Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus

Edwyna Synar (Met‐Lombard High School, Tulsa, Oklahoma)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 5 July 2011




Synar, E. (2011), "Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 49 No. 4, pp. 461-465. https://doi.org/10.1108/09578231111146542



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

It is estimated that 50 percent of beginning teachers leave the profession within the first five years on the job (Ingersoll, 2003). When teachers depart, they take with them their knowledge of instructional techniques, students' learning styles, and professional development training provided (Chuong, 2008). The annual recruitment and placement of teachers is not only time‐consuming and labor intensive, it is a costly burden on public school administrators (Boe et al., 1997).

Based on interviews with hundreds of teachers across the nation, Farber's book, Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus is a rich narrative of the voices of teachers across the country complemented by Farber's own experiences and ideas which advocate multiple solutions that can be implemented immediately by teachers, administrators, parents, school boards, and policy makers (Farber, 2010). Farber organized the book into eight chapters, each of which begins with a vignette of a teacher struggling with an educational issue. Farber analyzes the problem and offers suggestions for practical solutions that can be implemented quickly and inexpensively. Each chapter ends with words of wisdom from veteran teachers and a message of hope.

In the opening vignette of chapter one – “Standardized testing”, the teacher “thinks about her career choice” where creativity and teaching strategies have morphed into bubble sheets and test proctoring (p. 5). Since the introduction of the 1980s report, A Nation at Risk, the preparedness of today's students have been fiercely debated. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 raised the bar by introduced high‐stakes testing as a measurement of student success. In an effort to assist teachers in the transition from the methodology‐based teacher education program to the a high accountability climate in today's classrooms, Farber recommends better communications about testing schedules and expectations, better training for test administration, and more opportunities to prepare teachers and students for mandated testing.

In Chapter two, Farber addresses the “Working conditions in today's schools”. The opening vignette discusses the violence against teachers, which is not a new issue in schools. In fact, Time Magazine published an article in November, 1969, entitled “Public schools: new violence against teachers”. “Clearly, the violence and intimidation in schools is driving teachers away, in challenging, already hard‐to‐staff schools (p. 22). In addition to the violence, Farber also addresses the unsafe conditions of our schools. “Many of our nation's schools are old and decaying, causing health problems for teachers and students who inhabit them on a daily basis (p. 24). In December 2005, a South Carolina judge ruled that a school with decay and disrepair has no detriment on the education of students. However, Farber disagreed and contends that “in addition to being unsafe, these conditions create a negative climate for teachers and students that are not conducive to learning (p. 24)”. Farber recommends improving school safety, identifying students at risk of violent behavior, developing an emergency plan to address dangerous situations, and addressing individual health concerns of employees.

In Chapter three, the increased expectations of teachers are discussed. The vignette describes a teacher who was positive, professional and flexible, and loved and admired by teachers, students, and the principal but she decided to quit her teaching profession. She lamented, “I was very sad and resentful that I gave so much from eight to five and that I was physically and emotionally exhausted when I got home” (p. 44). Farber describes some of the exponentially‐growing expectations in which, “teachers are expected to meet the instructional needs of every child; advocate for special services; make sure that children are fed, clothed, emotionally balanced, healthy, and not bullying others or being abused; communicate frequently with parents; attend regular workshops; and serve on multiple committees (p. 44)”. Farber's recommendations range from supporting teachers in their quest to manage the expectations of the job to utilizing support staff to cover duties to increasing the time for collaboration.

From ordering supplies for an upcoming project to scheduling a field for project‐based learning, multiple layers of bureaucracy, the topics of chapter four, can frustrate and alienate teachers. The teacher's plight is simple, according to Farber. “Teachers carry all the responsibility – but none of the decision‐making power – for curricular decisions, assessment tools or schedules (p. 60)”. The author recommendations include: respect teachers' reasonable requests for supplies throughout the year, assist teachers in field trips and innovative activity planning, and plan a schedule that contains long periods of uninterrupted educational time.

Chapter five – “Respect and compensation” – begins with a familiar vignette about a teacher requiring social services assistance, in this case food stamps, to make financial ends meet for the teacher and her autistic daughter. US census data show that annual pay for teachers has fallen drastically over the past 60 years when compared to the annual pay of other workers with college degrees. The average earnings of workers with at least four years of college are now more than 50 percent higher than the average earnings of a teacher.

Why must teachers pay for their own supplies? When Sherry Mann started teaching fifth grade in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, she was floored by how often she found herself reaching into her own pocket to pay for classroom supplies. “My husband is a software developer. He would never have to purchase his own paper” (Kopkowski, 2008, p. 1). While there is a $250 tax deduction for teachers, it does not come close to the amount they spend out of pocket each year.

