Teacher retention:
Working conditions drive
decisions for stayers, leavers

Volume 12, Issue 5 - February

Stories by Sherry Posnick-

Within the next decade schools
in California will need to hire
roughly 200,000 teachers.
Multiple factors are at play:
insufficient numbers of teachers;
the impending retirement of the
baby boomers; low retention
figures; and smaller numbers of
new teachers being attracted to
the profession. Combine all that
with the recently proposed
massive cuts to the education
budget, and the stage is set for
a major tragedy for California

Considering that the typical
American school has 30 percent
more teachers than California
schools, our state would need to
hire 100,000 additional teachers
just to reach the national
teacher-to-student ratio.
Between retirements and
attrition, California will have to
replace 53,000 teachers in the
next five years (approximately
100,000 in the next 10 years). At
the same time that California
approaches the retirement of
baby boomers, the number of
newly credentialed teachers is
falling, as is the number of
students entering teacher-prep
programs. Add up these factors
and the imbalance is impossible
to miss.

A number of districts are
implementing inventive
approaches to retain teachers,
such as induction/mentoring
programs and affordable
housing. However, each year
one in every 10 teachers
working in high-poverty schools
— the ones whose students
pose the greatest educational
challenges — transfers out. The
reason cited most often is poor
working conditions. Teachers
want a safe place to work; they
want supportive school
leadership; they want a voice
when it comes to discussing
curriculum content and
instructional strategies; and they
want to be treated as

This month our feature articles
explore how the coming shortage
will play out; how declining
enrollment will impact the
teacher shortage; what’s
discouraging would-be teachers
from even entering the
profession; and what can be
done to keep teachers in the

Julie Palacios, shown here
working with Yoselin Garcia
(right) and Lorena Arenal, is
staying in the teaching
profession because New
Highland Elementary in Oakland
lets her meet the needs of her
"Make strong sentences,” Julie
Palacios tells her second-
graders at New Highland
Elementary School in Oakland.

Students flex their arm muscles
dramatically as they recite their

Despite her love of strong
sentences, it’s Palacios’ gentle
style of teaching that endears
her to students in this low-
income neighborhood. She is
warm and nurturing, but in
control of her class. She uses
humor and kinesthetic activities
to connect with them.

“I work best with the strugglers,”
she says. “When I help them, I
feel wonderful.”

Palacios, who was born and
raised in Oakland and has
taught there for six years,
understands her students. She’s
the type of teacher that the
Oakland Unified School District is
lucky to have. But she nearly left
a year ago because she was
unhappy with the working
conditions there.

“I’ve considered leaving quite a
few times even though I really
enjoy this profession,” says
Palacios, a member of the
Oakland Education Association.

During her first four years,
Palacios taught at a school
where she was constantly
frustrated by the administration’s
lack of support. During her first
year, her students didn’t get
their books until December, and
she didn’t receive a teacher’s
manual until February. She had
to create her own assessment
system in Excel to see if students
were learning the state
standards — as well as her own
alphabet chart. And she did it all
while working on an emergency

She did not feel respected,
either. There were those she
refers to as “police” who
regularly monitored her
classroom to make sure she was
following the scripted program
word for word. If she deviated —
using her professional judgment
to meet the individual needs of
students — she was chastised
by administrators.

When her school was turned into
a charter, she moved to another
school where the conditions
were “so-so.” Instead of leaving
the profession, she transferred
last fall to New Highland
Elementary School. She wasn’t
sure what to expect, but she was
pleasantly surprised.

“It’s very different,” she says. “I
get a lot of support here. I have
time to collaborate with other
teachers. I have professional
development that’s actually
worth going to. We have a
scripted program, but I use it as
a tool to meet the needs of my
children and I have flexibility. I’m
treated like a professional. Now, I’
m willing to stay.”

Palacios’ experiences in Oakland
shed light on the high turnover
rate in California, where nearly a
third — 32 percent — of
teachers leave the profession
after seven years.

“Teaching and Learning
Conditions,” a survey by the New
Teacher Center at the University
of California at Santa Cruz,
confirms what Palacios has
discovered — that working
conditions drive career decisions
for educators.

“Data collected from across the
country show three primary
findings,” says Eric Hirsch, who
worked on the study. “The first
is, teacher working conditions
are critical for increasing student
achievement. The second is that
improving teaching conditions
creates a more stable workforce.
Third is that there are
considerable gaps between the
perception of teachers and
administrators regarding the
presence of key working

Ken Futernick, a member of the
California Faculty Association,
studied the phenomenon of what
he calls “leavers” and “stayers”
in a 2007 report for the Center
for Teacher Quality at CSU-
Sacramento. In “A Possible
Dream: Retaining California
Teachers So All Students
Learn,” he found that while
teachers are concerned about
salary, they are more concerned
about working conditions.

