School Improvement Episode 29: Teacher attrition and retention

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Thanks for listening to this School Improvement episode from Teacher magazine, I’m Rebecca Vukovic.

What contributes to a teacher’s decision to leave the profession? And, at the same time, why do others thrive and find success and personal fulfillment at work? Hugh Gundlach is a researcher and pre-service teacher educator at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. He is completing a PhD on teacher wellbeing and retention, exploring the reasons why some teachers feel satisfied in their jobs, while others choose to leave the profession altogether. In today’s School Improvement episode, Hugh delves into his research and explains what attracts people to the teaching profession in the first place, some of the key reasons some people choose to leave, and shares some anecdotes from teachers who’ve found practical ways to manage the pressures of the job with success. He also shares insights into how school leaders can better support staff to feel successful in their roles. Let’s get started.

Rebecca Vukovic: Hugh Gundlach, thanks for joining Teacher magazine.

Hugh Gundlach: Thanks for having me Rebecca.

RV: So we’re today to talk about attrition and retention of the teacher workforce. I understand this is an area of real interest to you and you’ve been conducting a PhD looking at retention and teacher wellbeing. Could you tell us a bit about your research and why this area was of particular interest to you?

HG: Sure. I guess, I remember sitting in a lecture theatre when I was doing my initial teacher training and listening to a professor talking about the statistic that quite a high proportion of us might not be in the profession within a few years and due to workload and stress and burnout. So I was pretty keen to uncover what it took to stay in the profession and thrive. And then, within a year or two I was in a school working, and it was about the time that a lot of wellbeing programs were being rolled out for students, but I felt like there wasn’t much that out there for staff, beyond what I’ve come to learn is the three F’s – which is ‘flu shots’, ‘fitness’, and ‘fruit platters’.

And so I was kind of interested in what else might be out there. And I started to look at my colleagues within the school for their strategies and I was fortunate that I had [a lot of] really passionate experienced teachers who were still really enthusiastic about teaching and engaged with all aspects of working in a school. And so I just started to look at their little tricks and strategies to help them deal with workload and maintaining wellbeing – so that was the beginnings of a more formal investigation for me.

RV: I’d like to talk about that formal investigation – starting with the research and analysis you’ve done on the reasons why people are attracted to the profession in the first place. What are the common factors?

HG: Well, I don’t think it would be anything new for your listeners, but passions for learning, working with young people, and contributing to society – these are the major things that the research has revealed. And then, I guess, it is kind of a secondary attraction, but the job security and employment conditions – so the hours, salary, holidays, those things unique to teaching are definitely an attraction, but they tend to be secondary to those primary ones of passion for learning and students.

RV: And in contrast then, what are some of the key reasons teachers choose to leave the profession?

HG: I think they are connected because when teachers find they’re losing the passion for learning or working with young people is more difficult than they thought, or it’s not what they thought it would be, or that society is not really appreciating what they’re doing, they start to feel dissatisfied. So, from my research, the main ones emerging were stress, burnout, emotional exhaustion – these are all separate items but they’re all connected under feeling pretty worn down and frustrated, and dissatisfied with your role. And then that leads to the second major one which is role conflict, where someone feels like they can’t do all the things expected of them to the desired standard, or where two or more aspects of a defined role may even be in opposition. So they’re the major reasons people choose to leave the profession, based on the research I’ve done so far.

RV: Part of that research you’ve done so far includes a systematic literature review and a meta analysis on attrition and retention. Could you give listeners a brief overview of what that involved and what you were hoping to learn more about?

HG: Yeah, so I think a lot of the listeners might well have done a traditional literature review before, say for an honours project or a masters thesis. A systematic literature review is a very strict, repeatable process of looking for literature where you have inclusion and exclusion criteria. The idea is someone should be able to do my study again and find the same articles for inclusion. So it’s all about generating a really wide and deep collection of literature to study.

And so we were trying to ask the question: what contributes to teachers’ decisions to turnover, to leave the profession completely or to move schools? And so, we did that and the things that were researched the most tended to be student attributes. For some reason, the underlying assumption was that teachers leave because of their students, whether their students are poorly behaved or not as academic, or a lot of the literature comes from the United States, they look at whether the students are of a minority background or from a low socio-economic background and whether that makes teachers leave.

Things that are less researched – things like the teacher identity that you create in those first few years, they’re newer areas of research. And so that’s what a systematic review reveals, what have people studied in the past and what does contribute to turnover. I guess the second part of the research was a meta analysis, which takes all those included studies (the ones that have quantitative data that is) and that allows us to compare all the results so we can compare studies that might have been done in different countries, or with different types of teachers. So, someone might have done a study only with secondary level teachers, or another uses primary school, one might have done it with a certain subject area, you can compare studies across decades – and it does this all in a statistical way but that helps us work out which factors are most powerful in affecting decisions to leave, move or stay. And, I guess lots of studies find lots of different factors, but by aggregating it all we can compare them directly and use their relative effect sizes to create a more complete picture of how powerful each factor might be.

