented on September 3, 2013 at 8:34pm:

I think I can...

I too left my first school for reasons that had nothing to do with the school, teachers, nor community. I had a principal who was a dictator, completely threatened by the teacher leaders like myself who had Master's degrees, National Board certification, participated in district-wide curriculum and advisory committees, and were union advocates. 14 teachers applied for transfers, and 8 left the same year I did, seeking a more mutually respectful environment, where we felt appreciated for our strengths.  We are  highly accomplished teachers, with proven commitment and dedication to the profession. And we were teaching at one of the lowest performing schools in our district; a school surrounded on all sides by opposing gangs, poverty, and learned helplessness... a school community who needed teachers like us the most.

We voiced our concerns, repeatedly over the course of seven years, to our association and to the district. Eventually (years after I left) the principal was moved out of the school - and into a district-level admin position...

The question resounding in my mind since my first reading of Teaching 2030  has been: What if there was no principal at that school? What if we, the teachers, led that school? We had everything we needed then - in 2003 - to be successful without any need for a principal... yet we do not have the structures in place in our district to support such a dream. 

I whole-heartedly say "YES!" I believe teachers are the key to transform education through teacher leadership and hybrid roles. I've pitched it to my association. I've spoken directly with my district superintendent and associate superintendents. That was over a year ago.

In August, my district hired 6 new program specialists to help with implementation of CCSS and a new citizenship program. Yet, there's no advancement for hybrid roles - the teachers who filled those positions are all 100% out of the classroom now.  I soooooooooooo wish I could have seen this coming, and somehow managed to influence the choice of full time positions versus hybrid roles...

Wendi so eloquently said "But the longer I'm in the profession, the more I understand that "my side" counts, too--and the mission needs to include personal growth and development so that we are able to extend our reach, which is why I love that you brought up hybrid roles and professional compensation...such an interwoven web of complex ideals and issues needs grassroots experience and perspective to make a change." I have all that... and yet I am frustrated and feel stymied...

Brianna had a good way to summarize "Unfortunately, when proffessionals don't feel that their expertise, time or voice is valued, any other "perks" or "benefits" cannot keep them feeling fulfilled or purposeful."

Suggestions? I've always been the Little Engine That Could, but the hill seems to be getting longer and steeper...

Ariel Sacks commented on September 7, 2013 at 7:49pm:


Cheryl asked:

What if there was no principal at that school? What if we, the teachers, led that school? We had everything we needed then - in 2003 - to be successful without any need for a principal... yet we do not have the structures in place in our district to support such a dream. 

I think your questions are really interesting to consider in the context of the teacher retention issue.  I've often thought about what it would be like to start up a school with a group of teachers. It's a compelling idea, but there are many aspects of a principal's job I would not want to do.  However, I wonder how teacher led schools could solve issues that cause teachers to leave? We'd still need a career ladder for teachers of some kind. 


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