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How do we keep the teachers we need?

The difficulty of the first few years of teaching is the closest thing to a constant in the world of education you can find.

The difficulty of the first few years of teaching is the closest thing to a constant in the world of education you can find.

“It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have done.”

Michael Diedrich

It’s a message I got before I started teaching. While I don’t rule out the possibility that something in the future could be tougher, there’s no question that the two years I was in the classroom fit the bill. During that first year, I remember talking with a friend going through his own first year of teaching. We agreed that, while we’d both understood that “hardest thing” message intellectually, the reality of how hard wasn’t conceivable until we were actually doing it.

The difficulty of the first few years of teaching is the closest thing to a constant in the world of education you can find. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about district, charter or private schools. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking traditional certification or Teach For America. The first year in particular is just plain difficult.

That’s a big part of why we struggle to retain our newer teachers. The first five years bleed out 40-50 percent of teachers. Nearly one in 10 don’t make it through the first year at all. Those rates get even higher when looking specifically at teachers of color.

Three areas need attention

It’s not just the difficulty, of course. There are plenty of other difficult jobs out there. Pulling together observations from a few different sources, it seems there are three major areas that need attention: pay, respect, and support.

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I start with pay because it is the simplest to understand. For requiring a four-year degree, significant emotional investment, constant decision-making, and as much time beyond the contract day as most teachers put in, teachers just don’t make enough. If you assumed teaching was as stressful as, say, rocket science and only required teachers to put in the time listed on their contracts, the $35,672 national average ($34,025 in Minnesota) for a starting teacher salary in 2011-12 might not seem such a low-ball. Factor in the realities of teaching, however, and it becomes clear that the pay is too low.

Nor is salary just about compensation. Salary is one way our society signals respect, and low pay is just one way that teachers feel disrespected. Indeed, the biggest gains from an increase in salary probably wouldn’t be because of its incentivizing value, but rather because it would signal greater respect for the job.

Federal, state, and local decisions that signal a distrust of teachers or attempt to “teacher-proof” education aren’t helping, either. Most people have a limited tolerance for going to work in an environment where, increasingly, the policy environment is one of suspicion and blame. This doesn’t mean that teachers should be excused from responsibility, but rather that they should be respected as professionals to help in the design and implementation of, for example, their own evaluation systems.

Mentoring, empowering

Finally, schools can do more to support new teachers. Mentor programs (especially those with trained mentors given the time to support their mentees) and increased support from administrators are both paths to increasing teacher retention. They help offset the inevitable disillusionment that sets in during the first couple months of teaching. Schools that are better at empowering teachers in site decision-making and more effective at addressing student behavior also see better retention.

When considering teachers of color, these factors often matter even more intensely, as does a fourth: cultural awareness in the school environment. A recent article by Amanda Machado hits on some of these points very clearly. When she writes, “Without a financial incentive for a career in social service, it can seem more socially acceptable to only pursue this kind of work temporarily: a short stint of self-sacrifice to prove our altruism, before moving on to something more financially ambitious,” she covers the importance of pay and respect. Similarly, when she writes, “a lack of cultural awareness from coworkers can make people of color not feel included in their work environments, and ultimately leave,” she illustrates the need for more explicit attention to culture within education.

We cannot rely on young people putting in a superheroic effort for a few years before abandoning teaching. Hard-earned wisdom matters. Institutional knowledge matters. Viewing current ideas in relation to past experiments matters. Maintaining a balance between veterans and new blood should be part of our long-term education strategy, which means getting serious about the pay, respect and support teachers deserve. Working to improve cultural awareness will not only benefit teachers of color, but will help all of our schools better meet the needs of their students.

Michael Diedrich, who taught English for two years as a Teach for America corps member, is a master of public policy student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where he is pursuing a concentration in education policy. He is also an Education Fellow at Minnesota 2020, on whose website this article originally appeared.


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