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Pushing Back Against Teacher Attrition

by Rachel Klein - November 29, 2016

Drawing on induction programs for insight into what helps novice teachers navigate the precarious first years of teaching and remain in the profession, and utilizing respondent-driven survey data, this commentary argues that including the induction support of mentorship in teacher preparation models would increase teacher retention.

The national debate around how to improve our education system places incredible weight on effective teachers. However, great teachers are hard to come by and even harder to keep. There is an enduring lack of social prestige attached to the career, which has led to the stigma of it being only semi-professional. Education schools are viewed as less honorable than equivalent types of graduate schools and they are failing to attract especially bright students to their programs (Duncan, 2009; Ingersoll & Perda, 2008). Internationally top performing school districts recruit 100% of their students from the top third of their academic cohort. However, only 23% of new teachers in the United States enter the profession from this top portion, while 47% come from the bottom third (Auguste, Kihn, & Miller, 2010).

Despite this problem, perhaps the greatest concern is the devastating rate of teacher attrition. Studies show that as many as half of teachers leave the profession within the first five years in the workplace (Heenan & Houghton, 2006). Teachers from alternative certification programs have attrition rates as high as 100% after three years and this accounts for about 20% of the new teacher workforce (Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, & Heilig, 2005). Most alarming is that a positive correlation has been found between teachers who leave the profession and their SAT scores; our brightest newcomers are the most likely to leave (Ingersoll & Smith, 2004). While teacher motivation for leaving includes personal reasons (e.g., pregnancy, moving residences, health problems, etc.) and school staffing action (e.g., layoffs, reorganization, or school closings), one study found that two-thirds of these teachers were leaving to pursue better jobs in light of dissatisfaction with their current educational employment (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003).

Much of this discontent comes from not feeling fully prepared for the classroom (The Sustainable Funding Project, 2016). Incoming teachers face an incredibly steep learning curve. The adjustment encompasses navigating new curriculum, instruction, classroom management, assessment, school culture, and professional identity challenges. It takes about three to four years for new teachers to become competent in front of their students and several more years to achieve fluency (Feiman-Nemser, 2003). Moreover, new teachers must go through a process of enculturation. This is typically marked by the loss of idealism (associated with academic learning) and reality shock. Teachers must also learn how to navigate the educational bureaucracy to understand their role in it (Feiman-Nemser, 2003). Thus, contrary to public perception, graduates of teacher preparation programs are not finished products when they emerge from this preparatory phase. Instead, situational and cultural proficiency are learned skills that begin maturing upon entrance into the classroom.

This transitional period is sensitive and has been isolated from the typical binary understanding of a teaching career as preparation and active teaching. This third phase, the first years of classroom teaching, will be referred to as the induction phase. This phase is fraught with challenges that their preparation has failed to fully train them for (R. M. Ingersoll, personal communication, 2011). It is during this transition period that many of our most promising teachers leave.

School districts across the country have developed induction programs that offer new teachers additional supports to navigate this difficult period. Induction opportunities include participating in teacher networks outside of school hours, extra classroom assistance (e.g., aides), a lighter instructional schedule, and the pairing of a new teacher with a veteran teacher in a mentoring relationship. Induction programs with adequate resources have proven to be effective in supporting new teachers through this transition period and increasing teacher retention (R. M. Ingersoll, personal communication, 2011; Ingersoll & Strong, 2011). Teacher preparation programs are similarly aware of this demoralizing cycle and are reforming their programs with an eye on reducing the impact of the induction phase and increasing teacher retention.

But we already know what mitigates the challenges of the induction phase and improves teacher effectiveness and confidence: induction supports. The existing scholarship proves that when executed comprehensively, these types of programs reduce teacher attrition significantly. I argue for the adoption of supports typically associated with in-service induction programs by pre-service preparation programs. Introducing induction supports at this earlier stage would further ease the transition into the classroom and increase teacher satisfaction and retention.

I probed this theory as part of my undergraduate thesis work at the University of Pennsylvania. I studied the influence of mentorship on in-service teachers as a proxy for what benefits these practices might offer pre-service teachers. I released a survey to teachers involved in professional development organizations across the United States. The study purposefully targeted teachers as the main source of data to give voice to those who are often silenced in policy-oriented research. The surveys were respondent-driven (with a total of 161 responses) and elicited responses from a relatively representative sample of teachers nationwide. Teaching experience ranged from zero to more than 20 years and the teachers covered all grades pre–K through twelve.

The survey results undoubtedly affirmed mentorship as a key tool for supporting novice teachers’ transition into the field. New teachers found mentorship critical in overcoming challenging milestones during their first few years of work like establishing teaching self-identities, developing relationships with their students, and surmounting the isolation many of them feel.