“We found a key factor in driving
people out of the profession is
unresponsive bureaucracy that
interferes with teaching,” says
Futernick. “Leavers talked about
top-down control, having little
room for professional judgment,
scripted curriculum and not
being treated as professionals.”

When asked which aspects of
their work contributed most to
remaining in the classroom,
“stayers” frequently pointed to
working conditions that included
support from the district office,
access to textbooks and learning
materials, clean and safe
facilities and manageable class

The factor most “stayers” said
kept them in the classroom was
the decision-making authority
they were given at their school.
What mattered most, they said,
was having a say about
curriculum content and which
instructional strategies they
could use.

Other reasons for staying were
compensation, a collegial
atmosphere among staff, a
supportive principal, respect
from parents and the community,
and close personal relationships
developed at the school site.

Stayers frequently said their
decisions were affected, at least
in part, by being able to make an
important difference in students’

“Disillusionment with one-size-fits-
all instruction is a big reason why
new teachers are leaving in
droves,” says Nena Torrez, a
professor in the credential
program at CSU-San Bernardino.

“I hear that from my students all
the time. When they enter the
workforce they are upset that
they can’t use all the creative
teaching strategies that they
learned in college to meet the
individual needs of students.”

Many believe the punitive No
Child Left Behind law — and its
heavy emphasis on testing — is
a major reason they can’t.

It’s somewhat of a paradox, says
Futernick, “that the very things
that were designed to improve
education are, ironically, driving
out well-prepared, experienced
teachers — the classroom
component that assures
students will get a good

That’s true in the Bakersfield
City School District, notes Carol
Reichert, president of the
Bakersfield Elementary
Teachers Association (BETA). In
her district, much of the teacher
shortage is due to veteran
teachers leaving.

“The recent phone calls I have
been receiving from my veteran
teachers indicate that they have
had it,” says Reichert. “They
resent the distrust that the
district is showing toward them.
They feel their expertise is being
questioned by the countless
number of visits and
observations from district and
state personnel, and they want
outta here.

“As a president, it breaks my
heart when I get calls from
veteran teachers who want to
get their retirement papers in
order so they can slip away over
winter break and fade into
obscurity. These are decorated
25-years-plus veterans.”

Diane Hislop, a fifth-grade
teacher at Frank West
Elementary in Bakersfield, shows
Natalie Ramos how to create a
solar oven.
Diane Hislop, a veteran BETA
teacher, is close to the breaking
point after 22 years. Recently,
she was chastised for not
posting the standards in the
“proper” spot in her room. She
had put them at eye level for her
fifth-graders, but was told they
were too low and should be

“It’s just one more thing that’s
been taken away,” says an
exasperated Hislop, who was
Teacher of the Year for Kern
County in 2002. “You are
constantly being beat up. Every
time you turn around, you hear,
‘Oh no, you’re doing this wrong.
Oh no, you have to do this.’”

Frequent interruptions about
less-than-urgent matters take
“huge amounts of time away
from teaching.” Her passion is
science, but with the emphasis
on testing, there is no time for it
anymore. She tries to sneak it in
occasionally with such projects
as having students create solar
ovens from pizza boxes. A
schoolwide science fair she puts
on provides the only science
some students receive.

“More pressure and unrealistic
expectations are being put on
teachers,” laments Hislop. “Two
co-workers of mine are retiring
early because they can’t take it
anymore. But if we all
abandoned ship, what would

Even though Hislop is unhappy,
for the time being she’s staying
put. She explains, “I’m not going
to leave, because I love these
kids.” But she would like to be
treated as a professional.

A stone’s throw away is Suburu
Elementary School in the
Lakeside Union School District.
Teachers there, for the most
part, are “stayers,” says
Lakeside/Suburu Teachers
Association President Camilla
Sandrini, a teacher at the site.
Their salary is not the highest in
the area, but compensation is
becoming more competitive with
neighboring districts. Veteran
teachers and newcomers alike
are happy with the working

“We find that our new, young
teachers are staying. Many of
them come here as student
teachers and find they really
want to stay.”

Melissa Gayer, a new teacher at
Suburu Elementary School in
Bakersfield, says she’ll happily
stay because of the support she
gets from her school.
Melissa Gayer was a student
teacher who was pleased to be
hired on. “We have a great
administration,” says the
kindergarten instructor.

