Skipping School: Why Teachers Quit, And How To Stop It
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of GLT’s Skipping School, a special series about the teacher shortage facing Illinois schools.
Derek Sieg is an educator with nearly two decades of experience in Illinois, first as a PE teacher and coach and then as a principal.
But these days, Sieg isn’t walking the halls of a K-12 school or standing in front of a classroom. His office is on the third floor of Fell Hall at Illinois State University, where he advises college students on what classes to take and how to graduate on time.
“That’s really the big draw for me—being able to be a positive influence for students, whether they’re in junior high, high school, grade school, or ISU,” Sieg said.
Sieg, 51, of Normal, is one of thousands of trained Illinois teachers who no longer teach. Teacher attrition—including those who leave the profession—is one of the main drivers of a crisis-level teacher shortage that’s disrupting education statewide.
Sieg’s career path is not uncommon. After college he taught for six years. But when his kids were born, he was looking for a job more conducive to the demands of parenting. Coaching required a lot of after-school work hours.
So he took a job at State Farm, and then Country Financial, working in auto claims. But he missed teaching, so he went back. He earned his master’s and became principal at a K-8 school in Flanagan, about 30 miles north of Bloomington-Normal.
Then in 2015, his job was eliminated due to state funding issues, he said. After a brief stint back in the classroom, he took the academic advising job at ISU.
“We have a lot of very good teachers that are not in the classroom in the state of Illinois,” Sieg said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.
As schools struggle to find applicants for their available positions, they’re also losing teachers like Sieg. More than 12,000 educators left Illinois or the profession in 2015-16, an attrition rate of 7 percent, according to the State Board of Education.
"We have a lot of very good teachers that are not in the classroom in the state of Illinois."
“We’re in the middle of an almost perfect storm,” said Ben Matthews, field staff for the Illinois Education Association teachers’ union who helps represent 1,800 employees in Unit 5 and District 87. “We have folks who are leaving the profession. That’s a growing reason for people to not teach the following year. And it’s combined with a shrinking pool of folks who want to get into the profession.”
Frustrations Add Up
There are many reasons why teachers leave the profession—some personal, some systemic. And they can add up.
Bethany Baines was an elementary education major at ISU. She taught for a couple years, first in Springfield and then as a teacher’s assistant in Unit 5.
“At the time, I would’ve said it was my dream,” she said.
Baines and her husband wanted to start a family, and the year-to-year uncertainty of whether she’d keep her job—common for young teachers—caused anxiety. She also lacked the certification to do the small-group, reading-intervention work she found most stimulating, and she couldn’t afford going back to school.
“I didn’t feel like I could finally support my family as a teacher’s assistant,” she said.
She was also frustrated at times by a lack of freedom in how she ran her classroom. In one episode, she could tell from test scores that her students weren’t grasping some geometry concepts they’d just studied. Instead of moving on to the next unit as her school schedule required, she instead crafted a hands-on, intervention-style geometry lesson using marshmallows and toothpicks.
Her administration wasn’t pleased, she said. That was reflected on her next evaluation.
“That was very difficult for me, when I felt like I didn’t have really a whole lot of choice,” she said. “As a teacher, you don’t want to throw information at your students. You want to make sure they’re getting it, that they really grasp that concept.”
It all added up. She said it was a difficult decision, but she left for a job in retail. Now she’s full-time at Country Financial in Bloomington.
“I’ve moved on. I’m happy where I’m at,” she said.
Some trained teachers never even got started before calling it quits. That’s what happened to Nick Pate of Bloomington, a former Marine who graduated from ISU in 2013 with a degree in secondary education. He thought his military experience and maturity—he was closer to 30, not 22—would be advantages.
He tried to land a teaching job for two years. He got close once—a third interview.
“The principal said it was a really tough choice, and it came down to me and the other guy, and it came down to a coin flip. I was like, really? You just determined my future on a coin flip? I was pretty put off by that,” said Pate.