RV: And I found it quite interesting that you found through this research that teachers with successful careers found practical ways to manage the pressures of the job by being realistic about what was manageable. I’m wondering, what did this look like in practice? How were these teachers proactively managing their jobs?

HG: I’m hoping that was a unique part of my research is that it wasn’t a deficit approach, ‘let’s just look at the people who leave and why do they leave and why couldn’t they hack it?’ I wanted to look at, who are the people who stay and really kick some goals and survive and thrive? So the meta analysis looked at retention as well as turnover, and I guess one limitation of the turnover literature out there is it doesn’t necessarily look at the quality of the teachers, it just looks at whether they stay or not, so that’s a little caveat there.

But what we did come across was this concept called ‘job crafting’ where consciously or subconsciously manipulating what you do and who you work with and how you think of your job can really help you to manage stress and to feel successful and it can contribute in really positive ways to the workplace. So this might include things like volunteering for certain co-curricular activities within your school or selecting which duties you do. It might be working in teams with colleagues that you like or you’ve worked well with in the past. And it’s also acknowledging where your responsibility and where your sphere of influence ends as a teacher, and all of these things can lead to greater fulfillment.

RV: Really interesting. Because you also acknowledged that commitment was the strongest facilitator of retention. You say that ‘commitment can be generated by helping teachers feel connected to their colleagues inside the organisation through productive meetings and social events, and in the wider profession through professional development, subject and teacher associations, unions and other communities’. How could this be better encouraged in schools?

HG: Yeah, so, I think there is quite a difference between staying in a school and staying in the profession. So that’s why we broke that down in the research. And it was one of the strongest themes to emerge from the Australian data sample that we used and that is that a sense of collegiality sustained so many teachers; they really looked to their fellow teachers for support and for inspiration. And then another major theme was that commitment to the students is very, very strong and it’s powerful enough to keep teachers in a school – despite what they said were poor working conditions otherwise – this commitment to their students. So overall the friendships and the working relationships teachers have with each other is very powerful and then that sense of duty to their students.

So I think schools could encourage this a bit more by revisiting the way they set up staffrooms or provide physical spaces for teachers to interact with each other, as well as opportunities for social and professional interaction and activities throughout the year, whether that’s professional learning for the professional side of things, or those social activities at the start of the year or at the end of term or during the term and school year, just at strategic places. So, providing that opportunity for staff voice and input into decision-making and feedback is connected to that and that’s a strong theme as well.

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RV: I’d like to talk about your survey now Hugh – you surveyed over 1000 Australian teachers about what contributes to their sense of wellbeing, feelings of success and also the stresses they face in their jobs. I’d really like to hear some of their responses now, so could you share with me what the teachers told you? What factors most contribute to their sense of wellbeing and their sense of success in their jobs?

HG: Absolutely. So, I guess part of the reason for doing this part of the research was to get those authentic teacher voices and so I will quote directly here – and it was an anonymous survey so I won’t include identifying information of any type, but you can hear these voices coming through. So something like:

‘Teaching is a social and emotional job. It’s hard to switch off. Other people I know seem to get home from work and be able to not think about work. Teachers are expected to be martyr-types, rather than professional beings.’

These are the sorts of comments that come through to just show what it’s like to have that emotional stress. But the things that would support teachers, as I said, are collegiality.

‘One of the most engaging workplaces I’ve worked in was where we were all within walking distance of each other. We could catch up with each other regularly and have those team meetings.’

That was quote that says how supportive… Another quote here:

‘I think most people will stay in a job where they feel supported, liked and successful. From my experience, people often become disillusioned with their jobs when they don’t feel like their work matters, they aren’t paid enough, have adequate job security or when they don’t feel like they’re included in some way. Teachers are still people and still need support from their colleagues on a human level.’

Another quote here from a different person:

‘Teachers stay for their students and other teachers.’

Now that just captures perfectly what hundreds and hundreds of other studies have found quantitatively – one teacher can just capture that in one sentence.

A last one here I guess, things to do with respect and status so what would keep this teacher in the profession.

‘Respect in our community from all stakeholders needs to improve. Teaching is a challenging job and should be held in high regard. Also, a mechanism should be deployed to move on those teachers who have become bitter and disengaged – perhaps other opportunities within schools, if people are waiting to retire, should be made available.’

RV: It’s so powerful to hear those words from the teachers themselves. Hugh, for any school leaders listening, did the teachers offer any insights into how school leaders can better support staff to feel successful in their roles? Was there anything they suggested that proved useful at a whole school level?

