How to stop teachers leaving the profession

Staff attrition and retention continues to be a problem for education systems around the world, so understanding the factors that influence a teacher's decision to leave the profession and, conversely, the kind of support that might make them stay is a hot topic for researchers.

Two studies published this month in Australia and the UK shed further light on the issue, providing some interesting insights and recommendations at both a school and systems level.

Writing in the Australian Journal of Education (AJE), Jessica Arnup and Terence Bowles say resilience – how we cope with stress and bounce back from adversity – could be the key to understanding why teachers choose to quit, and job satisfaction should also be a focus. Meanwhile, UK charity NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research) found a strong relationship between teacher engagement and intention to leave the profession.

Findings from the Australian study

‘Teacher attrition is a current issue in Australia and other economically developed countries, with up to 50 per cent of teachers resigning from teaching within the first five years,' Arnup and Bowles note in their AJE paper, adding it's widely considered to have a negative impact on student achievement.

The researchers, from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, surveyed 160 Australian primary and secondary teachers who had all been in the profession for up to 10 years. The questionnaire measured resilience and job satisfaction. The participants were asked about their intention to leave the profession (the three options were ‘I think about quitting the teaching profession', ‘I intend to quit the teaching profession' and ‘I intend to move into another profession/occupation'). They were also asked how long they planned to remain in the profession (seven options from less than one year to until retirement).

The majority, 53 per cent, said they intended to stay for another 10 years and 23 per cent said they planned to stay until retirement. Around one-third (32 per cent) intended to leave teaching. Arnup and Bowles report that ‘lower resilience and poor job satisfaction were found to significantly predict intention to leave the teaching profession,' adding ‘Importantly, resilience was found to explain additional variation in intention to leave teaching over and above job satisfaction and teacher demographics.'

The study – which gathered data in mid-2014 – didn't measure teacher effectiveness, so there's no exploration of those who are seen as ‘performing well' or ‘underperforming' in their role. The researchers also suggest that in some cases there could be individual factors at play that weren't broached in the survey, such as leaving to start a family or returning to full-time study. However, they say the evidence is clear in relation to resilience and job satisfaction.

Resilience and job satisfaction

Previous research into teacher stress has highlighted issues such as teaching unmotivated students, dealing with difficult student behaviour, coping with change, maintaining working relationships, and doing administration and management tasks. Having strong family support and, particularly in the case of early career teachers, a supportive culture at school (including mentoring) are seen a factors influence individual resilience.

In terms of being satisfied with the job, influencing factors include having supportive colleagues and an approachable and supportive principal, positive school relationships and a collaborative working environment. Arnup and Bowles also highlight data from the OECD's Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) – focusing on lower secondary school teachers and their principals – suggesting ‘the majority of teachers are satisfied with their jobs, but teaching classrooms with a high proportion of challenging students is associated with lower levels of job satisfaction (OECD, 2014)'.

‘Researchers have known for years that teachers are often dissatisfied with aspects of their job but little appears to have changed, often due to lack of time and financial resources,' Arnup and Bowles comment. ‘Instead, schools may be able to help teachers increase their resilience through increased school support and stress/resilience programmes. … Developing higher levels of resilience will allow teachers to bounce back quickly from set-backs, have more confidence in their ability, reduce impact of stress and hopefully work to improve teachers' job satisfaction.'

In a 2013 New South Wales study, researchers at the University of Technology, Sydney investigated early career teachers' intentions to stay in or leave the profession (Buchanan, 2013). Participants identified several areas where they wanted support, including: collegiality (help from senior staff and sharing of resources), managing student behaviour, working conditions (coping with the demands of a busy environment), professional development, and isolation (professional, emotional and geographical).

In an episode of Teacher's Research Files podcast series, Associate Professor John Buchanan said despite these issues beginner teachers decided they'd probably stay in the profession. ‘… We couldn't really quantify what made some teachers decide to stay and some leave in similar circumstances. It may be just personal resilience … [and that emerging question] might warrant further research.'

Insights from the UK

The NFER has carried out previous studies looking at attrition and retention. This follow-up – using survey data from 2015 and 2016 and 21 in-depth interviews with teachers who'd recently left the profession or who were considering leaving – explored how engagement and support influences intentions.

As with the Arnup and Bowles study, the NFER research found the majority of teachers aren't considering leaving the profession. ‘The proportion of teachers considering leaving has, however, increased significantly in the last year, from 17 to 23 per cent,' a report on the findings says.

And, like the Australian research, this study found no link between satisfaction with salary and intention to leave the profession. ‘While receiving appropriate pay for their level of responsibility is a protective factor for teachers, other evidence suggests that pay is not the main motivating factor. … Teachers are not leaving for higher-paid jobs, at least not in the short term. On average they experience a ten per cent fall in wages compared to similar teachers who remain in teaching.'

Teacher engagement – role and gender

What it did find is a strong link between teacher engagement and retention – nine out of 10 ‘engaged' teachers weren't considering leaving, compared to 26 per cent of disengaged teachers. Of course, there were still 10 per cent of engaged teachers who were considering leaving.

Exploring this in more detail, engagement was also found to be an important factor for different types of teacher. ‘Maths teachers and senior leaders have high levels of engagement and are less likely to be considering leaving. Conversely, science teachers and experienced male teachers [more than five years' experience] have a heightened risk of leaving, especially after controlling for their level of engagement.'

As with the Australian study, job satisfaction was an important factor – indeed, it was the strongest factor associated with an intention to stay in the profession. Others included pride in working at the school, adequate resources, good support from and feeling valued by school management, having an effective governing body and getting paid appropriately according to level of responsibility.

There were also a list of engagement factors found not to play a significant part in the decision to leave or stay but researchers say they're useful to consider in that they could be related to job satisfaction or simply be things that all staff are content with. These included appropriate professional development, feeling informed about what's happening at the school and knowing how to contribute to the goals of the school.

One of the recommendations of the NFER report is a call for a greater focus on staff wellbeing. ‘This could include schools having a governor or trustee responsible for staff welfare, or a member of the management team with specific time and responsibilities in this area. Mentoring and/or mental health provision could be beneficial for some staff.'

Stay tuned: Teacher will be returning to this topic in the coming weeks, looking at how one school in New South Wales is focusing on teacher resilience and wellbeing.

References and further reading

Arnup, J. & Bowles, T., (2016). Should I stay or should I go? Resilience as a protective factor for teachers' intention to leave the teaching profession. Australian Journal of Education. DOI: 10.1177/0004944116667620

Buchanan, J.D., Prescott, A.E., Schuck, S.R., Aubusson, P.J., Burke, P.F. & Louviere, J.J. (2013), Teacher retention and attrition: Views of early career teachers, The Australian Journal of Teacher education, 38(3), pp. 112-129

Lynch, S., Worth, J., Bamford, S. and Wespieser, K. (2016). Engaging Teachers: NFER Analysis of Teacher Retention Slough: NFER.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2014). Teaching in focus brief number 5 – What helps teachers feel valued and satisfied with their jobs? Retrieved from

As a school leader, how are you supporting teachers to be more resilient and better cope with stress?

The NFER report calls for a greater focus on staff wellbeing. In what ways do you actively support staff wellbeing and mental health?