Novice teachers found that in a teaching culture so heavily reliant on student evaluation as the gauge of teacher success, mentors provided a non-punitive way for them to experiment with teaching styles and practices. This process aided in the formation of a teaching self-identity that fueled confidence and proficiency in the classroom.

Social-emotional support was perhaps one of the benefits of mentoring, cited most frequently in teachers’ surveys and interviews. Having someone to turn to, to ask for advice, and as a go-to person were frequent phrases found in the survey responses. Moreover, some teachers noted that the mentorship relationships grew so strong that they continued to be emotionally and practically supportive long after their formal mentoring ended.

Some argue that preparation programs have already incorporated mentorship in their models in the form of student teaching. However, while the student teaching model and mentorship practices discussed in this piece may appear to be similar in structure, the student teaching relationship is significantly less deep than the apprentice-like mentorship that exists in induction programs. The director of one of the professional development programs I surveyed explained that the student teaching model examines a glimpse of a teacher’s day, usually for only a lesson or an hour, and the lead teacher provides feedback on that moment. On the other hand, mentors follow the growth of a teacher. They examine the content and presentation of a lesson within the context of a teacher’s personality and abilities. The student teaching model as it exists now simply does not account for the complexity of teaching.

Others argue that providing an experienced mentor for each of the over 300,000 individuals who graduate from teacher preparation programs each year is too expensive. However, the resources are there. Some school districts spend up to $2.2 billion a year on teacher turnover (The Sustainable Funding Project, 2016). Preparation programs with induction level mentorship as a foundational piece of their model retain more teachers than traditional graduate or alternate certification programs, with retention rates of up to 93% after 4 years. Thus, it is not a question of whether to spend the money but rather a choice of when and how we choose to spend it.

The survey results unabashedly favored mentorship as a critical support in helping novice teachers to transition into the classroom. As a result, why aren’t we including this deep mentor relationship as a component of teacher preparation?

Smart minds have already begun to dream of what this type of impactful mentorship looks like during the preparation phase of teaching. Residency programs have been designed with mentorship as a central component of their model. Residents are connected to a master teacher in the field and they spend an entire year in their classroom deliberately transitioning from full-time observer to full-time teacher. During all of this time, they receive feedback from a mentor who is not only versed in the content, but also attuned to the character and abilities of their resident.

This model benefits students of teaching, but also benefits school districts and the students who comprise them. School districts required to maintain a certain student to teacher ratio save money on paraprofessionals by replacing them with these residents. Students in these classrooms who observe their resident teacher actively learning how to teach gain insight into the learning process, a process that has been corrupted by standardized testing, which degrades mistakes and values impossible perfection.

Teaching is complex, challenging, and exceedingly overwhelming as a novice. But we know from those doing the work that mentorship eases the challenges and supports new teachers in becoming effective and confident. There is no reason to wait until after preparation to introduce this vital component of professional development. Making deep mentorship a key component of teacher preparation can begin to close the gap between preparation and active teaching. It can also reduce the negative impacts of this enervating induction phase and increase the retention of great teachers, which is what our schools need most.



Auguste, B., Kihn, P., & Miller, M. (2010, September). Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to a career in teaching. An international and market research-based perspective. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from http://mckinseyonsociety.com/closing-the-talent-gap/

Darling-Hammond, L., Holtzman, D. J., Gatlin, S. J., & Heilig, J. V. (2005). Does teacher preparation matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America, and teacher effectiveness. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13(42) 1–51. Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/147/273

Duncan, A. (2009). Teacher preparation: Reforming the uncertain profession. Unpublished manuscript.

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2003). What new teachers need to learn. Educational Leadership 60(8), 25–29.

Heenan, B., & Houghton, N. (2006). The National Writing Project’s new teacher initiative: A study of outcomes, design, and core values. Inverness, CA: Inverness Research Associates.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2011) Induction and teacher preparation. Personal communication.

Ingersoll, R. M., & Perda, D. (2008). The status of teaching as a profession. In J. H. Ballantine & J. Z. Spade (Eds.), Schools and society; A sociological approach to education (3rd ed., pp. 106–118). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Ingersoll, R. M., & Smith, T. M. (2003) The wrong solution to the teacher shortage. Educational Leadership 60(8), 30–33.

Ingersoll, R. M., & Smith, T. M. (2004). Do teacher induction and mentoring matter? NASSP Bulletin, 88(638), 28–40.

Ingersoll, R. M., & Strong, M. (2011). The impact of induction and mentoring programs for beginning teachers: A critical review of research. Review of Education Research, 81(2), 201–233.

The Sustainable Funding Project (2016, June). For the public good: Quality preparation for every teacher. New York, NY: Bank Street College of Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 29, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21750, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:49:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Rachel Klein
    NYC Department of Education
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    RACHEL KLEIN is a consultant for the New York City Department of Education.
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