What’s Lost When a Teacher Leaves a School

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

What’s Lost When a Teacher Leaves a School

By Tracy Edwards     May 5, 2023

What’s Lost When a Teacher Leaves a School

“Her teacher quit last Friday. Just like that, she’s gone,” my friend said to me just a few weeks ago, devastated that her daughter’s second grade teacher — her favorite teacher — left before the school year ended.

Visibly shaken, her voice trembled as she went on, "She’s been crying for days. All the kids are upset. The parents are in an uproar, and the new teacher is a substitute who keeps sending home kindergarten math.” As we witness a massive teacher pipeline break in real-time, families like my friend’s are left to process their emotions over the loss they’re experiencing.

As I moved through my own emotions after listening to my friend’s story, I found myself thinking about the consequences of the teacher exodus currently happening in several states across the country. In eight states, teacher turnover rates are the highest they’ve been in five years, with schools serving families with high poverty rates being hit the hardest. And in a survey administered by the National Education Association in 2022, 55 percent of teachers and support professionals who responded indicated they are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned.

The teacher pipeline is no longer leaking. With enrollment in traditional teacher education programs declining nationwide in the past few years, it is drying up at an alarming rate.

As the nation grapples with the profound effects these challenges have on school communities, the term “learning loss” has made its way into the spotlight. This term is commonly used in stories detailing what children across America lost during remote learning. It focuses primarily on how students have fallen behind in core academic areas such as reading and math, which is of course a critical issue. The trouble is, the term doesn't represent the complexity of what students, families and school communities experience with teacher turnover.

As a veteran educator with over 20 years in the classroom, I’ve seen the consequences of teacher turnover. When a teacher leaves, the loss is layered — there’s loss of community, continuity and, in many cases, funding. This can change everything for kids who need the most support, both academically and socially. This is the loss that should be at the forefront of national conversations.

Loss of Community

I recently saw a parent whose child I taught a few years ago. She thanked me for my flexibility in supporting her child during an extremely tough and volatile time for her family. I remember her well. She had several children at our school and while her family was navigating a crisis, her children were going through various academic and social challenges.

A number of the teachers at my school came together to support her family. We spent time discussing the progress of each of her children, sharing strategies and making connections with organizations in the community. When her children moved to the next grade, we met with their new teachers to share background information to build continuity of support. Her family benefited from the strength and collaboration of our team. Strong relationships between teachers, families and the community can make a big difference, and the loss of teachers who are deeply engaged with families is not easily recovered.

Strong family and community engagement can enhance learning outcomes and help to create a sense of belonging. Relationships are critical in engaging students and families in meaningful and culturally appropriate ways, and are associated with increased literacy acquisition, lower dropout rates and improved attendance. In school, relationships often start with teachers, and when teachers leave, the connections they have with students and families are irreparably broken.

Bonds between school-based staff are also key. As teachers in a school building become more cohesive and collaborative, they often develop norms and approaches for routines, communication, conflict and addressing discipline. Considering pressing student mental health issues and behavioral concerns, schools where educators are able to learn, grow and stay together can be a powerful force in transforming school culture and impacting student achievement.

Additionally, connecting to students, families and surrounding communities makes it easier for schools to access funds of knowledge and integrate culturally responsive instruction to bridge school learning with student experiences at home. When we lose teachers, we lose the bridges they’ve built, which are essential for student growth.

Loss of Continuity

Teacher turnover, especially mid-year, creates disruption, which can have a devastating impact on student learning, particularly for students with the most pressing needs. This includes the academic achievement commonly referenced by “learning loss,” but reaches beyond it to institutional knowledge and school culture.

Research shows that teacher quality is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement. Teachers hold valuable knowledge of instructional practices gained through participation in school culture, professional learning and instructional coaching. That is not easily replaced. In the story I shared about my friend, for example, she immediately noticed a drastic decrease in the quality of her daughter’s schoolwork. This is not uncommon, as many schools struggle to fill vacancies due to persistent shortages, often employing substitutes and in some cases, inexperienced teachers who may lack the knowledge and training around curriculum and pedagogy to deliver instruction as effectively as the teacher who left.

