Why teachers quit

Frustrated by bureaucracy and exhausted by the struggle to control their students, thousands of California teachers quit the classroom, says Cal State’s Teacher Quality Institute. Nearly 22 percent quit in four years or less. At high-poverty schools, 10 percent of teachers leave every year.

… after six years in the trenches — transferred from campus to campus, forbidden from organizing field trips and ordered to teach math only after lunch — (Stephan) Goyne left the profession.

Now he works in real estate and runs a Brazilian jiujitsu studio in Oakland.

“That last year, I had enough of it,” said Goyne. “The biggest skill you’re applying is crowd control. You’re not really having a say in the curriculum or what goes into it.”

Teachers surveyed complained of paperwork, interruptions and “fruitless meetings that take time away from actual instruction.” Many also said their students had driven them out of teaching.

Sabrina Walasek loved teaching middle school science and math in Daly City and Felton, near Santa Cruz. But after six years, the Oakland resident found herself worn out from keeping kids in check .

“The amount of energy spent on discipline and behavior management just got to me after a while,” Walasek said.

Working conditions were more important than pay for teachers who quit.

“They’re almost saying ‘you couldn’t pay me enough to stay at this school,'” (study author Ken) Futernick said. Interestingly enough, teachers surveyed who stayed in the field and felt supported at their campus cited their compensation as adequate, the study says.

Those who left tough schools said they would not come back even if they earned more money, often known as combat pay.

“As long as we think of these schools as combat zones, we’re not going to close the achievement gap,” Futernick said. “We need to turn those schools into learning zones and teaching zones.”

The LA Times did a similar story, leading with mid-career professional with a chemistry doctorate who offered to teach at a high-poverty school desperate for science teachers. He didn’t last two years.

Fed up with student insolence and administrative impotence, he stalked out of Manual Arts High School on March 12 and never went back.

Smart, motivated people — the sort we want teaching — won’t stay in jobs if they can’t make a difference.

About Joanne


  1. Charles R. Williams says:

    Somehow, somewhere it became the teacher’s responsibility to manage his students rather than the student’s responsibility to manage himself.

    There are plenty of people well qualified to teach technical subjects and willing to do it for the salaries offered. The issue is the very difficult conditions under which teachers have to function, especially in public schools.

    There are relatively rare individuals who have the knowledge, energy and interpersonal skills necessary to be effective in such environments. The problem is that you can’t design an education system around superstar teachers.

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    A Nun could handle a classroom of 40 because she didn’t have to put up with any crap. You got a rap with a ruler, then you got sent to Mother Superior, then you got gone. Discipline is the first lesson anyone should learn, because without discipline nothing else is possible. Only an idiot or someone seduced by a very large salary would put up with the little dictators the present system makes of every child.

  3. At my middle school, we had gentleman from India with a doctorate in Mathematics who taught 7th grade math. He quit after two years and went back into the private sector due to our lack of support from our administration and unruly students. I’ve been teaching for almost 7 years and am seriously considering my options after my youngest is through with middle school.

  4. Maybe if we showed Freedom Writers to demoralized teachers, they’d get inspired, hang around and help shrink the achievement gap. Our new principal loves that film and encourages all faculty members to watch it. I had to watch it last week and now have no excuses for failing to raise CST scores.

  5. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I would not take crap from anyone in an office or jobsite, so why do teachers have to? With the overhead of modern education you would expect administration support. Obviously you don’t get it. If the union were a real union instead of just a conduit of dues to democrats they might improve the situation. If administration could get off this “Zero tolerance” crap and start exercising and defending responsible judgement, perhaps teachers would teach again. If legislators would give schools the tools to enforce discipline and keep lawyers away… If there is another beer I think I’ll have it.

  6. Half Canadian says:

    Somehow, we can have zero tolerance for kitchen knives and capguns, but we can’t have zero tolerance for disruptive behavior in the classroom.

  7. Only an idiot or someone seduced by a very large salary would put up with the little dictators the present system makes of every child.

    Walter, you have just called every teacher an idiot and every child, including mine, a dictator. I suggest you apologize, either for your poor wording, or for being an uninformed jerk.

  8. Let’s see, “idiots” (according to Walter) or “superstar teachers” (according to Charles)….

    I think if I had to choose I might prefer Charles’s characterization of the successful teacher (though in my case I’m afraid that Walter might have stumbled onto some validity)….

  9. BadaBing,

    Are you and your principal aware the teacher featured in Freedom Writers is among the group that has quit teaching?