“They give us the support we
need. They trust us and treat us
like we know what we’re doing. I
can teach the way I think my
students need to be taught. I don’
t think any one student learns
the same way as the rest, so this
allows me to be flexible with my
students. And teachers
collaborate on almost a daily
basis, which makes things really

She has no intention of seeing if
the grass is greener elsewhere.
“It’s not part of the plan.”

Craig Bailey, a fifth-grade
teacher who has worked at the
site for four years, believes that
allowing teachers to have a say
in decision-making is a factor in
the low turnover rate at the

“We get in a group and make
decisions,” he says. “For
example, they came and asked
us what curriculum we wanted to
have for science.”

“We are still allowed to take field
trips and have class parties,”
says Carolina Obenshain, who
has been there for seven years.

“Our principal allows us to go
ahead and use our own
judgment. I don’t know if that
sets us apart from other schools,
because I’ve never worked
anywhere else. But when you
talk to people at other schools, it
sounds like night and day.”

Back in Oakland, the school
district is concerned about losing
good teachers like Julie
Palacios. A district committee
studied the problem and
reached the same conclusions
as other studies: Most teachers
leave because they do not feel
respected, and because they
feel that working conditions are
not conducive to good teaching.

Oakland has a challenging
student population, but teachers
interviewed seldom mentioned
difficult students as the cause of
their leaving, says OEA
President Betty Olsen Jones,
who serves on the committee.

“The district says it wants to do
something about the shortage
and the high turnover rate, and
some really are interested in
making a difference,” says Jones.

“They always use the same
excuse — they just don’t have
the funds. I’m hoping this time
might be different.”

Palacios has attended the district’
s meetings and hopes some of
the recommendations will be
implemented. She is now a BTSA
coach, trained to help other first-
year teachers in a way that
nobody helped her. (As an
emergency credential teacher,
she was not eligible for BTSA.)

“My view is that it’s pretty
simple,” she says. “You need to
give people basic support. You
need to provide them with what
they need in the way of materials
and books for students. And, on
top of that, you have to treat
them as professionals.

“I’ve seen so many creative
teachers who loved teaching and
said, ‘I’m outta here,’ ” says
Palacios. “I was almost one of
them. But I’m so glad I stayed in
a place where I can really make
a difference.”

Why Teachers Leave
by Cynthia Kopkowski
April 2008 issue
NEA Today

Why They Leave

Lack of respect, NCLB, and
underfunding in a topsy-turvy
profession, what can make today's
teachers stay?

By Cynthia Kopkowski

One afternoon, the public address
system at Janet Griggs' school where
administrators have done away with
paper memos crackles with the
announcement that staff heading to
impending team meetings should refer
to the room assignments listed in the
e-mail they received that day.

Confused teachers wander the halls
confirming with one another that
nobody got the e-mail. The PA system
stirs to life again, informing teachers
that administrators just realized they
never sent it. The disembodied voice
then starts giving instructions about
the meetings, sending teachers
scrambling for paper to write it all
down. Administrators later send the
e-mail after most of the meetings have

If it were a Dilbert comic strip, readers
would chuckle. But when what's at
stake is the professionalism of
educators like Griggs, a 61-year-old
communication arts teacher in St.
Louis, Missouri, and the quality of
instruction for the children they want
so desperately to teach, well, it's no
laughing matter. Yet every day,
workplace conditions are sometimes so
surreal they make leaving the
profession seem like their best or only

Nationally, the average turnover for all
teachers is 17 percent, and in urban
school districts specifically, the number
jumps to 20 percent, according to the
National Center for Education
Statistics. The National Commission on
Teaching and America's Future
proffers starker numbers, estimating
that one-third of all new teachers leave
after three years, and 46 percent are
gone within five years.

Their departure through what
researchers call the "revolving door"
that's spinning ever faster the
commission estimates teacher attrition
has grown by 50 percent over the past
15 years costs roughly $7 billion a
year, as districts and states recruit,
hire, and try to retain new teachers.
"There is this idea that we can solve
the teaching shortage with
recruitment," says commission
President Tom Carroll. "What we have
is a retention crisis." Likening it to
continually dumping sand into a bucket
with holes in the bottom, Carroll says,
"as fast as [the districts] are moving
teachers into schools, they're leaving."

Marta Nielson, an elementary school
teacher in Vista, California, is leaving.
Her current classroom is packed with
up to 38 students. There are no aides
and the obsessive focus on cramming
for standardized tests means "an
atmosphere of constant stress and
fear," she says. The result? She's
leaving at the end of the year for a
small private school.

