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Uncategorized   |   Mar 14, 2011

Why Great Teachers Quit (book review)

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Why Great Teachers Quit (book review)

By Angela Watson


Teacher attrition is a topic that’s constantly on my mind. The primary reason I maintain my website and write books is because I’m passionate about helping teachers overcome energy-draining setbacks and actually enjoy the profession. So, when I read this post, I was immediately intrigued by the book’s title and asked the representatives at Corwin Press for two copies: one for me and one for a blog reader. I rarely do that because there’s no guarantee the book will be any good, and I don’t want to give away something I wouldn’t recommend. However, I could tell from the online reviews that this book was going to be a worthwhile read…and I wasn’t disappointed.

Why Great Teachers Quit And How We Might Stop the Exodus is written by Katy Farber, a classroom teacher currently grappling with this subject on a daily basis. She interviewed dozens of teachers and includes their experiences as she explains the various issues faced in the classroom. I found it simultaneously comforting and distressing to know that teachers all across the country are dealing with the same problems. In nearly every quote from classroom teachers (and there are hundreds), I found myself nodding along and thinking, Yes! Thank you! Yes! That’s it, exactly! The problems described in this book will undoubtedly ring true.

Farber organizes the book into eight primary reasons why great teachers quit:

  • Standardized Testing (including effects on students and the school climate)
  • Working Conditions in Today’s Schools (i.e. violence and small problems that add up, like not being able to use the bathroom)
  • Ever-Higher Expectations (including useless professional development on new mandates)
  • Bureaucracy (committees, closed budgets, and scheduling constraints)
  • Respect and Compensation (the martyr system and paying for supplies)
  • Parents (unrealistic demands and no limits)
  • Administrators (the pressure cooker of principalship)
  • School Boards (uses and abuses of power)

There was one reason I expected to see and did not: there is no section on students. As much as I’d like to assert that children are the reason why we teach, they’re also frequently the reason why we quit. Is Farber pretending that “it’s all about the kids” and that our little darlings are never a source of stress? Nope. Instead, she accurately assesses the root problem: teachers quit over their powerlessness to place students in an appropriate academic setting and enforce appropriate consequences. These problems fall under the categories of Respect and Compensation and Working Conditions (as well as Parents, to an extent.) The underlying assumption is that it’s NOT the students, it’s the system that has given teachers too little power to meet the needs of the students and maintain order in the learning environment.

After explaining each overarching reason why teachers quit, Farber includes Recommendations for Teacher Leaders and Administrators (practical, proven suggestions), Words of Wisdom From Veteran Teachers (advice from teachers to teachers), Success Stories and/or a Silver Lining (which keep the problems from seeming hopeless) and Additional Resources you can read online and in print to address the issues of that section.

I wish this was required reading for school board members and legislators…parents would benefit, too. Often educators complain that no one really knows what’s it’s really like to be a teacher, and this book does an excellent job summarizing the main challenges of the job and the type of solutions that are needed. Katy Farber has written a powerful resource for everyone who cares about education. It’s my hope, as well as hers, that this book will make a difference in teacher retention and help great teachers maintain their efficacy and enthusiasm.

WIN A FREE COPY OF THIS BOOK! Simply leave a comment to this post that briefly shares your experience: why do you think great teachers quit, and/or what can be done to encourage them to stay in the classroom? On Sunday, March 20th, I’ll choose a comment randomly to win a free copy of the book, courtesy of Corwin Press.

3/20/11 Edited to add: CONTEST CLOSED.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Teachers quit because of the daily demands placed on them and very little support from those who make decisions.

    Case in point, our district raised class sizes last year for K-3 from 20 to 1 to 28 to 1. Nothing has been removed from their plate & in fact, our district is moving towards more push-in for special education students. Again, no support for the gen. ed. teacher who is now dealing with 8 additional students, one or two of whom are special needs.

    Or the insanity of combo classes, which administrators seem to like to give to our teachers who have received unsatisfactory evaluations. How much sense does that make?

    1. Hi, Ms_Teacher! Glad you stopped by (and glad Artist Girl got the apartment!) Rising class sizes are probably going to play an even bigger role in teacher attrition in the coming years. Thanks for bringing that into the discussion.

  2. While I am not a teacher myself and am new to the education system, the building where I am a school psychologist experiences a ton of transfers and teacher attrition. We are one of the poorest performing elementary schools in the district and entire state in terms of state ELA & Math assessments, and have a variety of difficult to manage behavior problems.

    That being said, at least in my experience, teachers quit/transfer because they do not have the adequate time, resources, and supp0rt in order to meet the many needs of our students. Expectations and class sizes are rising, while financial resources, worthwhile training AND implementation assistance, and planning time are decreasing. I imagine it would be hard to not burnout when so many odds are stacked against teachers.

    1. Hi, Aimee! You’ve nailed it–teachers don’t have the resources to meet their students’ needs, and that’s why they quit. Which makes it even more ironic that legislative discussions center around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers and how to give teachers incentives to produce better results. As if any teacher doesn’t WANT to do more…but it’s simply not possible, in many cases.

  3. Wow I have seen this book and wanted to read it. For me a main reason is testing stress (in tx), little time in actual teaching, lack of patent support, and legislation from state regarding what we must teach and finacing. Finaces in Texas education is a big issue right now due to possible loss of jobs and increases in class sizes. I just feel we are testing these kids so much and not really getting to the meat of what the students need to go on to the next grade and school. When kids can no longer have fun and can’t do things that are developmentally appropriate it is vey sad.


    1. Hi, Tina! I, too, found that testing pressure took away the fun of learning. When learning isn’t fun, teaching isn’t fun. How I dreaded having to pass out stacks of test-prep material to my kids, and having to convince them that the work would be somehow be meaningful and rewarding. That’s an emotionally exhausting experience.

  4. I am one of the teachers that did quit. I accepted a kindergarten leave position mid year after student teaching and I simply could not handle the class without any additional support. I had 23 students that didn’t have the greatest of home lives, and they fought each other on a daily basis. There were a couple that needed SPED referral but were refused. Some were on medication that made them have violent outbursts and my requests for help from administration went unanswered. While I admit that some of the issues might not have occurred had their been rules, procedures and structure in place from the start of the school year. My issue was that I felt as if I was walking blindly through a minefield with no guidance and to be honest, I’m a little afraid to step into a classroom now. I still have the passion to teach, but I’ve lost all my confidence to do it.

    1. Hi, Megan. Your story makes me really sad. I hate to think that you’ve lost your confidence because of that experience. I really hope that you’ll give teaching another shot, this time maybe in a school where the students are not quite as needy and the administration can offer more support. I say this in the most encouraging way possible and in no way undermining what you went through or how tough it was for you to make the decision to quit mid-year. I’m hoping to inspire you a bit–if teaching is really your passion, don’t let a bad experience keep you from calling. Please feel free to email me if there is anything I can do to support you. 🙂

  5. I think teachers quit because there is so much pressure and scrutiny on what they do. It is like living in a glass house where everyone judges what you are doing and why you are doing it. A way to keep them…. less the standardized testing and pay them more!

    1. Hi, Vanna! I totally agree about the glass house thing. It sometimes feels like every word you say and every decision you make as a teacher could come back to haunt you–a child misinterprets something and seeks revenge or tells a parent who gets angry, or someone higher up disapproves. It can leave teachers feeling on-edge and paranoid. Thanks for calling attention to this problem.

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