  10. wayne martin says:

    School District should start publishing the exit interviews for teachers, so that the public can get a better view of what’s going on from their eyes.

  11. Are you and your principal aware the teacher featured in Freedom Writers is among the group that has quit teaching?

    I’m not sure you’re doing your self-serving misrepresentations much good by pointing out that it’s the brilliant, capable teachers who quit.

    Why though, would it be any other way? A profession in which the brilliant, or even competent, have precisely the same value as the incompetent and the uncaring. That doesn’t sound like a prescription for retaining the best and the brightest, which is the real trick.

    Starry-eyed romantic notions of molding today’s young minds into tomorrow’s leaders might get ’em to scrape up the tuition for ed school but those illusions won’t last once they find a job. Then the reality of being employed as a teacher by schools that neither value teaching or learning starts to set in.

    Who’s going to stay? The rare individual who’s good at what they do and can steadfastly ignore the indifference of the organization to their skills? Yeah, but there can’t be all that many people so self-possessed. Who’s that leave?

    The less rare individual who isn’t particularly good at what they do and is damned glad they work for an organization that places no great value on skill? A pay check being, after all, a pay check? Now there are the makings of a career-minded person in a profession in which the ability to avoid rocking the boat is highly prized.

  12. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Mike, pay attention. Anyone who tolerates abuse is an idiot. If you believe that students should be allowed to disrupt instruction then you are an idiot.

  13. 1. I totally agree. I can deal with the pay, but the conditions can’t continue.

    2. When parents are actually held accountable, then you will see results.

    3. Average price of a home in Sonoma County is over a half million. Average teacher salary is under 50K. It is worse in the Bay Area. Good luck bringing in new recuits.

  14. Good generalizations, guys. Bravo….

    One point regarding this study’s claim that it proves teacher salaries are not a significant factor in retention.

    While teachers might seldom quit over their salary that doesn’t necessarily prove that higher salaries wouldn’t help a discouraged teacher to keep trying.

    I think this would be true for almost any job.

    Still, it does seem reasonable that improving working conditions is a more urgent concern in getting new teachers to stay.

  15. Discipline is a problem because teachers are pressured by administrators to put up with disrutpive behavior. Otherwise, it means more work for the administrators.

    And the administrators are pressured by the district office to suspend as few students as possible because ADA money is lost, it reflects poorly on the climate of the school (it’s public record, and it invites complaints from parents which makes more work for those who have to hear the complaints.

    The system is designed to hide discipline problems, not solve them.

    One year we had a vice principal who said, “I don’t care if they fire me. I’m going to suspend every student who deserves it.” He suspended an enormous number of students in Septemeber and October, more than triple what was typical for an entire year. Then from November to June, nobody was suspended because behavior improved dramatically.

    Recently I had a student pick up a chair and throw it at me. Luckily, he missed. I referred the incident to an administrator. The child was not suspended or even given detention but I was chewed out because I was the cause for his outburst. I hadn’t listened to the student when he had something to say and that angered him. And how did that come to light? That’s what the child told the administrator.

    So, the next time a student throws a chair at me, I can either do nothing or I can report it and get blamed.

    And that’s how discipline commonly works in the public school.

  16. This past week, after I had casually mentioned reasons why my parents would ground me back in the day, a PITA student then offered, “My parents never ground me!”

    To which I replied, “I can tell.”

  17. I quit because I got a job offer for twice the pay and half the work.

  18. wayne martin says:

    > The child was not suspended or even given
    > detention but I was chewed out because I
    > was the cause for his outburst.

    I wonder how often this happens. There is overwhelming evidence that “Administrators” are one of the key problems in the public school system. It would seem that this is one of those cases where filing a grievance a “grievance” against the Administrator might be in the teacher’s best interest.. if only to establish a “paper trail” for the future.

    One poster noted that Teacher’s Unions seem be be invisible fighting this problem .. which also would be something that individual teachers would be able to deal with at their local schools.

    Having chairs (or anything else) thrown at a teacher should be grounds for suspension, if not explusion. There really should be a set of rules that are clearly established, so that teachers can expect to be supported by Administrators without question when this sort of incident occurs.

    This is another area where Teacher’s Unions would be expected to take the lead if the School District did not.

  19. wayne martin says:

    > There really should be a set of rules that are clearly
    > established, so that teachers can expect to be supported
    > by Administrators without question when this sort of
    > incident occurs.

    Robert Wright:

    Does your school have a policy in place that clearly states what classroom behaviours will be not be tolerated, leading to suspension or expulsion?

