Teachers Throw In the Towel: Why Teachers Leave the Classroom

Stepping back after 3 years of teaching, I wrote this for a course that I recently completed for Grad school.  If you are thinking of leaving the classroom or have already, here is my research done on the topic.  Thank you for all that helped in my research by completing my survey and/or interview questions.  Hope you enjoy!



The purpose of this research is to inform school districts and those involved with teachers why teachers decide to leave the classroom only after a few years of teaching. It is also meant for those who are considering going into the teaching field, giving them more knowledge about the profession. The research was first done through interviews, a survey and newspaper articles. The themes of pressure, stress, time, and resources emerged as relevant themes while coding interviews, surveys, and newspaper articles. The research will provide valuable information as to why teachers decide to leave the classroom within five years or less.


After leaving the classroom only after teaching for three years in order to be home with my children, I began to think back to something that a college professor once spoke about. She mentioned to the entire class that many teachers leave the classroom within the first five years. At the time, I did not believe that I would ever leave the classroom, this was my dream to become a classroom teacher and I would do it until I retired. Little did I know at the time that I would only spend a short time teaching and have the ability to stay at home with my children while returning to graduate school. After looking into different questions I had about teaching, I came to the conclusion that I would like to inquire and research why others leave the classroom within the first five years.

Although teaching is an extremely rewarding profession, I had to leave the classroom due to lack of time with my family, cost of daycare outweighing the amount of money that I was bringing in, and the stress of continuing work after “work” hours. Throughout this study teachers were interviewed and surveyed were conducted. The people who were involved in this study are teachers who left the classroom within the first five years. Journal articles were also read and reviewed in order to discover the true reason as to why teachers decide to leave the classroom.

“Taking time in the beginning of the action research process to identify what you feel passionate about is critical (Mills, 2013).” Being passionate about teaching and choices that I have made to leave the classroom, guided me in my choice of topic. This is an important topic because knowing why teachers leave the classroom within the first five years would be a predecessor to keeping them from leaving the classroom. Another important role that this research would offer is to prepare future professionals to decide whether they would truly like to become a teacher and/or aiding schools in retaining teachers by knowing why they choose to leave the classroom.

“Ideally, an action research study conducted by a teacher should have an area of focus that involves teaching and learning, is within the teacher’s locus of control, and is something the teacher feels passionate about and would like to change or improve” (Mills p. 217). As Mills states, as the teacher researcher, my action research should be something that I am passionate about. I am extremely passionate about discovering why teachers decide to leave the classroom only spending a short period of time teaching. After leaving the classroom myself, I would like to improve the turnover rate of teachers by my action research project.

Area of Focus Statement

The purpose of this study was to describe the reasons behind why teachers leave the classroom only after a short period of time teaching. I feel passionate about this action research project due to the fact that I was a teacher who left the classroom as discussed above. With this information, I will be able to share my findings with students who are inquiring the teaching profession, ones who are deciding whether or not to continue teaching and also help those making decisions that affect teacher retention.

Research Questions

  1. Why do teachers leave the classroom within the first five years of teaching?
  2. What is the main reason teachers leave the classroom?

Literature Review

As a teacher who left the classroom due to financial and family whys and wherefores, I am devoted in the findings as to why others make the choice to leave the classroom themselves. Looking into research done by others within journals has helped to clarify my understandings on the subject matter. Much as my personal reasoning for leaving the classroom, some research suggests that teachers leave the classroom due to financial reasons, but to add many other teachers leave the classroom due lack of support from parents and administration, increasing curricular pressures, and unrealistic evaluations (Grossnickle, 1980). Although teachers, in most cases, do not go into teaching for the financial part, but for the aspect of feeling a since of helping others, financial is one of the reasons as to why teachers move on to other professions. Teachers under the age of 30 leave the classroom at a rate of 51% higher than those older than them. According to Williams, the national teacher turnover rate costs approximately $7 billion a year.