The institutional knowledge lost, which encompasses schoolwide values, norms and rituals is not easily replicated. This distinct kind of loss is significant and the impact can be cumulative in schools where turnover persists from year to year, leaving our most marginalized students with academic gaps that grow wider every year.

Loss of Funding

Persistently high turnover rates also come with a significant financial cost for school districts. According to a report published in 2017 by the Economic Policy Institute, large urban districts spend approximately $20,000 on every new hire. The cost of turnover includes expenses related to separation, recruitment, hiring and training of new teachers to replace those who exit. For schools with the highest turnover rates — typically those serving a large population of students from low income families and students of color — this loss directly affects the quality of instruction and support students receive.

Teacher turnover creates a constant drain on funding. When hard-to-staff school districts spend a portion of their funds on attrition, they have less money available for curriculum, enrichment programs, mental health supports, school-based support staff and other resources that can support students. Essentially, students pay the price for the ongoing teacher exodus.

Fortunately, there are steps school leaders and policymakers can take to begin to repair the damage.

Repairing the Damage

Getting teachers to stay is possible, but it requires a great deal of systemic change. It is critical to examine what drives teacher turnover and what can be done to address the problem, which has many layers, including working conditions, compensation, autonomy and a sense of safety in the school community.

Improving Working Conditions

To retain educators, their working conditions must change. This can include ensuring adequate planning time, reducing class sizes, eliminating excessive paperwork and providing the resources necessary to be effective. It also involves offering compensation packages with competitive salaries, and other incentives such as student loan forgiveness, affordable housing and child care assistance.

Increasing staff, including critical school-based staff, such as counselors and school psychologists to help address behavioral issues is also a significant factor in raising teacher satisfaction. Ensuring safe and supportive teaching and learning environments is also key. This is especially important as teachers continue to confront school violence; as threats to educators who identify as members of historically marginalized or underrepresented communities — such as teachers of color and LGBTQ+ teachers — persist; and as teachers dedicated to the inclusion of social justice and history continue to combat increasing attacks that impact sense of well-being and safety in the workplace.

Supporting Teachers Through Intentional Community Building

With most teachers leaving within five years of entering the profession, it is crucial to examine how to structure programs aimed at retaining them. Teacher induction involves components such as mentoring, professional development and coaching for those entering the field. High-quality teacher induction programs have been found to improve teacher retention and to support a culture of collaboration and community among all teachers in a school building, making it a powerful tool for retaining teachers across the board.

Cultivating strong relationships with other teachers increases the likelihood that teachers will stay in their current school. Encouraging teachers to collaborate, coach and mentor others can also improve climate, culture and retention.

Preparing School Leaders

Improved working conditions and community building starts with leadership. Training and supporting school leaders may be one of the most effective strategies a district can leverage to improve teacher retention. Multiple studies have shown that the climate — set by school leaders — is an effective way to minimize teacher turnover, especially for teachers of color. Teachers are less likely to leave when they trust administrators and see them as supportive, collaborative instructional leaders.

To this end, districts should regularly support and assess principal effectiveness by administering climate surveys to schools and examining turnover rates to determine which leaders need intensive support and training. Since principals heavily impact teacher satisfaction and ultimately student achievement, professional development must be a priority. Like teachers, they should be supported, coached, mentored and evaluated regularly to ensure maximum levels of success.

Having been in the profession for over two decades, I admit that many schools have lost me over the years. They lost me when leadership was unwilling to listen to my voice and respect my autonomy. They lost me when they failed to cultivate a community where I felt I was truly part of something bigger than myself. They lost me when the climate became so unbearable that even the most dedicated teachers walked away.

I am now part of a thriving school community, where we hold a shared vision and set of core values. We embrace our families and spend the bulk of our time on what matters most: teaching our students. I am proof that all is not lost. There is space for repair, but we must attend to the loss of the most dedicated, qualified teachers in our classrooms.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up