We Must Address the Issue of Teacher Attrition

“How did class go?” asks my principal as we cross paths on our way back to our offices. Before she can finish her question, the tears come. I want to tell her how overwhelmed I am this semester. Instead, I just look at her, wipe away the tears, shrug and say, “This semester is absolutely horrific, and I will not do this if every semester is going to be like this.”

I left engineering to be a teacher because I absolutely loved teaching math to middle and high school students and watching them discover their power as humans. Teenagers remind me to appreciate life and have hope for the future. My students encourage me to look at the world with a different perspective through their jokes, questioning of everything, and often timely and groundbreakingly honest observations. Unfortunately, during that semester and so many others I have experienced, I have stopped laughing with students, stopped enjoying teaching math, and am very rarely completely present for any part of my life. As an engineer, my work rarely followed me home. As a teacher, I never escape my students and the crushing workload and my mental and physical health are often pushed into the unhealthy realm.

The teacher attrition rate in American is 16%;  more than double the rate in countries such as Singapore and Finland that are widely considered to have strong educational systems. What scares me the most, both as a National Board-certified high school math teacher and as a parent, is that the number of employers requesting or requiring recent high school graduates to obtain additional training to reduce gaps in their knowledge is well on the rise.  The other thing that terrifies me is that students routinely enter my high school with elementary school math skills, yet the majority of jobs require math and science.

Schools serving students from marginalized groups bear the brunt of the teacher shortage problem, both from teacher attrition and declining enrollments in teacher preparation programs. Working with these students is hard because the education system is not designed to provide them all of the support they need and as a result, they are often some of the lowest-performing students. Ensuring these students have accomplished teachers with a passion for teaching and a belief that every child deserves a high-quality education is one of the best ways to support students in their academic and social and emotional learning. However, all too often, our teachers are not provided the supports they need to effectively support students, causing many teachers to leave the classroom.

Teacher attrition is an issue that affects every state across the country. But too often the teachers leaving education are those that are working hard every day with our schools’ most at-risk and underserved students. When these teachers leave, it leaves a gap to be filled by another teacher, who is often emergency- or alternatively- certified, a long-term substitute, or an inexperienced first-year teacher. Whether or not these individuals are skilled enough to stay and provide students with what they need is an important question, and further shows how teacher attrition impacts our most vulnerable students the most. Teacher attrition is not just another issue facing society: it is an issue of academic, social, and economic equity. As a society with a public education system, we must find a way to support educators working day in and day out with our most underserved students so that these students have access to the education, opportunities, and resources they need and deserve.

Gina Wilson has 14 years of teaching experience and currently serves as the Math Department Chair and a CORE Advisor at the Early College Alliance in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Gina is completing her doctorate in Education Leadership and holds a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan. She is a National Board-Certified Teacher in Mathematics, a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow, and a former finalist for Michigan Teacher of the Year.