This person is confident about what they can contribute, positive about their own ongoing development and seems to have a strong desire to make a difference in the lives of the students they encounter. 

All these things, after all, are common traits of those at the beginning of their career. 

Yet, somewhere along the way, they become disillusioned – things aren’t what they expected, they’re often unsupported and their early experiences reflect blocked growth and prevented progress.

Close to 50 per cent of Australians who graduate as teachers leave the profession within the first five years, many citing overwhelming workloads and unsupportive staffrooms as their main reason for leaving the job.

In fact, research from Dr Philip Riley, pictured left, shows that early career exit from teaching has reached epidemic proportions and appears intractable. Previous attempts to find solutions are yet to make much of an inroad.

Riley, from the faculty of Arts and Education at Australian Catholic University, is leading research into the reasons that lead to young educators resigning from their jobs at an alarming rate.

His research, Early career teacher attrition: new thoughts on an intractable Problem, with Deakin University’s Andrea Gallant, is a multi-country study that compares Australia’s attrition rates with the US, Canada, Israel, Belgium and Norway.

This research recently won the most outstanding article of 2014 from the International Society for the Study of Teachers and Teaching.

Dr Robyn Ewing from the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney has also been exploring these issues in her research for many years. 

Her study, Retaining quality early career teachers in the profession: New teacher narratives, brings together findings from a range of studies with narratives written by early career teachers themselves. 

Why are early career teachers leaving the profession?

According to Riley’s research, while there is some localised variation in attrition rates around the world, particularly in Canada, in general the rate of loss to the profession is around 40 to 50 per cent over the first five years post-entry. 

On current trends, nearly one in every two of these new teachers will also follow their predecessors out of the profession. Riley says that those leaving the profession have a range of common attributes.

“One is that they can imagine themselves doing another career, because if you can’t imagine that, you don’t leave,” Riley explains.

“The major things that seem to be causing it is what we have termed ‘arrested development’ because they don’t feel like they’re developing as teachers and that’s what makes them leave.”

Riley says this generally comes down to the quality of the relationships young teachers form with the other teachers and the leadership figures at their schools.

“They, generally speaking, can handle the kids OK, unless they’re put into extremely difficult classes, which does happen sometimes. But some of them said what they weren’t prepared for was the staffroom,” Riley says. 

Ewing, says she’s found that many teachers leave the profession simply because they aren’t able to secure a full-time teaching position. 

“Often they start off in casual, temporary or short-term contracts and sometimes they’re OK to do that for a while, but if it’s long term, they can get quite disillusioned,” she says.

“Sometimes, it can be a case of not being well mentored. So when they graduate, it’s only the beginning and a teacher who is well mentored is three times more likely to stay in the profession,” she adds.

Ewing cites other common reasons for leaving include the fact that sometimes teachers are keen to earn more money but to do so, they must move out of the classroom, and oftentimes, young teachers take on too much in their early years and they simply get overwhelmed and burnt out.  

What impact does this have?

Whenever there are high rates of attrition, there are bound to be all kinds of costs involved.

Riley says he’s calculated that the amount lost to teacher attrition in Australia is equivalent to 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) per year. This includes the hiring of people, training them and all the other changeover costs involved.

“It’s always very difficult to calculate these things,” Riley says, “but they do turn out to be big amounts of money.

“The other thing is it’s not good for students to have this continual churn of teachers. Stability in a school is much better so there’s pretty strong evidence that it leads to reduced student learning.”

Ewing says that in losing so many early career teachers, schools often miss out on the valuable strengths that many graduate teachers bring to the job itself. 

“They often come with fairly current information about pedagogy and the curriculum, so it’s two ways,” she says.

“If you’re an experienced teacher, there’s a lot you can learn from an early career teacher and so I think sometimes, in my research anyway, early career teachers would feel that they weren’t being valued. 

“And again, sometimes, in terms of the narratives I’ve got of early career teachers, sometimes they are experiencing challenging things right at the beginning of their career when it’s a time when they should be nurtured and made to feel welcome and made to feel a part of things. 

“So yes, I think sometimes, they aren’t as valued as they should be. I know too that there are some excellent programs for early career teachers in schools, where they do think about the fact that they need that ongoing professional learning, like experienced teachers do.”

Do university courses adequately prepare teachers for the workforce?

The reality is that there are some things that an early career teacher can only learn in a school context, which makes the partnership between universities and schools incredibly important.

Ewing says that teacher education courses and schools must work hand-in-hand, and that preparing successful graduates is something that can’t be done without working closely together. 

“I think the other thing is we have to remember that graduating from your teacher education course is only the very beginning, it’s not that you have that qualification and you don’t need that ongoing professional learning,” she says.