  20. Erin Gruwell, who wrote “Freedom Writers,” left classroom teaching to train teachers in how to teach writing and run the Freedom Writers Foundation.

  21. So frequently a “discipline problem” is a potential-student (“p-s”) who the teacher has not known well enough to help generate (teach) the “p-s” a sense of connection with the lesson material.

    Or, to “put it another way, to “teach” the “p-s” ways of doing/learning for his/her own “thought-through reasons!

  22. Wayne Martin, yes.

    Our school has an excellent, clearly defined discipline policy. It’s all down on paper.

    The problem is the way the system is structured. Administrators are pressured not to enforce discipline policies and teachers are pressured not to complain.

    Imagine a city police force where an officer is looked down on or even punished every time he writes a speeding ticket. The chief of police will be able to boast that statistics show the streets are safer than they’ve ever been and yet the accidents will keep piling up.

    It’s really not that difficult to maintain discipline in a classroom.

    What’s difficult is to maintain discipline in a public school classroom.

  23. In my third year as a teacher, I had this 9th grade English class that was a handful. I was still finding my way and trying really hard to get a handle on these 35 kids. There were half a dozen boys who demanded way too much of my attention, cutting up at each other, harrassing girls, trying to front me. I tried a variety of stratagies, often with immediate success that dwindled and left me seemingly where I’d started. Then, in the course of about two weeks, all six of these boys left the school (I think that one got arrested, one or two were in foster care and were relocated, another had some gang problems in the neighborhood, one got into a fight and got OTed).

    So here I was with this class with not one of those disruptive boys left and what happened?

    Three or four boys who had previously been sitting in my class quietly doing their work suddenly became disruptive. They stepped into the void and replaced them.

    The problem, in other words, was me. Or partly me.

    Where I teach summer school, administrators and some teachers seem to see those six weeks in July and August as their sweet revenge for a Sept-June of frustration and impotence. After the first week — at which time students are counted and teaching positions for the summer are secured — students are discharged at a fairly rapid pace, sometimes two and three per day. Zero tolerance. A math teacher across the hall from me sends them home till September if they are late to her class more than once, talk while she is talking, or fail to pay attention to her instruction.

    Mostly the kids who are kicked out are probably taught a good lesson and those who remain probably have the opportunity to learn more.

    There are always at least a few kids who are unjustly dismissed and have no recourse since — as the administration is quick to point out — “summer school is a priviledge, not a right…”

    That is regrettable — it makes often alienated students feel even more marginalized. But then so does a school culture devoid of discipline….

  24. “Somehow, somewhere it became the teacher’s responsibility to manage his students rather than the student’s responsibility to manage himself.”

    At which level? Kindergardeners certainly aren’t going to manage themselves (but if the only thing the K teacher manages to teach is to sit down and shut up, that’s enough for the next year’s teacher to work with). High school students should manage themselves.

    I suspect that a large part of the problem is that administrators don’t hold back kids that desperately deserve it, and that the system attempts to educate many kids beyond what they will ever be interested in or find a use for. Boys that don’t care for math, history, or reading shouldn’t be in college prep classes, they should be in shop classes – where they’re likely to learn that reading and math are essential for things they want to do. Kids that cannot behave themselves in high school shouldn’t have been promoted to high school. Kids that can’t read, write, or do arithmetic at an 8th grade level shouldn’t be in high school where they get in the way of others learning – and so on down to the early elementary grades.

  25. Although Freedom Writer is a good movie, stories about teachers in bad classes and rah, rah speeches from principals won’t make teachers successful. The problem begins in college, where those preparing to teach are not being given solid strategies for building rapport with kids. Rapport, not discipline, is the key. Once teachers learn this, they can be successful in just about any environment.

  26. Teacher Barbie says:

    I agree administration makes it really hard for us to effectively do our job but the parents are the root of all of the trouble. Parents pressure administration, administration pressures teachers. Either you bow down or you are fighting an uphill battle.

    I tried to fight the plagiarism battle my first year teaching. A kid copied word-for-word 18 out of 21 sentences in a government project. It was fairly uneventful until the kid got kicked out of NHS for it. The parents then proceeded to appeal it all the way to the superintendant. Rightfully she sided with me. There was no arguing it…although the parents did try to claim it was “incorrect citation” because she included a link to factmonster.com. I desperately wanted to teach the kid a lesson before the stakes were higher but I doubt she learned anything at all from the whole ordeal…she wasn’t even present at any of the many meetings. From that moment, I lost a little of my “spark”.

