Ending the martyrdom of American teachers

What can American policymakers do about our teacher retention problem?

Liz Riggs’s recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “Why Do Teachers Quit?” draws attention to an ongoing crisis with a direct impact on American students.

Each year, about 16 percent of America’s teachers quit teaching—with about 40-50 percent leaving within their first five years.

The resulting shortages leave students—particularly those in high-need communities—in the care of a revolving cast of (often inexperienced) adults.

Riggs noted that teachers tend to bow out because of poor salaries as well as “overall job dissatisfaction,” caused by factors such as a lack of administrative support and/or conditions necessary to teach effectively. She found that some interviewees left because they “were wholly unhappy or drained” while others “wanted more money.” And many cited “individual stress levels.” Riggs rightfully points to the “emotional energy” teachers put into their work, particularly in low-performing schools.

Here’s what she heard from Emma, a 26-year-old former teacher in Kansas who now works for a non-profit: “It stems from this sense that teachers aren’t real people, and the only thing that came close to [making me stay] was the kids.”

But isn’t that just the nature of the profession?

In Singapore, where students consistently outperform Americans on international measures of student achievement, the annual attrition rate for teachers is less than 3 percent.

When I visited Singaporean schools in early October, I saw very hard-working teachers, but did not observe teachers stressed in ways that Riggs describes (and that researchers have long documented in American schools).

And in a recent Ministry of Education survey, teachers indicated the following top three reasons for staying in the field:

  • a positive culture with a strong sense of mission;
  • good compensation and rewards benchmarked against market rates;
  • and a wide range of opportunities for professional growth and development.

Hm… doesn’t sound like the same profession that Riggs found in America, does it?

Average teacher pay is higher in Singapore than in any other country. And teachers can earn up to 30 percent more than their base salaries if they excel on their rigorous performance evaluations (subtle distinction: not “if their students excel on standardized tests”). But as Cynthia Seto, a math specialist who teaches and works with the Academy of Singapore teachers, told me emphatically, “For teachers to progress up career ladder and to earn performance pay, they have to share their expertise with colleagues.” (Cynthia, along with her colleague Irene Tan, are part of the CTQ-Global lab.)

However, perhaps most importantly, teachers in Singapore are uniformly well-prepared to teach, have about 15-25 hours a week to collaborate with their colleagues in order to improve their teaching; and are provided an additional 100 hours a year of high-quality professional development led by expert peers (subtle distinction: not “by consultants). Each year, about one in 11 Singapore teachers earns a sabbatical to study teaching in another context.

Why would teachers stay?

American teachers deserve policies that set them up for success—that offer them the preparation, support, and conditions to make teaching a career. (And I’m not just talking about teachers in the far-off future, but the tens of thousands of classroom experts already hard at work in our schools.)

When we need inspiration, we can look to Singapore. There, teachers are trusted. There, well-prepared professionals are expected and supported to improve over time. There, teachers have every reason to stay. No martyrdom necessary.

  • LisaH


    As a current elementary librarian who chose to not go into a classroom when I moved from a small rural town to a large metropolitan city, I definitely agree that something needs to change. What I have seen in the years since I began teaching is the increasing demand on teachers from standardized testing, papework, and so-called data gathering. Now as a recent graduate with my Ed.D. in teaching and learning, I firmly believe that there is good data but what I actually see is teachers gathering a lot of unnessary/unuseful data wasting time that would be better spent working with kids.

    The over reliance on standardized testing in american public schools must begin to change or we will continue to not only lose good teachers but have a population that is vastly undereducated.


  • ReneeMoore

    “Teaching as Community Property”?

    –Borrowing from the title of a book by one of education’s true visionary scholars, Lee Shulman.  I want to hear more about the concept that in order to advance in career/pay, Singapore teachers must share with their colleagues. How does that look? How are their school schedules structured to accomodate that requirement?

  • SusanGraham

    Respect In Order to Retain

    It seems to me that Ingersoll identifies the most  pervasive factor when he says, “buildings in which teachers have more say—their voice counts—have distinctly better teacher retention.”

    Teaching demands high levels of intellectual and emotional and even physical committment.  While these demands may be factors in a decision to leave the classroom, it seems to me that they are contributing, rather than critical. What is more concerning is that teachers are unwilling to make that level of intellectual, emotional and physical committment to organizational structures that do not demonstrate respect for their intellectual expertise as practitioners, trust in their emotional responsibility to student wellbeing, or awareness of the amount energy and time effective teaching requires. The best and the brightest will not be willing to invest themselves in an educational structure that perceives them as tools for implementation rather than contributors for collaboration.


  • AnneJolly

    Saving this one

    My quick take on your post, Barnett, is that I’m going to save it and read it aloud before every workshop I do – especially for ed leadership.

    Positive culture + good compensations + opportunities = teacher retention and growth. 

    Seems pretty clear cut to me. Anyone got an idea where to start? I’m on board!

    • KrisGiere

      Positive culture

      I agree with your summation, and the concepts of the original post.  But I just feel the need to echo how invaluable the concept of a positive culture is.  I have worked for a few schools now, and a positive culture that encourages growth can overcome so many of the day-to-day frustrations.

  • bradclark

    -the question seems so simple

    And yet the answer is not so.  Why would teachers stay?  I think it comes down to one basic ecnomic concept:  Value.  Value can be defined in many ways.  Value is subjective.  Value is not necessarily monetary.  Value can be validation, appreciation, noticeable impact, agency, trust…you name it.  Everyone has a slightly different definition of value, but at the end of the day, we all expect some measure of it.

  • BillIvey

    subjective value… and context

    Brad, I completely agree that some sort of subjective value is a major factor in why the very vast majority of teachers stay in the profession (you do get a few victims of inertia, but that’s not really our focus here). For me, the trust factor is huge. I’ve changed schools twice, and each time broke down sobbing at the thought of leaving kids behind. When my current students look at me each February with that searching gaze and ask, “But you’re not leaving, are you?” – just when I’m at my most exhausted and discouraged point of the year – it makes it hard to seriously consider leaving, as attractive as it generally looks at that point in time. The other factor is feeling I’m a part of a social justice movement building hope for the future – trying to help kids of all manner of personal values and ethics systems develop a permanent mindset to treat all people with respect and dignity. The second factor goes to the mission of my school, which also strives to support me in my own personal path of professional development. So I’m only lacking in the compensation factor from Barnett’s list (on the eve of turning 54, I still earn less than rookie teachers in some school districts).

    All that said, though, we all experience that subjective value in our own personal contexts. And if anyone’s personal context is sucking subjective value from their lives faster than it is being replenished, sooner or later a tipping point is reached. That’s where what Barnett is saying seems extra important – these are ways to ensure the context in which teachers work is replenishing and not draining.

  • JAF


    America (government, parents, administrators, etc. ) are all failing our teachers, yet I don’t see much being done to actually change what’s not working. We need reform from the top on down and it must begin now.

    Sadly, I doubt that will ever happen. Education is a lumbering bureaucracy that appears to resists any change.

    I’m one of the many great teachers who got fed up and left.