The research has shown that many teachers decide to leave the classroom primarily due to stress and over extending oneself (Haberman, 2005) (Holbrook, 1984) (Stern and Cox, 1993). Specifically these authors found that large class sizes, a hefty amount of students with discipline problems, unreasonable time demands all lead to teacher burnout but those findings stand in contrast to what Sarros and Sarros has to say about teacher burnout:

“Burnout has been conceptualized as a symptom of prolonged work stress. However, the findings of this study suggest that other work factors unrelated to stress may contribute to burnout. In particular both Depersonalization and Personal Accomplishment burnout appear to be more responsive to the motivational needs of teachers to be challenged and rewarded for their work” (p. 225).

Through this statement and the contrasting reasons above, you can see that teachers leave the classroom for more reasons than just due to one underlying reason. To also take into account is the difference between rural and urban settings as far as teacher stress. Within a rural school system, teachers see the parental support as overwhelming yet to contrast, within a urban setting teachers feel stressed due to the lack of support (Haberman p. 158). Also,

Teachers who continually research new teaching techniques and lessons avoid burnout in some cases. The research has shown that even before a teacher even reaches the point of “burn out” they become unenthusiastic about teaching which in turn effects the students’ success (Stern and Cox, 1993). Discovering why teachers burnout, helps in retaining teachers. Both Stern and Cox, and Sarros and Sarros, shared not only why teachers burnout, but how to retain them before they decide to leave the classroom. One aspect focused on depersonalization, providing teachers with more personal positive feedback would aid in limiting burnout in teachers (Sarros and Sarros, 1987).

It was discovered the more years taught, the less stressed a teacher became. Haberman made mention of this as well as addressing Special Education teachers having the highest rate for turnover (p. 158). Williams addresses that if teachers are not retained, longevity will not happen (Williams, 2012). Retaining teachers for greater than three to five years, allows for longevity, but addressing the question as to why teachers are leaving the classroom need to be answered. Many teachers claim that they would stay in the profession if they were more respected, had more time to collaborate with other educators, had higher pay according to performance, and feedback was evaluated in a consistent and fair approach. “In other words, it is possible to predict that, other things being equal, that female, elementary, more educated, more religious teachers, who have been married for longer periods, will experience less burnout” (Haberman, p. 159).

Data Collection

Throughout my research, qualitative data was the source of research done. I was not given the opportunity to meet with any participants “face-to-face” due to the fact that those who participated opted to answer interview questions through email for the mere fact that it could be completed on their time, as Schunel mentions in “In-Depth, Open-Ended Interviewing”, “Many things can interfere with the timing and conduct of an interview, including other priorities in the lives of the respondents” (p. 128).

The participants who I used for this study were people who were teachers. These participants were those who left the teaching field for multiple reasons, but they all share a common bond, they taught in a classroom for five years or less and decided to leave. I contacted participants through email, briefly stating what the study is for and a few sample questions that I will include. I also posted an explanation on a mom’s group that I am involved in, within this particular group there is a wide range of interests, some of these include stay-at-home moms who have left the teaching field.

Data Sources

  • Surveys – Thirty Teachers who left the teaching field answered questions through an online survey source, SurveyMonkey.com. Through this survey, participants were asked ten questions in regards to their teaching background, why they left the classroom, what they are currently pursuing, and what their future entails.
  • Interviews- Five professionals who were once teachers were interviewed. These interviews took place over E-Mail per choice of the all of the participants. As Mills (2013) mentions, there are pros and cons to E-Mail interviews. A few of the pros being that the participants can respond when it is convenient for them and the questions are already asked through the E-Mail that I sent. A few of the cons are those of ethical issues such as being anonymous and confidential, I made to assure the participants that I would only share their responses for the purpose of the action research project. I also made sure to not allow their answers to “sit” in my inbox within my E-Mail, they were printed out, placed with my action research study materials and deleted.
  • Journal Articles – Along with interviews and surveys, literature on the topic of teacher retention and teacher burnout was reviewed as seen above within the “literature review” section. All of these journal articles were found by using Michigan State University Library website. Using the “search” option, key words such as “teacher burnout”, “teacher retention” and “leaving the classroom” were searched and reviewed.