    I then learned the hard way that there is a lot of pressure to pass as many seniors as possible when I was “strongly encouraged” to allow 2 kids who failed my final to RETAKE it the MORNING of graduation. This was after I had already told the students it was not an option, a god-mother, and an angry mother who informed me that it wasn’t up to me and her baby WOULD walk at graduation the next day. Magically the test scores went from a 43 and 52 to “passing” overnight. I did not administer the retake but I was assured that several people signed off on the scores.

    Things like that make me want to walk out the door and never ever come back again…but then again, the off time is nice and every once in a while, a kid comes to visit after they finish with their college finals to say hi or to appologize for being such a pain in the tail or to thank me for helping them…times like that make my heart swell and remind me of why I do this job.

  27. Virginia Dumas says:

    I have been teaching for 12 years. I now teach in a high school where for 4 and a half years, we’ve had principals who do not effect the discipline policy that is in place, or effect it selectively. A group of students, mainly football players and their companions, have selected me out for daily emotional torture. Boys pull their pants down to mid-thigh and turn around in front of me. The windshield of my car has beens smashed-in by a rock. I have received obscene phone calls at my home from students. Students drive by my home shouting obscenities. A student flipped over a long wooden table so that it landed with its top on the floor while I was standing next to the table. These incidents which receive no consequences or a metaphorical ‘slap on the wrist’ are too numerous to list. I dread going to school every day and often cry at home before I leave for work. The administration does nothing and blames me for the student’s behavior. The issues that are police issues travel the same trajectory. Even though the student who smashed-in my windshield was overheard bragging about it at school by another student who reported it, nothing was done in the way of consequences-either at the school or police level. At our high school, students literally laugh at the thought of being disciplined in any way. They even ask to go to the principal’s office as they know they will be supported and the teacher’s ‘write-ups’ dismissed. Only 3 teachers remain in this high school who were here when I accepted employment. All have bolted or retired early. The district can’t pay people enough to stay.
    I am nearing retirement and trying to tough-out the harrassment. In the last school where I worked (in another state), discipline was effected and none of these problems existed. There, the administration supported the teachers, not the acting-out students. Calm reigned. Teaching occurred. The ambiance was beneficial and education-enhancing. What a great place it was. I’m sorry I left. However, I’ve bought a house in this small town where I now try to teach and I don’t want to move again. I’m hoping that after I retire the torture will stop as this unkind group of students gradually forgets me. Don’t get me wrong-many of my students are dear to me. The kids who cause this trouble are in the minority, yet they are allowed to cause mayhem and emotional anguish at will.
    I now regret getting my teaching credential. I don’t know why anyone would go into teaching. I advise any students who are thinking about it to go into another field. I guess I am an idiot to stay here, but I do have financial obligations.

    Has anyone seen the TV ad where the student is eating a candy bar and the professor (it is, horrors, a college setting) is being mocked by a cartoon finger pointing at him, long hair being drawn on the blackboard behind him, etcetera?

    How about the reportage on TV showing student cell-phone footage posted on the internet-a teacher is taunted and provoked beyond endurance (several students ‘humping’ him, or beliefs being raucously denigrated). When the teacher responds in anger, his or her actions are caught on cell phone. Sport?

  28. I have taught in several New Zealand schools for over 20 years. I recently resigned out of sheer frustration – the endless paper shuffling, perpetual pointless changes, the lack of time to do the job properly and poor behaviour of adolescents were contributing factors. I am now unemployed and feel great – roll on life!

  29. ComeOnNow says:

    It is our culture that is disturbed. We can point fingers at the school system, the administrators, the students, but the real problem stems from the fact that the American culture no longer values any particular moral code. We are a self-centered society, full of divorced parents who “need” their careers, their material goods, their dream home. Who suffers? The kids. And WE are left to deal with them in an environment that is meant to allow kids to learn and grow. The parents, even if they act as if they care, in general, do not know how to care. They only know what they WANT. Some WANT their kids to grow up, go to college, and get a good job. But do the parents have any real play in this? They WANT to think they do, but most don’t.

    One example of this is what happened to me today. Poor “Joey” got an F on his essay because he didn’t follow directions. Mommy sent me a vicious email saying that I don’t care about my students because Joey has really been trying at home…and can’t I see that? How dare I not notice that lately he has been turning in his work. Then, she showed up at my classroom door after school and began to yell and scream at me for failing her son.

    This is a great profession. Yeah, I feel I can change the world.


  1. […] Jacobs offers this as a reason why teachers quit: Smart, motivated people — the sort we want teaching — won’t stay in jobs if they can’t […]