Experts on Camera

Dr. Tuan Nguyen: Teacher turnover and teacher shortages

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As we prepare to enter the fourth school year that has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools and school districts are reporting high teacher turnover and shortages of teachers.

On Friday, August 26, 2022, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Tuan Nguyen, an assistant professor of education at Kansas State University. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.

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TUAN NGUYEN: My name is Tuan Nguyen. I’m an assistant professor in the College of Education at Kansas State University. And the bulk of my work revolves around teachers and teacher policy, particularly the teacher labor market.


Interview with SciLine

Can you share some data on typical rates of teacher turnover?


TUAN NGUYEN: Before the pandemic, about 16% of teachers turnover every year. And that includes teachers switching from one school to another, and as well as teachers leaving the profession altogether. So, about half of that 16%—15, 16% is teachers switching from one school to another. So—and then the other half, about seven, 8%, is teachers leaving the profession every year.

Did teacher turnover rates change during the pandemic?


TUAN NGUYEN: During and after the pandemic, we do not have national rates. So, we have evidence from some states that teacher turnover increased a little bit in the second and third year one to two percentage points, which is substantial. But it’s not an exodus of teachers by any means.

What is known about why teachers leave their jobs?


TUAN NGUYEN: Generally, there are three main buckets or categories as to why teachers leave their jobs for other schools or the profession. So, one is what’s known as the personal factors, so, you know, things related to the teachers, their characteristics, such as their age, race, ethnicity and gender, their qualification. Another bucket is related to schools, such as, you know, school characteristics and school resources, working conditions. And the last area is known as external factors. So, these are things that are happening at the national or state level that are somewhat beyond the school control. So, you know, we think about NCLB—No Child Left Behind—accountability, you know, school improvement efforts. Things like that are categorized as the external efforts, so things that are, you know, happening really beyond just any individual school, but at the district or the state level.

What role do demographic attributes such as race and ethnicity play in teachers’ decisions to leave their jobs?


TUAN NGUYEN: So, some of that could be that there is a mismatch in terms of, you know, teacher demographics and where they work. You know, if they are, say, the only Hispanic or Black or Asian teachers in a school, you know, that do not have any other Black, Hispanic or Asian teachers, then they’re going to be very isolated, right? That just increases the stress and pressure on them, particularly if they are held up as, you know, the shining example of a minority teacher. That can then induce them to leave to find other, you know, schools that have, you know, a bigger or more critical mass of those type of teachers so that they’re more comfortable. And we—along this line, we have to think about that—the fact that we know when, you know, the teacher’s race and ethnicity matches up with the students’, then then students’ outcomes also improve. So, you know, as a profession, we want to think about improving or diversifying the teacher pipeline so that the teachers are—you know, match the students that they serve better.

How does teacher turnover affect student learning?


TUAN NGUYEN: We know that teachers are the most critical factor of student learning, and that, you know, when we have high teacher turnover, that is detrimental to student learning. What you have here is you have the loss of teaching knowledge and expertise. Districts also have to spend additional resources in order to recruit and train new teachers. And it’s usually replaced with a novice teacher or a teacher who is underqualified. And we know from research that underqualified teachers and novice teachers are more likely to leave the profession. So then what you get—right?—is you get this cycle of turn, where you have teachers leaving, replacing with new or underqualified teachers, who themselves are more likely to leave. And that leads to more turnover next year.

What makes teachers likelier to stay in their jobs?


TUAN NGUYEN: There are many things that we can actually do to help teachers stay where they are. When we think about, you know, retention bonuses, so that if they stay for one or two years, then they get an additional bonus on top of their salary. We—you could also think about additional supports that administrators can provide to teachers—improving their working conditions, for instance. Instead of having them have seven different preps, you know, two or three years in a row, you can reduce that down so they only have, you know, three new preps or two new preps each year. That’s really helpful for teachers. And even minor things that would—or what seems to be minor things are important, such as having adequate classroom resources and materials, right? I mean, you know, many teachers are not paid very well. They have to moonlight. What that means is they have to have a second or a third job. And now they’re asked to, you know, buy equipment and resources from their own pocket in order to do that job. That doesn’t really incentivize teachers to stay. So, we need to change a lot of those conditions so that teachers are more likely to stay in school.