Data Analysis and Interpretation

The following themes arose as my research progressed through surveys, interviews, and journal articles.

Pressure and Stress

One theme that I came across when conducting the interviews was pressure/stress. Within many of the questions asked, searching for background information from past teachers, the interviewee mentioned the amount of pressure that they felt from different aspects of teaching. Some of these professionals also dealt with the pressures of being at schools where they had little to no resources including assistance, support, materials, technology, etc.   Additionally, when looking at the future, many of the interviewees said they could not see themselves returning to the classroom due to the pressure and stress that was felt while in the profession. This theme also was seen through the survey done. 22 of the 30 people surveyed answered that they felt respected most of the time as a teacher by staff, administration, and parents. 7 of the 30 people did not feel respected most of the time as a teacher. Only 1 person answered that they felt respected.


Another theme that I came across through the interviews conducted was time. The amount of time spent either working addition jobs to supplement their income, writing lesson plans, grading papers, etc. Many of the interviewees got to work well before the students were due to arrive in order to prepare for the day as well as stay late after school. “I stayed at school until at least 5:30 PM most days. I would go home, cook and eat dinner with my husband. Then I would spend a few hours on the computer writing lesson plans or looking up things for lessons” Katie McDaniel, a teacher for three years. 22 out of the 30 people surveyed worked more than 41 hours per week. As shown in the graph below, out of the 30 people surveyed, 0% work less than 40 hours per week. 50% work between 51 to 60 hours per week. “What people are asked to do is only the kind of thing that somebody can do for two or three years; you couldn’t sustain that level of intensity throughout a career,” said Thomas Smith, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s education school” (Riggs 2013). Many described in the interviews that I preformed long days and weekend work. “What people are asked to do is only the kind of thing that somebody can do for two or three years; you couldn’t sustain that level of intensity throughout a career,” said Thomas Smith, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s education school” (Riggs 2013). Out of the people surveyed, family was the main reason for teachers leaving the classroom. Out of the people who I interviewed 4 of the 5 left the classroom due to family reasons. One left due to the pressures from the school and parents. Throughout the articles that I read, stress of the job and personal reasons were the main reasons for leaving the classroom.


A third theme that I found was resources. Many of the teachers interviewed discussed what they had to buy in order to teach. Some of the teachers had to work second jobs in order to buy items for their classrooms, where others were given an abundance of resources to have quality and fun lessons. “I worked at a very old Catholic school. We had no technology in the classroom, which made it difficult to do many activities. I had to beg for an overhead projector, and when I got one, the light bulb was broken and there was no projection screen. One parent bought our classroom an electric pencil sharpener because she was tired of her daughter coming home with pencil shavings all over. The fourth grade class also used the pencil sharpener because they didn’t have one either, so that created some chaos. The reading books we used were old and outdated and had to supplement everything. There was no reading assessments that were mandated, so a few of the teachers, myself included, conducted our own research and found the best reading assessment which we had to pay for ourselves. We bought one between us all and made photocopies. Basically, since there was no technology and we had to buy everything ourselves, it was really hard to feel like a teacher in the 21st century” Lindsay O’Donovan, a classroom teacher who taught for three years. This aspect also results in stress due to the fact that working another job adds another element to the teachers’ life. This theme was a part of salary as well. When asked if they would’ve stayed in the classroom if they made more money, 43% of the people surveyed responded “no”, in contrast only 20% said that they would’ve.