“One of the things that I find interesting is that in some other professions, you always have that oversight of a more 
experienced leader in the profession. 

In teaching, often you’re expected to be able to do everything that someone who has been teaching for much longer does. 

“I think it’s all very well to blame the teacher education course that they did, but no school is alike, every school is unique, and every school has particular things in its contexts that will need careful inductions for those coming years of school.”

According to Riley’s research, the level of training a graduate attains has little effect at all on their retention once in the job. 

“They all say they’re pretty well prepared to teach, they know they’re new and not going to be guns as soon as they get into the classroom, but they feel well enough prepared to know how to do it,” Riley adds.

What role does mentoring play in keeping young teachers in the job?

Throughout his ongoing work with the Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, Riley has a solid understanding of 
the work pressures placed on school leaders.

“Principals are just incredibly overloaded with work and so are teachers,” Riley says. 

“So there’s not enough time for them to do the sorts of things they would like to do and they realise this, this is not new, but they simply don’t have the time. 

“What happens, as a result, is that new teachers don’t feel like anybody is looking after them which is, in a sense, accurate and so then they leave.”

One of the biggest problems with mentoring, according to Riley, is that many people simply don’t understand what it truly means. 

“If [mentoring] is done well and people feel really supported –  because mentoring should really support people – then it does seem to have a protective influence and it does build collegiality in schools and has all kinds of positive spin-offs.”

Using Victoria as his example, Riley says that when mentoring is mandated, it often becomes a “tick-the-box exercise” where people are told they will have to mentor someone but aren’t given any professional training about how to do it effectively.

“If mentoring was easy to do, and if you had good teacher training which led to good mentoring, then it wouldn’t be an issue, but mentoring adults is not the same as teaching,” he says.

Ewing agrees, acknowledging that despite the fact that it is becoming policy to place an early career teacher with a mentor, it definitely isn’t at the stage where it happens on a regular, consistent basis. 

She says it is important to ensure thatprofessional learning for mentor teachers focuses on seeing this process as a co-mentoring situation where both parties can learn from each other. 

“A school with a collaborative and participatory kind of leadership or executive will see mentoring as important across the board,” she says.

“We all need significant others who we can work with or seek advice from or talk to. Principals need to have mentors themselves and I know that that’s something that some employers are very concerned about.”

Can we get the facts straight?

In order to address the high level of teachers walking away from teaching so early into their careers, we must first get the figures accurate. 

The reality is, there is a huge disparity between the research being conducted and the numbers cited by government, policy makers and school groups. There is currently no systematic tracking of those teachers who leave the profession or analysis as to the reasons why they do. 

Ewing says while it is widely agreed that teacher attrition rates sit between a third and 50 per cent of the teaching population, particularly in difficult or challenging areas, the research is flawed.

“So many people are in temporary or short-term contracts, so we don’t necessarily have all the stats on those,” she says.

“Sometimes, for example, some of the employers will say well ‘oh, we don’t have a high dropout rate or resignation rate at all’, but it’s because they’re only looking at full-time teachers, the ones with permanent, long-term positions.”

Riley echoes this, saying that it’s very hard to work these things out “because nobody is keeping the record properly”.

“But if you look at the amount of people who are currently in the workforce with an education qualification but not working in a school or not working in education, it sits at 53 per cent.  Some of those will be people who left maybe after five years but a lot of them will be people who left within five years of starting.”

Ewing says it’s also worth noting that there isn’t any data on how many of these people actually come back to the teaching profession after a period of leave.

“We don’t know if they’re leaving the profession to get refreshed and renewed and try something else but they’re intending to come back,” she says.

“They might not be leaving education as a profession, they may be going to an alternative education career, so I think sometimes we need to look carefully at what those statistics might mean.”

So, what can be done?

According to Ewing, finding a way to support young teachers through ongoing professional learning is incredibly 
important in keeping them in the profession. 

“There is some research to suggest that after the first two or three years, it can be really good to take stock and have the opportunity to reflect on what is happening,” she says.

“I think establishing support groups, whether they’re online or face-to-face, can also be really helpful and to network, so you can learn from each other and talk about your issues together.

“A whole lot of things can really help to sustain you beyond those first few years.” 

A good place to start, according to Riley, would be to turn our attention to Finland, a country which records very low levels of attrition with early career teachers. 

“The teachers are valued hugely by the community, it’s a very different culture, and they take very bright students in as teachers,” he says. 

“We could learn a lot from Finland, more than just in literacy and numeracy results. It’s really the whole culture of the school system.”

Riley admits that there is no easy solution to this problem, but it is one that requires some serious attention.

“It’s going to take some serious rethinking of those kinds of things to improve the situation in the long term,” he says.