Is there any research on how the pandemic—including health risks, the switch to remote learning, and new pressures from parents—has affected teachers’ job satisfaction?


TUAN NGUYEN: You know, national surveys have shown that a significant portion of teachers—55%—said that they would like to leave teaching as soon as possible, right? So, even if those 55% do not leave their job, and we haven’t seen evidence of that, what that tells me is that teachers are stressed out and they’re burnt out. You know, thinking about all those things that you just raised, that, you know, about the health issues themselves, but also, you know, the parental pressures and stress that comes along with that and the additional prep they have to put in when they’re doing remote teaching.

If teachers are hoping to leave their jobs, what does that mean for schools?


TUAN NGUYEN: I think first, we have to acknowledge that just because a teacher is saying that they want to leave their profession, say, you know, in November—right?—doesn’t mean that they are going to leave their classroom in May or June, right? A lot can transpire. You know, administrators can provide additional support. They can listen to the teachers and help them understand them so they can stay. Also, you know, bills have still got to be paid, right? So, not many teachers can just leave their teaching positions right away. They may need to take a year or two to shore up their resume, to look for other opportunities. But it does indicate if they’re saying they want to leave as soon as possible that they are not liking where they are. They’re stressed out, and they’re burnt out, right?

So, what are the consequences of that? You know, a burnout and stressed-out teacher isn’t going to be as good as a teacher who is mentally healthy because teaching is a physically, emotionally, mentally draining job. I was a teacher for seven years teaching math in middle school and high school, so I know how hard it is and how hard it can be. And if you’re burnt out and you’re stressed out, you’re not going to be as effective. I mean, that’s true for most jobs, right? So, I think we really have to care about teacher mental health and well-being beyond just, do we have a teacher in the classroom?

How might rules limiting what teachers can say or teach affect teachers’ job satisfaction?


TUAN NGUYEN: This is a fairly, you know, sort of recent phenomenon within the past couple of years that there’s so much legislation out about what teachers can or cannot say, what they can or cannot teach in terms of racism or gender identity. What—we don’t have very strong evidence right now showing the effects of those legislation, but we do see some patterns. For instance, you know, states in the South like Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, those states tend to have high teacher vacancy, like, in terms of raw numbers. They have, you know, more than 3,000 vacant positions as of last year. And those number may be increasing this year in terms of vacancy rate, like how high the number of vacancies per 10,000 students. They’re also very high up there.

So, you know, think about the fact that we used to have intergenerational teachers, meaning their parents or grandparents are teachers and they want to be teachers, right? That has decreased over time. Now we have teachers telling their kids that you may not want to be a teacher because the pay isn’t very good. It’s not competitive compared to other professions that are similar. And then now you’re being told what to do. You limit a teacher’s autonomy. Teachers are concerned about what they can even say in the classroom, you know, based on this legislation. So, we’re seeing that the states that are doing more of these legislation in terms of what teachers can or cannot do, what they can teach about, their—they tend to be experiencing more teacher vacancy issues.

What policies can make teaching a more attractive long-term career and reduce teacher turnover?


TUAN NGUYEN: In terms of the teacher variancy, that’s one of the main things that a lot of people are talking about right now, particularly in the media—right?—we have to think about making competitive salary so that, you know, it’s comparable to other professions, but also make targeted policy decision and incentives for hard-to-staff schools and subjects. For instance, we know that economically disadvantaged schools tend to have a really hard time attracting teachers so those—you know, sort of rural schools. So do school with majority minority student population. We also know that STEM teachers, special education teachers, bilingual education teachers are in high demand. We need those folks. So, we need to make targeted incentives to get those folks into teaching, right?

In terms of long-term goals, I think we want to think about how, you know, grow your own program or a teacher residency program can be used in order to increase the teacher supply. We also need to raise the prestige and respect of teachers and the teaching profession. You know, thinking about how we can provide career ladders or promotions to teachers so that they can continue and build on their craft, right? There are many, many things that we can do. And I’m optimistic that we are—we can do some of those if we can align our interests and think about policy solutions that can solve some of these problems.

How are reporters doing covering teacher turnover and teacher shortages?

(Posted August 26, 2022 | Download video)