Teacher Exits - The Devils in the
Details What's the real story behind
the statistics?

While Baby Boomer retirement is a
factor in the current turnover rates, it is
dwarfed by those leaving for troubling
reasons like Nielson's. Take the U.S.
Department of Education's 2005
examination of departures. Thirty
percent of teachers left in 2003-04
because of retirement, but 56 percent
left citing job dissatisfaction and a
desire to find an entirely new career.

"The whole retirement thing has been
consistently exaggerated," says
University of Pennsylvania researcher
Richard Ingersoll. Policymakers and
administrators blame retirement in a
case of "wrong diagnosis and wrong
prescription," he says. "You can't do a
whole lot about retirement, but you can
do something about the way schools
are organized, operated, and

What is it about the day-to-day
experiences of teachers that has so
many heading for the door each year?
Researchers across the country
devoted much time during the past two
years polling the group they call "the
leavers." Last year's report from the
National Center for Education Statistics
outlined a series of reasons why that
group is swelling, based on interviews
with more than 7,000 current and
former teachers. Some states have
conducted their own polling of tens of
thousands of members.

What they're hearing from educators is
at times surprising and disheartening,
but it's also spurring efforts to improve
the system.

The key to retaining teachers:
Listening to their suggestions

Volume 12, Issue 5 - February 2008

As CTA has maintained for years,
improving conditions at public
schools is critical to retaining
teachers, says Ken Futernick. His
study, “A Possible Dream: Retaining
California Teachers So All Students
Learn,” was released in 2007 by the
Center for Teacher Quality at CSU-

Giving teacher a say in curriculum
decisions will lower turnover rates,
says fifth-grade teacher Craig
“California should be following the
lead of North Carolina, Arizona,
Nevada, Kansas and other states
by surveying teachers about their
teaching and learning conditions
and fixing what is wrong,” says
Futernick, a member of the
California Faculty Association.
“States that improve conditions are
finding that fewer teachers are
leaving before retirement age.”

Futernick conducted a Web-based
survey of thousands of teachers
and included the following retention
strategies in his report:

Conduct regular surveys and focus
groups with teachers — and other
school staff — to assess the quality
of the teaching conditions in the
school and the district. If conditions
are poor, fix them.
Elevate California’s student funding
to adequate levels and increase per-
pupil expenditures. The state
currently ranks 43rd in the nation in
per-pupil spending.
Have school administrators in place
who support teachers, include them
in decision-making, and treat them
like professionals.
Refocus school leadership on
instructional strategies, create
Professional Learning Communities,
and provide a positive working
Establish statewide standards for
school environments that promote
teacher retention and student
Assess and address specific
challenges in retention of special
education teachers, including
workload, overly burdensome IEPs
and related paperwork, insufficient
support, and isolation from

Ken Futernick

Implementing the above
recommendations could have a
huge impact in keeping teachers
from leaving and possibly
encourage others to return to the
classroom, believes Futernick. “By
reducing the rate of attrition by 30
percent and increasing the number
of teachers re-entering the
profession by 30 percent, California
could reduce its projected annual
teacher shortage by nearly a third.”

In the face of the growing teacher
shortage, retaining teachers has
taken on a new urgency, says CTA
President David A. Sanchez. And
that means improving the conditions
at schools that are driving teachers
out of the classroom.

“CTA has led the charge to change
the climate that has been created
under No Child Left Behind, and
bring back the joy of teaching,” says
Sanchez. “Hopefully, that can
happen when No Child Left Behind
is reauthorized under a new

Increasing salaries would also help
retain teachers. Teacher salaries in
the U.S. have remained stagnant for
the last decade, according to an
NEA study.

However, letting veteran teachers
transfer to low-income schools
could help retain teachers and
offset the imbalance of having too
many new teachers working in the
most challenging schools, say some
CTA members. About a quarter of
new classroom teachers in
California are interns working on
their credentials, and about half of
these inexperienced teachers work
in districts with the most challenging
students. Studies show that having
a majority of inexperienced teachers
in the most challenging schools
contributes to the shortage.

“They say that experienced
teachers don’t want to work in
challenging, low-performing
schools, but it’s not true,” says Rick
De Francesco, a member of the
Sequoia District Teachers
Association. “But when veteran
teachers want to transfer to a new
school district, they often come up
much shorter on the pay scale than
where they are, because they can’t
transfer all their years of

“I would love to work with low-
performing kids and go somewhere
where I am needed more,” adds De
Francesco, who has raised this
topic at CTA’s State Council of
Education. “But if I did, I would
probably go down quite a bit on the
pay scale. I would like it to become
law that teachers who transfer to
low-performing districts are paid for
all their experience.”

