How to extinguish a candle: Why teachers leave the profession

For my Masters subject “Mentoring Beginning Teachers”, I did a literature review about beginning teacher resilience.

Despite the research being primarily about teachers leaving the profession within the first five years of being in the classroom, there seem to be several pertinent take home messages for educators in any stage of their career. Maybe there’s also a thing or two that will ring true for those of you in other vocations.

The most commonly reported reasons that teachers leave the job can be categorised into four areas:

1. burnout and stress due to workload and student discipline,

2. taking things personally and not setting emotional boundaries,

3. placing a huge burden of responsibility on themselves (taking the blame for everything that goes wrong) and

4. being more extrinsically than intrinsically motivated (wanting the pay, the holidays and the accolades rather than striving to make a difference altruistically).

The implications for teacher resilience and career longevity can be extrapolated from these findings.

1. To avoid burnout and minimise stress, teachers need to get good at prioritising and saying no. Filtering suggested programs and events through the lens of “does this reflect the school vision?” and “does this fit with my personal philosophy of teaching” will help separate the wheat from the chaff. Remaining calm, using humour, narrative and distraction, as well as being compassionate (seeing the reason behind the behaviour) will aid in behaviour management. Eating well, sleeping well, exercising and putting time aside for fun can also impact a teacher’s ability to overcome daily adversity.

2. Sharing the load and seeing students as “ours” rather than “mine” is one strategy for removing some personal blame that teachers feel for things that take place in schools. Setting boundaries which limit your personal attachment to students is also wise, being their mentor, coach and guide but never their “pal”. Some days, set an “out the door by 4” limit (I can thank a previous teaching partner for that gem).

3. Remaining realistic about what you can and cannot control and change is imperative, as is possessing a growth mindset (only through perseverance and failure will I improve my practise). Have problem solving strategies up your sleeve, and invest time in mindfulness techniques and cognitive behaviour therapy (actively replacing negative thoughts with realistic, optimistic and effective ones). Knowing who to go to for help, and not being afraid to ask for it leads to a more safe and supportive community in the workplace. Seek out mutually beneficial relationships.

4. Remind yourself regularly why you got into teaching in the first place. Try to derive a sense of meaning from the difficulties and challenges that you face. Undertake study, professional development and research in order to step back and see the “bigger picture” of education and its future. Most importantly, know that there is no such thing as a “born” teacher, a “natural” teacher or a “perfected” teacher; put your energies into things that will get you results, and let go of things that are holding you back.

And my most common pieces of advice for brand new teachers are here:

Just choose one idea and make a start. Too many amazing teachers leave the job because it gets all too much. We want you around, we want you happy. Don’t be a candle that burns cold.


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