HG: Yeah so the survey component used both unprompted and prompted questions. So by unprompted, we asked a very open-ended question along the lines of ‘what would support you in a school?’ or ‘how would you feel successful?’ ‘What is most important?’ etcetera, and then later on we had a question that provided a very extensive list that respondents could choose from and we kind of compared them.

So what was really interesting was that from both the prompted and unprompted questions in the survey, leadership was the top reason for staying, even when considering leaving. So even though there’s that little management phrase about ‘people don’t leave organisations, they leave their boss or they leave their managers’ this actually sort of suggests that if teachers feel an affinity for their leader and enjoy their leadership style, again even if they were considering leaving for a different reason, they will stay because of that leadership style.

So, leaders are very powerful and a lot of those aspects of why someone would stay are related to leadership. So, things like bullying or poor interactions with leadership might prompt someone to leave. I would advise school leaders to engage in their own training about how to create strong positive cultures and how to have difficult conversations with staff. I don’t know of many schools that still have that one, large open plan staffroom and certainly that might not be the best for quiet working, but teachers definitely wanted to be able to connect with their colleagues and perhaps putting them in smaller offices all around the school where they become isolated is reducing that sense of camaraderie.

One other thing I just thought I’d mention is that, in a sample of over a 1000 teachers only 35 per cent had ever had formal conversation with a superior about their career plans, this is across their whole career. And I think other professions would have a much more regular set of discussions around this and perhaps people listening would be thinking, ‘oh this doesn’t sound very good’, but it doesn’t necessarily have to relate to performance discussions or a pay discussion, it’s just about helping teachers pursue their interests and develop as professionals.

RV: There were some really clear, practical strategies there that I think a lot of schools would find useful. I’m wondering Hugh, at the same time, what do teachers say contributed to their stresses at work? Did any of the participants in your survey suggest ways that they manage stress in the classroom or in the profession at large?

HG: Yeah so I felt, reading the responses, there were hundreds and hundreds of responses for each question. It wasn’t always the case that of the 1000 respondents, every question was relevant. But only 14 per cent of the teachers surveyed had ever had an exit interview – so this was the 14 per cent of teachers who had left a position, only 14 per cent had ever had an exit interview on leaving a school. And so those school leaders were losing staff for one reason or another, but they weren’t getting any of that information about why the teachers were leaving and perhaps there might have been something they could have done to make that teacher more productive and more satisfied. And they didn’t really get that information about the teacher’s ambitions and career plans. So that’s some valuable feedback missing from those discussions.

Lack of recognition is one reason for leaving the profession. So, it does seem to be the case that there might be a tipping point where teachers become dissatisfied with one or more aspects of their job and then it just all becomes too much and they decide to leave another school or the profession.

So, in terms of managing stress, the things that cause the stress in the first place: are poor cultures of the department, or what they believe to be poor leadership, negative relationships with your colleagues, extensive working hours and duties, insecure employment, the actual duties that they’re allocated. Interestingly, negative relationships with students was well out of the top 10 of the things that stress teachers out. So I think enabling this greater cohesion as a team and not making teachers feel like they’re doing it on their own is the biggest way to help them overcome stress.

RV: And so just finally then, drawing on all your research in this area, how do you suggest teachers avoid that burnout and instead thrive and find lasting fulfillment in the profession?

HG: Taking straight from the results here – not my opinion at all, just what emerged from the results – the top strategies from the teacher sample were debriefing with colleagues in a social space outside of school and having a sense of team. Taking a mental health day – and I realise that’s potentially contentious but this was I think a strategy that was bit like opening the valve, you could release the stress on one day and then that would allow teachers to go back in and keep working with those existing levels of stress. The third most common strategy was professional development, so becoming more adept at one aspect of the role that might help you manage the workload. Sharing an office with the teammates was number four. Number five was performing tasks outside of their role – so actually doing more as a teacher surprisingly was something that helped teachers deal with stress, so that might have been working on the drama production or acting as a sports coach. Recognition was one of the aspects that helped teachers negate this stress, just feeling like someone noticed, and it didn’t have to be public, it could just be a private aspect of recognition was something that was mentioned as something that helps them. And funnily enough, I’m not sure that this should be on the list, but working early or working late – as in, doing your work outside of teaching time – was a way that teachers manage stress, and I’m not sure that makes much sense.

But, we know that teachers work hard and they’re really committed and I think all these results just reaffirm that.

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As a school leader, how are you supporting teachers to be more resilient and better cope with stress? When teachers leave your school, do you carry out an exit interview? How often do you speak to members of staff about their career plans and ambitions?

As a teacher, what factors contribute to your feelings of success in your jobs? What attracted you to the profession in the first place? Have these factors changed over time?