Cindy Crawford, a member of the
San Lorenzo Teachers Association,
believes that pensions should also
be a consideration. “My pension
covers years of service and the
highest level of pay I receive during
my last few years of service. If I go
to a low-performing district and get
less pay, it lowers my overall
retirement dollars.”

CTA President Sanchez hopes that
the CTA-sponsored Quality
Education Investment Act (QEIA) will
have an impact on teacher retention
in the 488 schools that will share
$2.9 billion over the next seven
years. The money is earmarked for
such reforms as smaller class sizes,
more counselors, and better
training for teachers and principals.

“This is a historic opportunity for
positive changes at these
disadvantaged schools,” says
Sanchez of the money that resulted
from the settlement of a lawsuit CTA
filed against Gov. Schwarzenegger.

“We expect that at those schools
there will be an increase in teacher

Administrators can also spell the
difference between retaining and
losing a teacher, according to Jan
Richards, a National University
professor in teacher education. He
studied teachers in their first five
years of teaching and found that
new teachers need emotional
support, but are often treated coldly

“New teachers need reassurance
that they are doing a good job and
that they are showing professional
growth,” states the report, “What
New Teachers Value Most in

“A principal’s willingness to offer
suggestions and encouragement
(and sometimes comfort) may be an
undervalued commodity.”

A follow-up study of the same
teachers after they had been in the
profession six to 10 years found the
same principal behaviors were still
the most valued:

Respecting and valuing teachers as
Having an open-door policy and
being accessible, available and
willing to listen.
Being fair, honest and trustworthy.  
Supporting teachers dealing with
Supporting teachers in matters of
student discipline.
In some schools, a high turnover of
principals contributes to a high
turnover of teachers, says Nikita
Gibbs, a teacher at Lockwood
Elementary School in Oakland.

“The first year I had support, but
after that it was a revolving door of
administrators,” says the Oakland
Education Association member. “It
makes some people want to leave.”

Retaining teachers is a far larger
problem than recruiting new ones —
and a key to solving teacher
shortages, says Linda Darling-
Hammond, a professor at Stanford
University’s School of Education.
She estimates it costs $15,000 on
average per recruit who leaves —
at least $2 billion annually in

“These funds should be spent
strategically on stronger teaching
supports, rather than wasted on a
fast-spinning revolving door.”

Teacher Retention

Teacher Exits—The Devil’s in the
The April NEA Today cover story
focuses on how lack of respect, NCLB
mandates, and underfunding are
driving teachers from the profession.
Determining definitively just how many
teachers that is has proven tricky for
researchers and they don’t always

In the story, we highlight that the
National Center for Education Statistics
puts the average annual turnover for
all teachers at 17 percent and at 20
percent for urban school districts. We
also point out that the National
Commission on Teaching and America’
s Future estimates that one-third of all
new teachers leave after three years,
and 46 percent are gone within five
years. That last number is cited
frequently, but it’s also often notched
up to “nearly 50 percent” or “50
percent,” says the University of
Pennsylvania ’s Richard Ingersoll,
whose research generated the figure.

“Those are rough estimates,” says
Ingersoll, a professor of education and
sociology. “The devil’s in the details.”
But between 2002 (when the
commission released its report using
Ingersoll’s numbers) and 2006 (when
he recalculated them based on the
most recent national Schools and
Staffing Survey) they haven’t changed
with any significance.

Critics of the 46 percent statistic
typically point to research done by
others in the field who use a different
approach and come up with a lower
number. They don’t count teachers
who leave and then return years later
to the profession. But Ingersoll says he
approaches his statistical analysis from
the perspective of an administrator
who must evaluate staffing shortages
on a year-to-year basis—not an
academic with the luxury of a five-year
look at the teaching pool landscape. “It’
s not that one data set is wrong and
one is right, it’s that they measure
things slightly differently,” he says.

The end result is the same, though.
Teachers are leaving in higher
percentages than in previous decades
and their departure through what
researchers call the “revolving door”
costs roughly $7 billion a year. [For
more on the consequences of the
departure and some of the solutions
offered by NEA read “Why They
Leave.”] “Those who want to argue it’s
all been exaggerated sort of miss the
point,” says Ingersoll. “Roughly a
million of these people in this job are in
transition every year and that has
consequences for those running the

As for Ingersoll? The controversy over
the numbers has provided enough
material for him to write a whole new
research paper on the matter.