During COVID, understanding why teachers quit matters more than ever. Here’s what schools can do.

New research into why teachers leave the profession could help schools avoid an exodus of instructors during the COVID-19.

Teacher turnover causes learning setbacks, with a bigger impact on high-poverty schools. Replacing teachers is expensive, and vacancies are hard to fill. A new study from University of Florida professor Brian Swider published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior looked at data from 3,201 teachers in grades K-12, revealing the factors most likely to influence a teachers’ decision to leave. While the study was completed pre-COVID, these motivations may intensify as teachers go back to school amid the pandemic.

Swider explained the four factors his research uncovered and what school systems can do about each of them.


1) Duties other than teaching

“One of the strongest, most consistent predictors of teachers leaving the occupation is how many non-core job duties they had,” said Swider, a management researcher in UF’s Warrington School of Business. Teachers are saddled with tasks from serving on committees to fulfilling administrative duties, taking time and energy away from helping kids learn. “These non-core roles will almost assuredly increase during COVID. K-12 teachers will be expected to monitor children's health, be vigilant on keeping classrooms clean, adhering to safety guidelines, and developing or maintaining online platforms and lessons,” Swider said.

What school boards can do: Especially now, try to minimize non-core duties, recognizing that some new COVID tasks will be inevitable. “The more that gets added onto their plate, the more likely they will be to leave,” he said.


2) Investment in teaching

While older teachers may consider leaving because of their higher COVID risk, teachers with less training and expertise are more likely to leave during normal circumstances. Add a pandemic, and the outlook gets worse. “You may have a whole generation of teachers who recently joined the profession leaving for good. That effect will be felt for generations,” Swider said.

What school boards can do: Opportunities for teachers to boost their skills through certifications, professional development or other resources can help keep instructors in place. “We found teachers were much more hesitant to leave the profession if, by doing so, they would sacrifice all that industry-specific knowledge. With re-opening during COVID, schools should be providing as many resources as possible to develop and support their teachers and meet their increasing job demands,” he said.


3) Salary

Swider and colleagues showed that a reliable way to retain teachers is better pay. “Paying teachers more would likely work, but that does not seem likely, unfortunately.”

What school boards can do: Understand that using funding as a threat could backfire badly. “Threatening to take away resources from schools and K-12 teachers is the exact opposite of what I would recommend for the long-term health of the profession,” he said.


4) Moonlighting

A side hustle was a strong predictor of whether teachers would leave the field, according to the study by Swider and colleagues Ryan D. Zimmerman and Jeffrey B. Arthur of Virginia Tech. Moonlighting expanded teachers’ professional networks and skill sets, possibly revealing other career options. Since many teachers haven’t had face-to-face classes since March, “my guess is that more teachers have been moonlighting during COVID than normal,” Swider said.

What school boards can do: Don’t assume teachers have no other options — and see numbers 1, 2 and 3.

“We controlled for job satisfaction and burnout in all analyses, so these findings go beyond how much they like the job and how exhausted they feel,” Swider said.My No. 1 recommendation to school boards is to genuinely listen to what the teachers say they need and do whatever you can to provide them the resources necessary to meet the unpredicted demands they will face in the fall. Schools cannot assume that if they act in a 'business as usual' fashion, then everything will be fine. Taking that approach will almost assuredly result in teachers leaving the profession en masse.”

Alisson Clark August 6, 2020