5 Things That Would Make Teaching Worth It


Photography for Wheelock College web site and publications.

Current teacher workforce trends are concerning.  Enrollment is down 10% across US teacher education colleges.  Teach For America recently shared that its recruitment has dipped by 25%.  Perhaps more concerning, the Alliance For Education reports that almost half of new teachers leave the profession within five years, especially in urban, low-income school districts.  And in 2012, the Met Life Survey of The American Teacher reported that: “Teacher satisfaction has declined 23 percentage points since 2008, from 62% to 39% very satisfied…to the lowest level in 25 years.”

In other words: Fewer people want to teach or enjoy teaching.  Even those who view teaching as an admirable profession or a ‘worthy calling,’ are making the assessment that it’s not worth it.

This is troubling on many levels.  With projected retirements – approximately half of US teachers and principals are baby-boomers— the teaching workforce is in critical need of new recruits.  Moreover, schools desperately need new teachers who come and stay.  Research suggests that it takes at least three years in the classroom for teachers to gain the knowledge and skill needed to significantly impact student learning.   Thus, when districts consistently undergo ‘teacher-churn’ they are unable to build a critical mass of experienced, qualified teachers needed to ensure high performing schools.

So what can we do to reverse these trends? How can we transform the teaching profession in ways that attract and retain a sizable, next generation of smart, diverse and passionate educators?  While higher compensation may be one answer, results from the Met Life Survey of The American Teacher consistently show that it not the most important factor influencing teacher job satisfaction or retention.  In fact, there are a range of perks and opportunities  already in place for teachers –e.g. student loan forgiveness, housing programs, healthcare and pension benefits – that enhance their overall compensation.

What then would make a difference? How can we elevate the teaching profession?  Here are five proposed action items I believe would be ‘game-changers’:

  1. Testing focused on student learning, not school rankings.  Increasingly, teachers – and parents – are rallying against high-stakes testing and over-testing.  Most teachers are not opposed to tests, but rather tests used to rank schools or teacher performance, and which are given once a year.  For example, 56% of teachers in the 2012 Met Life Survey reported that implementing teacher effectiveness measures had been challenging or very challenging.  Thus, instead of annual high stakes tests, the type of testing most teachers want – and would benefit from –are shorter and manageable testing systems that provide greater insight into what students can do and understand, how they process information, and what progress they are making over time. New assessment technology has great potential to offer teachers this more frequent, real-time and useable data.
  1. Administrators / supervisors who know good teaching and support teachers.   From my conversations with teachers,  a common theme is a desire to work in professional cultures with leaders who facilitate: ongoing feedback and guidance in good instructional practice; rich collegial conversations about students and learning; effective collection and use of student data; and opportunities for professional growth. Too often, teachers have limited support and interaction with school administrators, especially those who are true instructional leaders and mentors.  Districts should invest in the training and development of strong instructional leaders.
  1. Behavior specialists in schools. Many students, especially those living in poverty or under financial duress, come to schools with a range of social emotional health issues, ranging from anxiety, stress, poor emotional regulation, substance abuse, to psychiatric problems (e.g. anti-social personality disorder, depression, etc.).  These issues then affect both student behavior and academic performance.  Thus, many teachers feel overwhelmed by both meeting instructional responsibilities and addressing multiple student social emotional issues.  These teachers – and more importantly many of their students and families– need professional help, such as social workers or behavior specialists that can provide both in and outside of the classroom support strategies and interventions.
  1. Health and wellness programs.  As research suggests, the health and well-being of employees are strongly related to their job performance, job satisfaction and retention.  Similar to what several successful corporations have done, districts and schools should seek creative ways to promote teacher health and wellness, through resources such as onsite health clubs and fitness programs, on-call mental health counselors, and peer support groups.
  1. Sabbaticals. Just as college professors are eligible every fifth or seventh year of service for sabbaticals / paid leave to study or travel, so too should K-12 teachers.  Offering sabbaticals to teachers acknowledges and supports them as professionals, as well as provides them with extended time for self-care and to improve their knowledge-base and practice.  They then return to schools recharged and better equipped to support students, families and colleagues.

These action items would require significant investment on the part of districts and schools. However, as preventative measures that improve teacher recruitment, performance and job satisfaction, and reduce high, costly rates of teacher turn-over, they offer a potential huge return on investment. Most importantly, they would help change a dangerous, current perception that teaching just isn’t worth it.


Jake MurrayJacob Murray is the executive director of the Wheelock College Aspire Institute, which seeks to improve education and social policy and practice.