Why do teachers leave the classroom within the first five years of teaching? My findings show that all teachers have reasons for leaving the classroom and out of the people who I interviewed and surveyed, many of them left due to family reasons. 40% of the people surveyed plan to return to the classroom, whereas 60% do not. What is the main reason teachers leave the classroom? Again, what I found within my research is that a majority of the people left due to family reasons much like myself. With the findings through my action research project, future action research projects can build upon what I discovered. For future findings, one could go more into depth looking at certain school districts, communities, or types of schools where teachers work. Looking at what the 40% of people who I surveyed who said that they plan to return to the classroom and discovering if they indeed went back to the classroom. With those people who returned to the classroom, finding out what changes have been made within the school system and if they plan to continue teaching as a life-long profession, would all be possible inquiries. My previous assumptions were that teachers left for a few main reasons, and although a majority of the people who I interviewed and surveyed did leave for family reasons, I discovered through journal articles that there are more than just a few main reasons, it really just depends on the group surveyed, the school in which they taught at (rural or urban), or the questions that they were asked.



So what is the main reason as to why teachers leave? Through my action research- surveys, interviews, and journal articles, I found varying answers. As shown in the chart below, out of the 30 people surveyed when asked the question, “What was the main reason for leaving the classroom?” 13% left due to salary, 6% due to workload, 6% due to lack of respect, 53% due to family, and 20% for other reasons. Through the survey, participants were asked if they were to do it over, would they be a teacher, 47% responded that they would.

 After this action research project, my recommendations for people who are looking into teaching as a long-term profession are to talk to other teachers who have both left the classroom as well as those who are currently teaching in the classroom. Another recommendation is to take the time to review the average salaries of a teacher, the time commitment spent both teaching and aspects of teaching such as paperwork and meetings, and also shadow a teacher in both rural and urban school districts in order to better understand the differences and preferences. Ask questions, much as I did throughout my interviews. “My whole life I thought I was going to be a teacher, and I spent thousands of dollars and five years in school to become one, only to realize this profession was nothing like I thought it would be. I would never want somebody else to have to go through that” Lindsay O’Donovan.

Much like Berger, Boles, and Troen discuss in Teacher Research and School Change Paradoxes, Problems and Possibilities, I want to see change within schools, with change I want my action research project to aid in the retention of teachers. Making to known that there is indeed a problem with the retention of teachers. Retaining teachers would not only benefit the professionals who decide to take on a life-long profession of teaching, but those students who they work with and the school districts that put money into their development as an educator within their school system.


Berger, J. G., Boles, C. K., & Troen, V. (2005). Teacher Research and School Change Paradoxes, Problems and Possibilities. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21, 93-105.

Grossnickle, Donald R. (1980). Teacher Burnout: Will Talking About it Help? The Clearing House, 54(1), 17-18.

Haberman, Martin. (2005). Teacher Burnout in Black and White. The New Educator, 1(3), 153-175.

Holbrook, Hillary Taylor. (1984). Teacher Burnout. Journal of Reading, 27(6), 554-556.

Mills, G.E. (2013). Action Research: A guide for the teacher researcher. Fifth Edition.


Riggs, Liz. (2013). Why Do Teachers Quit? And why do they stay? The Atlantic, Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-do-teachers-quit/280699/

Sarros, James C. Sarros, Anne M. (1987). Predictors of Teacher Burnout. Journal of Educational Administration, 25(2), 216-230.

S.L. Schenul, J.J. Schenul, and M.D. LeCompte. Essential Ethnographic Methods, Chapters 6 & 9. Alta Mira. 1999. (pp. 121-164).

Stern, Abby and Cox, James. (1993). Teacher Burnout – The Dull Reality. Music Educators Journal, 80(3), 33-36+39.

Williams, Cheryl Scott. (2012). Combating Teacher Burnout. The Education Digest, 77(7), 39-41.

Goddard, Richard; Goddard, Marion; O’Brian, Patrick. (2006). Work Environment Predictors of Beginning Teacher Burnout. British Educational Research Journal, 32(6), 857-874.

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