With a family to support, Pate turned his waiter job at Biaggi’s into a career. He trained as a chef and is now a dining room service manager there.
His teaching license expired this summer. He chose not to renew it.
“I felt I could’ve been a really great teacher,” said Pate. “And I really loved everything about it. They missed their opportunity. It’s unfortunate, but it’s really not something I want to do anymore.”
Money and Mentors
In Illinois, the retention rate—that is, the percentage of full-time teachers who return to the same school year to year—varies by district.
The statewide average in 2017 was 86 percent, according to Illinois Report Card data. Most McLean County districts are doing slightly better than that, though Ridgeview and Tri-Valley (83 percent) lagged a bit.
One way that districts are reacting is by increasing starting salaries. Unit 5’s new two-year agreement with its union raises new teacher base pay by nearly 7 percent to $37,000—and even that leaves the district lower than other districts.
Those first few years on the job are key for determining whether a teacher becomes a lifelong educator or makes an early exit.
“That has a direct impact on districts,” said Nancy Latham, a professor at ISU’s College of Education who’s studied teacher attrition extensively. “A district really is investing anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 in that new teacher’s development. If that’s a revolving door in those first five years, you can see how it’s very hard on learners. It’s hard on a building. It’s hard on that entire community.”
Research shows new teachers who are provided with mentors or other professional development opportunities are more likely to “survive those first two or three years,” said Mark Jontry, regional superintendent of schools for McLean, DeWitt, Logan and Livingston counties.
“It really needs to be comprehensive,” he said. “The districts that can devote time and effort to that are going to realize the benefits of retaining teachers and improving the skill level of those teachers that are in those first two or three years.”
With that in mind, the Unit Five Education Association (UFEA), the union that represents Unit 5 teachers, bargained in its new contract for a new-teacher mentoring program, said UFEA President Lindsey Dickinson, an eighth-grade math teacher.
New teachers will be paired with an experienced teacher based on their grade level or content area. There are certain designated topics they’ll talk about each month, like navigating parent-teacher conferences, plus after-school seminars for the new hires.
“I hope that it adds up to not only buy-in for Unit 5—that they feel some sort of connection and a responsibility to give back to Unit 5—but also realize the importance of the union,” Dickinson said. “That without a strong union these programs would not exist. Seeing that all of us are coming together, working collaboratively, we’ll be able to have them feel secure in their job and secure with what they do on a daily basis.”
Mentorship is handled unevenly across the state, Latham said.
“Some have huge, formal, substantive, deep induction and mentoring programs and support. And some are, ‘Oh, there’s another kindergarten teacher. Here’s her cell phone number.’ It’s everything in between,” Latham said. “It takes a purposeful plan. It’s not going to be happen accidentally.”
Unit 5 will bring in 200 new teachers and teacher's assistants this school year, mostly replacing previous staff who have left the district, said Superintendent Mark Daniel.
Some of that turnover, he said, is generational. Millennials tend to be more willing to hop between employers and careers, he said.
"They tend to move and even change careers," Daniel said. "That's something for us to consider as we recruit at our universities for new teachers, understanding that we may not have teachers for 30 years. We may have teachers for five years and then they'll be looking for other opportunities."
Attrition won’t ever fall to zero. Some people just want to change careers.
“There are other fields bleeding more than we do. Retail bleeds, of course, a lot more than education. Nursing seems to be bleeding terribly,” Latham said.
It’s not just early-career teachers who leave the profession, said Matthews.
“More and more, we have folks who’ve been teaching for 20 or 25 years, and the job has changed completely from when they got into the work. There's less time to teach. Less autonomy. There’s a lot more top-down directives. Very little time to really do the things they’re passionate about—working with students,” Matthews said.
“There’s folks who are just burned out and can’t take that anymore,” he said.
Coming Wednesday: With low starting salaries, how do new teachers make it work financially? And why do some educators turn to substitute teaching or private schools?
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