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Retaining Teacher Talent

Report 2. Teaching for a Living

Making a Difference

At a time of intensifying pressure on teachers to produce results and meet a widening range of social and academic needs, why do teachers say that they go into the profession? According to the “Teaching for a Living” analysis, the differences among these groups are highly significant. For example, “putting underprivileged kids on the path to success” is one of the most important reasons that led Idealists enter the profession, but only 16 percent of the Contented cited it as a top motivation.

As a Denver 5th grade teacher interviewed for the project said: “Good teachers don’t join for the money or bonuses. They join because they want to make a difference.”

A considerable degree of bitterness characterized the Disheartened in comparison to the other groups: Twice as many spoke of likely burnout as did the Contented and Idealists. Only two-fifths strongly agreed that “there is nothing I’d rather be doing” than teaching, compared with nearly two-thirds of the Contented and nearly half of the Idealists.

According to the survey, student-behavior problems and a lack of a supportive administration are the major issues feeding discontent among teachers, alongside the perception of low pay. The groups differ considerably on working conditions and support from principals and other administrators. The Contented were more than twice as likely as the Disheartened (76 percent vs. 28 percent) to say that their schools were orderly and safe and that teachers, administrators, and students respect each other. Likewise, the Contented and the Idealists were four times as likely as the Disheartened to give their principals “excellent” ratings when it comes to supporting them as teachers.

Perceived lack of administrator support, discipline problems, class size, low pay, and lack of prestige loomed as much larger negatives for the Disheartened. Student-behavior problems were seen as major drawbacks to teaching for nearly three-fourths of the Disheartened, compared with one-fourth of the Idealists and 2 in 5 of the Contented, although clearly student discipline was an issue that concerned many teachers. Low salaries and “little prestige” were not top issues, but the Disheartened were much more likely to mention both as major drawbacks to teaching For example, 53 percent cited low pay compared with 26 percent of the Contented and 31 percent of the Idealists.

Beliefs about their students and student potential also differed notably, with potentially significant implications for efforts to reshape the profession. A 22-percentage-point difference separated the Idealists and the Disheartened (88 percent to 66 percent) in their faith that good teachers can make a difference in student learning. Idealists strongly believe that teachers shape student effort (75 percent), whereas just 50 percent of the Disheartened believed that. Only one-third of the more disillusioned teachers were very confident in their students’ learning abilities, compared with nearly half among the other groups (48 percent of the Contented and 45 percent of the Idealists).

Those feelings about teaching, schools, and students influenced perceptions of what steps would be most helpful in improving teacher effectiveness. The Disheartened were more likely to mention higher pay (56 percent, compared with 47 percent of Idealists and 44 percent of the Contented) and removing students with severe behavior problems from the classroom (76 percent, compared with 55 percent of Idealists and 67 percent of the Contented). The Disheartened (70 percent) and the Idealists (69 percent) were more likely to mention smaller classes as a very effective way of improving teaching than the Contented (60 percent)


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