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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.

“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.

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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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/23/2014 - 09:36 am.

    The missing item is

    The countries that do a better education job than we do set higher qualifications for entry into the teaching profession. Finland (a common example) requires that education majors have graduated in the top quarter of their high school class.
    Here, elementary education is often the major of last choice in the public universities that educate 90% of our students.
    This is not the way to convince the public that they should pay teachers as much as doctors or lawyers (try getting into med school from the bottom half of your high school class).
    As long as we operate on the assumption that anyone with the right intentions can be an effective teacher, we’ll get what we pay for.

    • Submitted by Madeline Daniels on 01/23/2014 - 10:42 am.

      High school rank is irrelevant

      While I necessarily disagree that teacher qualifications and their programs should be more competitive, I don’t see what high school rank has to do with it. I had a terrible high school rank and graduated college with honors. All that matters is how a teacher performs in his or her specific program of study in college or graduate school.

      I’ve always wondered why relevant experience isn’t a qualification for a teaching career. I work with a lot of current and former Congressional staff and have always thought they would make just as good, if not better, civics teachers than someone who has a teaching degree who’s never stepped foot on the Hill.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/23/2014 - 01:05 pm.

        Bill Gates

        Because Bill Gates never graduated from college, he would not be allowed to teach junior high school math in the public school system.

      • Submitted by Amy Bergquist on 01/23/2014 - 05:33 pm.

        Experience and licensure

        In Minnesota (and many other states, I suspect) secondary school teachers are licensed to teach “social studies,” not civics specifically. So one person has to be prepared to teach: civics/government, economics, geography, U.S. history, and world history, along with any other social science courses a school may offer, such as anthropology, psychology, and sociology. It’s hard to find a person with sufficient relevant life experience in more than one or two of those disciplines.
        And in light of how civics has been marginalized in the standards for Minnesota, I’d be surprised if there are many schools in the market for a teacher who is equipped solely to teach civics.
        The big picture, though, is that there is much more to teaching that substantive knowledge of the subject area. To take a simple example, a native speaker of English does not necessarily have the substantive knowledge about language acquisition and language learning to be equipped to teach English to English Language Learners. Similarly, I have no idea whether Bill Gates would be effective teaching junior high school math.

  2. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 01/23/2014 - 01:54 pm.

    Generally good…

    …but a couple additional points.

    On teacher pay, isn’t it time salary schedules go away – hard to think of a system that would be more unattractive for recruiting talented new teachers. Changes in your compensation will NOT reflect how effectively you do your job.

    Coupled with a system that, when needed, bases layoffs strictly by seniority and we really stack the deck against recruiting – and retaining – talented new teachers.

    Strategies for supporting new teachers (mentoring) can be effective, and giving teachers more autonomy (site-governance) makes sense. However, until we redesign the employee-employer relationships we currently follow (based on the 1950s and 1960s), we’ll remain challenged to consistently attract top (and diverse) talent to teaching.

    Thank you to the great teachers we have, despite our outdated strategies.

    • Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 02/03/2014 - 07:51 pm.

      Recipe for disaster

      How are you going to compensate teachers then? Based on student tests? Talk about a recipe for disaster. There would be even less financial incentive for teaching the most challenging kids. There are great teachers in Edina, but obviously that system is going to graduate 99% of kids. Does that make their teachers better? Even within large urban districts, from school to school there is huge variation in student populations.

      If we lived in a vacuum, where every single kid came in with the exact same support and level, maybe performance pay might make sense. In the real world, study after study after study shows how horrible performance pay schemes are for teachers and students. They misunderstand motivation and they disregard results.

  3. Submitted by John Peschken on 01/23/2014 - 04:42 pm.

    Good Teachers/Bad Teachers

    We need to find an effective way to train and evaluate teachers, The best teachers are priceless, and the worst ones need to go away. Gather the best experts and make some decisions. No more trial programs and experiments. They have been going on since my adult children were small.

    Maybe then the teachers unions could be talked into being a partner in this endeavor instead of an obstruction. The NRA-like rigidity coming from the union really turns me off to their cause.

  4. Submitted by Ed Day on 01/23/2014 - 10:36 pm.

    Salary schedules and union rigidity

    Jim, the salary schedules of steps/lanes (chutes/ladders) are definitely a throwback to days of yore, but some districts have worked within that structure to reward good work by giving teachers they want to keep a significant bump in pay upon the tenure year. The long game here is the hope that in the event that these good, energetic teachers burn out in the next 15-20 years, they’ll feel they’ve been compensated well for their efforts and move on rather than hanging around and mail it in until retirement to make up for lousy pay early in their career. I think this should work.

    John, another way to get rid of teachers within the current structure is to allow extended sabbaticals (like five years with a guarantee the district will work with them when they want to come back) so people can try out a new career with confidence. In small studies I’ve read, this gives the (burned out) teacher the confidence to leave when they know they should. The few that actually come back to teaching come back reinvigorated. It’s a win-win.

    The Bill Gates comment is worth a chuckle, but based on his public demeanor, I’d say middle school students would eat him alive (if they didn’t know who he was). Teaching is more than mastery of a subject. Steve Jobs would’ve been a better example here.

  5. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 02/03/2014 - 07:46 pm.

    Bill Gates is the perfect example

    My guess is he would make a horrendous teacher. Especially if they put him in a high needs, high poverty school where he had zero cultural competency.

  6. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 02/03/2014 - 08:03 pm.

    Talk of keeping good teachers always devolves into bashing

    It is almost pavlovian. We have an epidemic of not being able to retain good teachers. Lack of respect for the profession is top three in this article, and I would say number one stressor in mine. The commenters here illustrate this beautifully.

    No one wants “bad” teachers, but they are a sliver of a sliver of the problem. Teacher retention is a much bigger problem both financially for the district and educationally for the students. The second you try and talk about retaining good teachers, the conversation turns immediately to how to get rid of those bad, awful, nasty teachers and their lousy unions.

    First, there are already mechanisms in place to get rid of non-functioning teachers. But, the bashers just won again, because here we are talking about bad teachers again instead of good. In fact, there is a nominal positive correlation between unionized districts and academic achievement. For many of these commenters, their #1 solution is not even correlated to higher achievement.

    However, diminishing teacher workplace rights certainly diminishes the attractiveness of the profession. Modern education reform is the most backwards, Orwellian entity in modern society. It is because of commenters like these that no reasonable person would want to go in to teaching.

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