With the second half of the school year underway, it’s likely some students don’t have the same teacher they had in the fall. Mid-year teacher turnover doesn’t occur as frequently as end-of-year turnover, but it’s likely more prevalent than most people think.
U.S. teachers leave the profession at higher rates than other countries, but the debate and discussion over teacher attrition – reflected in research and in the media – focuses on educators exiting the profession before the beginning of a school year, based on the assumption that’s when turnover occurs. Little is known about teachers leaving mid-year.
“Teachers leaving mid-year is not looked at in the way end-of-year turnover is,” says Redding. “So we wanted to investigate when it occurs and the impact it has on students and schools.”
In a series of recent studies, Redding and Henry found that mid-year exits tend to be more disruptive and consequential to student learning.
Redding and Henry looked at teacher data in North Carolina and were able to distinguish the effect of turnover that occurred before the school year begins and turnover that happens during the school year. The researchers identified more than 13,600 first-year teachers who entered North Carolina classrooms from 2010 to 2012, and tracked them monthly during their first three years in the profession.
They found that while 4.6 percent of teachers in the state departed mid-year, that number jumped to 6 percent for new educators. Mid-year exits accounted for 25 percent of teacher turnover overall and occurred most often in high-poverty schools.
Drilling down into the question of achievement, Redding and Henry found that many math and English scores suffered, as well as a drop in learning. Losing a teacher mid-year was linked to a loss of anywhere between 32 and 72 instructional days during the school year, the study found.
Redding and Henry point to three pivotal factors to explain this outcome: classroom disruption, school instability, and less-qualified replacement teachers.
Mid-year teacher turnover, Redding says, can sever the “social capital between the students and their family members, undercutting the child’s support system.”
Furthermore, these departures can make it challenging for educators to create and maintain a collaborative work environment within the school. When the school is forced to hire replacements, staff will likely be assigned to help get that new teacher up to speed, which cuts into their own increasingly scarce and valuable time.
Mentors can make a huge difference. According to a 2015 federal study, 92 percent of first-year teachers assigned a mentor returned to their classroom. With a three-year, $600,000 grant from the NEA Great Public Schools fund, educators in Florida invested in a teacher-led, union-run orientation program and created meaningful mentorships between new and veteran teachers.
Teachers leaving mid-year only makes staffing a school with qualified educators more difficult. “When teacher turnover occurs during the school year, administrators choose replacement teachers from a diminished applicant pool comprised mainly of teachers not previously hired to work elsewhere, which is likely to yield less effective replacements,” the researchers write.
Indeed, one of the effects of the national teacher shortage – fueled by underfunded schools, low salaries, and a scarcity of support and professional working conditions – is the widespread practice of turning to emergency or short-term licensure to put more teachers in the classroom.
According to the Learning Policy Institute, at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, more than 100,000 classrooms across the nation were staffed by instructors not fully qualified to teach. In Oklahoma, for example, more than 2,100 emergency teaching certificates were issued last fall to fill the state’s classrooms. Seven years earlier, the state only issued 32.
Redding and Henry also found that preparation through an alternative pathway also made teachers much more likely to leave the profession during and after the school year. Those educators who attended traditional, in-state teacher preparation programs, on the other hand, were more likely to transfer to another school but less likely to leave the classroom altogether.
Supporting new teachers – either through mentoring or support from their principal – would likely steer many new teachers away from the exits. According to LPI, “strong mentoring and induction for novice teachers can be a valuable strategy to retain new teachers and improve their effectiveness. Well-mentored beginning teachers are twice as likely to stay in teaching as those who do not receive mentoring.”
Mentoring programs and more support from school leaders is a critical piece of the teacher retention puzzle. For any policy or intervention to be successful, however, Redding says we need to have a very careful understanding of when and why teachers leave.
“We have a general idea obviously, but teacher turnover is a diverse phenomenon, so we need more specificity if we’re now getting serious and talking about ways to remedy it.”
Focusing on recruitment over retention, says one expert, is like “pouring water in a bucket that has holes at the bottom.” We should always recruit new teachers but the real issue is, how attractive a job is teaching? Do people want to work in the school and, more importantly, do they want to stay there?