“The disrespect shown to teachers in our country deeply bothers the educators I interviewed” (p. 84), said Farber. Over the last several years, policy makers, philanthropists with deep pockets and the public at large have criticized teachers and the profession itself. Oftentimes, it is hard for teachers to watch local and national news, read the newspapers, or attend church without being bombarded with criticisms of education today. Farber feels that it is emotionally exhausting for teachers to have their profession dragged through the mud year after year. Farber's recommendations include establishing a discretionary fund for as‐needed classroom materials, value teachers' time and personal life, and support teachers as they work for professional pay.

Parents, the subject of chapter six, can be active and supportive, argumentative and dictatorial, or somewhere in between. The vignette in this chapter describes a small number of challenging parents who can task even the most patient and understanding teacher. “It seems that, in every community, there is a small group of parents who know no limits when dealing with teachers” (p. 100). They come into a classroom at any time – announced or unannounced –to demand one‐on‐one time with the teacher. Some have the “my child is always right” philosophy and others are “helicopter parents”, wanting to micromanage the classroom to their own liking. “Teachers fear they might be sued or fired if they do not conform to a parent's request, even when the teacher's actions are educationally sound, reasonable, and responsible” (p. 104). Farber's recommendations include establishing a climate that fosters clear communication, mediate challenging conferences with parents, and provide backup and support for teachers.

Teachers look to “Administrators” – the focus of chapter seven – for support and guidance. The administrator‐teacher relationship is critical to the success of the school. Often the principal is put in the difficult position of mediating conflicts between teachers and parents. Farber interviewed teachers who felt they were “thrown under the bus” by administrators who always sided with parents. One teacher stated that she works in isolation, never asking for help – or expecting it – to solve problems. “Now I shut my door, and pray to God no one complains (p. 124)”. Farber acknowledges that teacher isolation is a major stumbling block to developing professional learning communities. Farber's recommendations include establishing communication protocols for parents, collaborating with teachers to problem solve, support teachers with challenging students, and implement a consistent behavior plan for all classrooms.

The final chapter – “School boards” begins with a vignette about a teacher going to the school board meeting to voice her concerns. Although they listened to her concerns and asked questions, the board members spent a great deal of time bickering among themselves. “When decisions involve curriculum, assessment, or educational programs, and the school board members have no background in education or current educational practices, they might not be the individuals best suited to make them” (p. 138). This can lead to uses and abuses of power. Farber's recommendations are to set up a culture of respect, create a teacher advisory council to assist the school board, and encourage school board members to attend training about how to effectively support schools.

Farber's book, Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus provides a rich narrative of education today. The author presents problems and offers solutions that are applicable to today's schools and classrooms. Low pay, increased responsibilities, and high‐stakes standardized testing are just some of the reasons that talented and dedicated teachers are leaving the profession before retirement – and more than half before they complete their fifth year of teaching. Schools play a critical role in helping to shape our society, and the quality of our children's education depends greatly on the quality of its teachers (Gardner, 2006).

This book is a guide to understanding the mindset of today's teachers and addressing issues that have often been debated but are never resolved. This book is also for every parent who has had their child's teacher leave in the middle of the year, every administrator who struggles with the difficulty of teacher retention or building a collaborative community, every policy maker ready to walk the walk, and anyone who has invested years in preparation for a career in the classroom only to be faced with job stress, burnout, and unfulfilled expectations.

Turnover of public school teachers has been an issue of continuing concern in education since the early 1920s (NEA, 1924). Understanding the implication of teacher turnover is critical in order to identify how to retain teachers.


Boe, E.E., Bobbitt, S.A., Cook, L.H., Whitener, S.D. and Weber, A.L. (1997), “Why didst thou go? Predictors of retention, transfer, and attrition of special and general education teachers from a national perspective”, The Journal of Special Education, Vol. 30 No. 4, pp. 390411.

Chuong, D.T. (2008), “Teacher attrition: perceptions of teachers and administrators”, Dissertation Abstract International, Vol. 69A No. 07, UMI No. AAT 3323550.

Farber, K. (2010), Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus, Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Gardner, R.D. (2006), “The development of a theoretical model to predict retention, turnover, and attrition of K‐12 music teachers in the United States: an analysis of the Schools and Staffing Survey and Teacher Follow‐up Survey (1999‐2001)” (UMI No. AAT 3214714), Dissertation Abstract International, Vol. 67A No. 04.

Ingersoll, R. (2003), Is There Really a Teacher Shortage?, University of Washington: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, Washington, DC.

Kopkowski, C. (2008), “Why they leave”, Ski Country Educator, March.

National Education Association (NEA) (1924), The Problem of Teacher Tenure, National Education Association, Division of Research, Washington, DC.

Further Reading

Owens, S. (2010), “Keeping great teachers in the classroom”, Teacher Magazine, September 22.

Rollefson, M.R. (1993), Teacher Supply in the United States: Sources of Newly Hired Teachers in Public and Private Schools, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC.

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