Why Teachers Leave Teaching

I’ve always believed that teachers get into the profession of education for all the right reasons (helping children, making a difference, being a positive example, etc.), and leave the profession for all the wrong reasons. Teachers don’t leave the profession of education because the students were respectful and worked hard in class, the administration was supportive and treated them as professionals, and because they were respected by the community for their willingness to serve the needs of children. They leave the profession because students were disrespectful and belligerent, they perceived the administration as being heavy-handed and didn’t support their needs in the classroom and parents will worked the political or legal system to change classroom standards for the benefit of their own children.

In an article that appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week, Jordon Kohanim explains why after seven years in a Georgia public school system left the profession.

In the article she writes of her frustration with parents saying:

I saw parents who were well positioned financially use their lawyers to manipulate the system into giving their children unfair advantages: extra time that they hadn’t needed in the classroom on state exams, hadn’t needed in the classroom on state exams, extended deadlines for homework, and forgiveness from some assignments. I saw lawyers and parents fighting for accommodations because they wanted to prove a point—not because the children involved need or even used them.

She further explains:

There were teachers frustrated because they were not allowed to require deadlines for homework or essays even when their students had proved they were capable of meeting such standards.

First and foremost, teachers want to teach. That’s what teachers do. They want to have high standards in their classrooms, be supported by their principals and respected by their students. Principals want the same things for teachers and for themselves. Teachers want to set high expectations for students and staff, be respected for what they do by the community and be supported by central administration. Campus administrators don’t want discipline problems on their campus but many times state and federal policy makes that difficult for a variety of reasons.

The difficulty of having and enforcing high expectations is compounded by the difficulty of maintaining high expectations. This is due to the constant attack from parents who want continued modification of standards for the benefit of their own child. It’s not good or bad but just the way it is. As principal of a high school campus that reached the state of Texas highest academic rating four straight years from 1998 to 2001 as well as implemented policy and programs that ensured a safe and orderly environment, I became beaten-downed from fighting the same battles year after year to simply maintain programs and policies that had been proven to be effective. In my final year as principal of that campus I said to my superintendent, “You know Doc, the longer I’m here, the less credibility I have.” The achievements and successes of the past made the achievements and successes of the present less meaningful. Go figure.

Many of Ms. Kohanim’s frustrations in Georgia that led to her leaving the profession are the end result of deeper issues. Her disenchantment with parents and their support of their children is a byproduct of the “public” part of our public education system.

Having and setting high expectations is great.  But the level of expectations for a campus or district in academic achievement or student behavior will never be any higher than the public will allow. This is due to the fact that the public owns the schools, finances the schools, sends their children to the schools and most importantly governs the school through a school board selected through an election. Therefore, decisions for schools are considered, made and modified politically and vary from community to community. I learned this lesson the hard way as a first year superintendent.

For example: as a high school principal, among other requirements for student attire our campus implemented and enforced a policy where flip-flop shoes were not allowed to be worn and boys had to be clean-shaven. Not a problem in that community. When I accepted the position of superintendent in a different community where most of the board members were associated with the local community college, the same policy was initially approved and then quickly reversed when parents and students complained at a school board meeting. My new board members witnessed flip-flops and mustaches every day at the local community college. One board member, after listening to her son complain about the new policy took offense to the requirements. The board didn’t see a problem and modified the student handbook two months after school had begun. It’s humbling and somewhat humiliating when a 17-year-old with a scraggly beard looks you, the superintendent, in the eye and says, “We’ll get that rule changed at the next board meeting.” And he was right! That was a hard lesson but one I’ve never forgotten. The same backlash is common from parents when too much homework is required or a more stringent grading policy is adopted. We see this all the time. So who is really lowering the bar here? It’s not the educators!

I’ve always said that parents want discipline in their child’s school until their child is disciplined. That’s when parents want the principal to cut a deal with them for their child. For me this wasn’t an issue between race, ethnic or economic class, this was ALL parents. The argument for parents who wanted to modify any level of expectation for behavior set by the school always started out the same with, “You know, he/she is really a good kid,” and ended with “I won’t tell anyone.” Trust me, the first part might be true, the second is definitely false.

Is it really logical that teachers would choose to work in a poor environment if they had the authority to change the situation? When the politicians complain about public schools, who they really should be complaining about are not the teachers and administrators but the public in general. Politicians can pander to a receptive general public about the unsubstantiated mismanagement and failure of public schools in areas they don’t represent, but the fly in the ointment has never been with educators, it’s the political barriers that prohibit or impede the improvement of schools.

As I was complaining about a parent that had accosted me over some issue at my high school, my superintendent prophetically said to me as we were monitoring students in the hallway between passing periods, “The biggest disappointments you’ll have in education will come from dealing with adults, not from dealing with kids.”

Dr. Sanders was right.


The invisible anchor that holds back the progress of high expectations of public schools is the politics infused by adults.


About ourschoolsblog

Rickey Williams is the author of this blog and began his career in public education in 1982. He has a deep respect for educators and the mission of public education. The author earned his doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in Educational Administration. As an adjunct, he teaches graduate level courses to aspiring campus principals. His public education experience includes teaching math and coaching to secondary students (6-12), leading campuses as the high school principal, and leading districts as the superintendent. Foundational beliefs about public education include: Students and staff must feel safe and valued while in school. Educators and parents who promote and value an education enhance a child’s education. Students must be given the opportunity to reach their academic and social potential through high expectations, sound curriculum, and differentiated instruction. Enthusiastic educators have a passion for teaching and continuous professional growth. All district employees will be examples of professional and ethical conduct and will promote and enhance a positive and collaborative school climate.
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